Unruly, Really

The Impudent Gardener


I’ve been gardening for 20 years in Texas and had to learn the hard way what works here and what won’t, no matter how much I love a given plant. My father always had an array of small gardens in our Connecticut yard, growing mostly irises and the gladioli my mother loved. The year the woodchucks ate his green tomatoes was the last straw for my unforgiving parental unit; he didn’t do any gardening after that until he took over the flowerbeds at their retirement apartment in San Diego. By then he was a little more sanguine about destructive forces, and could chalk up the theft of roses to homeless people who possessed so little it was hard for them to respect the possessions of others.


Just over a hundred miles north, outside Los Angeles proper, my best friend was quietly teaching me the ways of the urban garden. I doubt Mary would say she taught me to be a gardener; I think she would say we learned about gardening together.


When I first met Mary she had just moved into the house where she’d grown up, a little four-room bungalow with a sun porch and a tiny back yard that was possessed by an enormous pepper tree. Impossibly, her parents had just died within seven weeks of one another, and there she was, in a living room with gold wall-to-wall and an overwhelming array of furniture (including the huge glass-doored shelf cabinet thing always referred to as “the piece of furniture”).


I cannot tell you how it was that I immediately felt related to this woman who had been my then-boyfriend’s lover for six years a decade prior. All I know is that I believed from the start that her house was my home, her yard my yard. And this has not changed one bit since 1983.


This was my first California landscape, and I loved every single aspect of it – even the gigantic Bird of Paradise that possessed one corner of the house and seemed bent on taking over the living room. I thought it was wonderful that plants could come right into your house! Perhaps a big part of the impudent gardener was born there, where I marveled at lantana planted by passing birds; lacy tangles of scented geraniums that smelled somehow exotic and familiar when you crushed their leaves between your fingers; and the unbelievable scent of night-blooming jasmine. Looking back, I should have said So long!  to Mark and moved in with Mary right then and there, a failure that grieves us to this day.


But I married Mark, and soon enough moved from Connecticut to Austin, which was as close to his teaching job in San Antonio as I planned to live. He commuted twice a week, 30 weeks a year; I took up grad school at UT. Life took a few interesting twists and turns, and we ended up buying a house in what is now a fabulously popular neighborhood in 1992.


That first Austin yard sat under a canopy of old pecan trees, and though I tried to re-create the California garden of my dreams, it wasn’t long before I figured out that hibiscus needed more water than I had to give it, and my beloved Lantana wouldn’t really be happy just partial sunlight. That 1st year, my father visited from California, and we laughed as we tried to plant roses in 2 inches of topsoil and 6 miles of caliche. Nor could I convince night blooming jasmine to survive an Austin winter.


I was talking recently with the new gardener who complained that she is too much of a perfectionist to endure the impossibility of weeding. Expecting to walk out of the morning, put in a meditative hour in the early sunlight, and return to the house for coffee leaving weed-free flowerbeds in her wake, she ended up sorely disappointed. “There’s no place for perfectionism in a garden,” I told her. “That is why I plant natives.”


Perhaps it is this combination of the dream garden and the reality of Austin’s climate that has led me to the gardens I keep now. Visiting my brother in Connecticut, I leaf through my sister-in-law’s garden catalogs and lose myself in daydream about dark green landscapes blanketed with flowers in every shade of white: hydrangea, antique roses, paper white narcissus, Lily of the Valley. Like any worthy English major, I am daydreaming Austen, with its cool climate and woolly lambs frolicking alongside an ancient stone fence. On such visits I must always hold myself in check, lest I arrived home with a suitcase full of asparagus root stock and big wooly sweaters–that last a retail temptation I can barely resist.


Knowing how hard it is to give up the dream of a European formal garden should give me more patience with my neighbors who remain apparently oblivious to the fact that they live in a harsh desert climate, choosing alien shrubs they have their yard people shape into Tootsie-Pops, giant paper cups, and something that resembles a close-up side view of corrugated cardboard. Sadly, however, nothing gives me patience. Why would anyone want a high-maintenance yard full of sculpted aliens when you can have the riotously unruly natural look of native plants? You don’t even need to worry about trimming them perfectly, which is important for dangerous pruners like myself. I generally go at trimming the way hairdressers go at bangs: “chipping” in to keep the profile from looking like your hair’s been trimmed around the rim of an upturned soup bowl. I like the lacy profile that results.


I guess not everybody likes the interesting textures of rough edges.


Fortunately, it is not difficult to favor the central Texas landscape for exactly what it is. I first saw the mad profusion of Texas wildflowers in the spring of 1980, visiting the about to be-husband who brought me here. Along every roadside bluebonnets, pink Mexican petunias, fierce orange Indian paint brushes, the daisy shaped Indian blanket, yellow and white flowers of every size and description whose names I still don’t know: this was spring in Texas.


Over time, thanks in no small part to Lady Bird Johnson’s memorable legacy and to the work of our own natural Gardener John Dromgoole (whose radio program was a passionate campaign to convince listeners that nature is the most brilliant gardener of all, if only we will stop bombarding it with pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and the imposition of plants that do not belong here), I learned to appreciate the splendor of Texas natives and well adapted plants. Just as my Connecticut sensibility could not comprehend vividly colored houses until I came to live in a place where the white heat of summer renders everything faded, I had to develop a Texas sensibility for gardening. And while some people evidently still consider the thought of native plants terribly constricting, I find the opposite to be true.


My newest gardens surround a house on a corner lot in a fairly new subdivision. While such a place was the furthest thing from my dreams, when we last moved it was my current (forever, please) husband’s turned to choose. An intrepid mountain biker, on familiar terms with the most challenging aspects of the Barton Creek Greenbelt, he chose a house 2 blocks from the Greenbelt. The story of the man who was almost killed by a rattlesnake 2 blocks from this house remains for another time. (This morning the greenbelt was being circled by a helicopter and surrounded by police cars awaiting the escape of a person possibly associated with the dead body discovered just before dawn near the neighborhood offices. Look, everybody, just go someplace else for once, ok? I hear Kentucky is nice.)


I had never wanted a late-1990’s white brick house with a garage façade, and I still have a very hard time imagining that I actually live here. But what this home did offer, from my point of view, was a 100-foot stretch of dead grass and strangulating weeds along a west-facing sidewalk. For the first time, I would have an expanse that received full sun! During my first spring break here, eight months after we moved in, Floyd rented a turf cutter and the transformation began. And while it is best that you are not a perfectionist if your ambitions run to gardening, it is most certainly helpful that you at least be a bit of an optimist. Four hundred square feet to clean, compost, till, plant, and mulch? No problem! I’m on vacation; everything is possible!


The mind casts a merciful veil over what became of my back that spring. Let us simply say that once Floyd had created those kick butt landscape edgers out of quarter inch steel (doesn’t everyone have hundreds of feet of 6 inch wide quarter inch thick steel lying about to create edging? And doesn’t everyone have a husband who can curve said steel up the slight slope from the street to the sidewalk in order to make room for stone walkways so that people parking on the street can exit their cars and get to the sidewalk without crushing too many little lantana faces?), and I was faced with that long expanse of dark earth, I felt more than a little daunted.


Too much a slave to impulse to hesitate for long, I made the rounds of my favorite nurseries and filled the back of the old pickup with a mind-boggling array of Texas-happy plants: tall, short, deciduous, evergreen, yellow flowered, red, purple, pink; and a sack of wildflower seeds to toss into the gaps. Over a hundred plants went into the expanse, until I had a garden that looks like all new gardens do (okay, maybe you can have a few days of perfection in this enterprise): colorful, healthy, and all potential. With those lovely dark mulched spaces all around what seemed like tiny specimens of my favorite perennials. Joy!


The first year took more watering than I’d planned for, due in no small part to the hottest, driest summer on record. When the heat finally broke, I resolved to give the sidewalk garden NO water this year: what managed to survive, would survive. I started planting cacti, agave, yucca, and rocks.


Spring 2012 was mercifully rainy right up until May. The sidewalk garden came in lush and brilliantly colorful. Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds arrived to take advantage, just as they were supposed to. Neighbors thanked me every day, some of them biking or jogging out of their way to go past the sidewalk garden and see what was in bloom from one week to the next.


What follows is a series of essays designed more or less as an unruly journal of this sidewalk garden and the other gardens surrounding this silly white brick house with its garage facade in a newish neighborhood of tediously similar houses. I hope they convey some of the fun and miseries associated with being an unruly gardener in the land of HOA’s and the people who truly believe that uniformity adds value to real estate.