Friday, May 30, 2014


I have planted gardens in south Texas, Houston, west Texas, Dallas, and now, central Texas. Each time it was like starting all over in a whole new country, since the climate and conditions in each part of Texas are all so very different. Thankfully, I've never had to learn to garden in the Texas Panhandle, cuz that would be, like, moving to Canada!

The first thing I always do when moving to a new part of Texas is gather information, and the very best place to get that is from the local Texas Cooperative Extension agent. The Austin chapter put out that little booklet you see on the right -- An Earthwise Guide For Central Texas -- and it has been invaluable! They have them available at pretty much every nursery around. Best dollar I ever spent! Not only does it list all the best plants by category, from trees to groundcovers, it also tells you whether they are native, their ultimate size, light and water needs, seasonal interest, availability, maintenance requirements, the wildlife they attract, how deer resistant they are, and more! If you are determined to go native, I recommend that book on the left -- How To Grow Native Plants of Texas and the Southwest, by Jill Nokes. I should tell you right now, however, that I am not a purist. I love native plants, and have a ton of them here on our property: Live Oaks, Cedar Elms, Texas Mountain Laurel, Agarita, Texas Persimmons, Yuccas, Texas Sage, Prickly Pear, all kinds of grasses, Texas and Mexican Buckeyes, Agaves, Anisacanthus, Mexican Bird of Paradise, Fairy Duster, Beauty Berry, and at least a dozen more. But that is not all I have.

You see, as I said yesterday, design is very important to me, and the number one rule in landscape design is to plan it according to viewpoint. Where will most people be viewing the garden from? In my case, that happens to be above! No one can see it from the street. Mostly they see it when looking down from our balcony or dining room windows.

And, if I planted nothing but natives, it would be pretty much a sea of this...

fine-textured green foliage with smallish blooms. Yawn! Not too exciting, when seen from up above. So I work really hard to find plants that add contrast in size, shape, color and texture, but which aren't too appealing to deer. It ain't easy!

One of my very favorites is this guy,-- perilla 'Magilla'.

Looks just like a coleus, right? Only deer love coleus, and they never touch this fellow. You'll be seeing a lot of him in my garden pics. It is an annual, so I have to replant every year, but it is oh so worth it, and one big plant can be divided into two or three smaller ones, which grow really fast.

One of the hardest things to find in such a dry, sunny place is anything with really big leaves. I've found two that are semi-tropical, I suppose, but though they may die down to the ground in winter, they keep on a-comin' back! This one with the big heart-shaped leaves is Hoja Santa, or Root Beer Plant, and is actually an aromatic herb that can be used in cooking.

This next one, with big citrus green and yellow striped leaves, is a variegated ginger, though I don't think it gets the edible root. It really pops when you put it next to dark purple!

My two favorite groundcovers, which make for nice patchwork blocks of color, are this fuzzy grey Wooly Stemodia, which trails nicely over my tiers...

The taller lime green plant on the left is a new variety of our native Turks Cap, which gets bright pink blooms instead of red.
and this lovely lime green stuff which, unfortunately, I can't remember the name of.

I use lots of trailing rosemary too, as well as santolina, pink skullcap, damianita, winecup, a few sedums, and trailing purple lantana and verbena.

My two favorite vines so far are Crossvine (not to be confused with Trumpet Vine) and Coral Honeysuckle.

Favorite shrubs include Flame Acanthus, Bush Germander, Texas Sage, and Red Yucca. Though deer won't mess with the yucca plant itself, I should probably warn you -- they do love those tasty bloom stalks!

My favorite perennials include Salvia greggii (Autumn Sage), Salvia leucantha (Mexican Bush Sage), Mexican Mint Marigold, Esperanza (Tecoma stans, or Yellow Bells), Russian Sage, Texas Betony, Yarrow, and Purple Coneflowers.

Speaking of coneflowers, when we first put in the Cantina Garden, I had to fill the beds up a bit at a time. One bed was left completely empty so I gathered up a bunch of wildflower seeds and just tossed them in. Apparently there were some coneflowers in the mix, and they have since grown into several nice-sized plants! Most of the other wildflowers came back for a year or two, then fizzled out. One thing that does reseed itself reliably, though never in the same location, is Asclepias, or Butterfly Weed. If you want butterflies in your garden, plant that! Cosmos is also supposed to be a good reseeder, and when I spotted this new Chocolate Cosmos the other day, I just couldn't resist. Hopefully it will produce lots of babies!

Favorite grassy things are Pink Muhly and Inland Sea Oats. Love the dark purple grasses too but, alas, they don't overwinter here.

As for seasonal color, well, therein lies the rub. In another life I was known for my beautiful container gardens and seasonal color changeouts, but all of the plants I used in them  are like Golden Coral for deer families. So these days I have to make do with those streaky-veined petunias, verbena, Profusion zinnias, snapdragons, dianthus, my wonderful perilla, the occasional purple grass, and lots of gray fuzzy or herby stuff.

So that's about it for my Hill Country favorites. I guess I'll close by sharing a few things I had to learn the hard way:
  • Don't even try to grow veggies unless you've got a really tall fence with no gaps, and either automatic drip irrigation, or a friend who doesn't mind hiking up your long driveway and dragging a hose all over tarnation whenever you are away. Except maybe asparagus. Not very thirsty, and deer seem to think it's revolting. Maybe they don't like the way their pee smells afterwards.
  • Recirculating fountains have to be refilled way more often than you'd think. Like every dang day.
  • Don't plant anything that isn't cold hardy down to at least 20 F. Running outside in the dark and bitter cold to cover up a bunch of tender plants gets old fast.
  • Don't expect to grow much around your oak trees, 'cept maybe yuccas, inland sea oats, and perhaps a bit of Turk's cap, if you're lucky.
  • Never try to outwit an armadillo. It'll make you crazy.

Thursday, May 29, 2014


Mexican Bird of Paradise in Bloom
I've lived in many places and put in many gardens by now. Unfortunately, we always ended up moving just when the gardens began coming into their own. The rule of thumb with perennials is "first year they sleep, second year they creep, third year they leap."However, when you throw deer and armadillos into the mix, the learning curve is steeper, and that leap can take a tad longer.  Make that a lot longer. We installed the Cantina Garden in fall of '09, and it's just now starting to take off. In fact, we're still struggling with the bed near the front door, and it's been in even longer! There appear to be some dead zones in it, either from limestone bedrock being too close to the surface (a problem we run into in all our beds) or from something toxic the builder left behind.

Another thing that's really different here is that, for the first time ever, Hubby and I are gardening in tandem. When we bought our first house, he did most of the gardening -- especially when the babies started coming! When the kids went off to school, and his career started taking him away from home more and more, I stepped up to bat, and ended up going back to school to study horticulture! I must admit, when we bought this place and finally started gardening together, things were occasionally, well, tense. I am more about control. Design is important to me. Also, I hate wasting money. I do a lot of research before I purchase a plant, to find out whether it will be a good fit. Hubby? Not so much. Eventually though we divided our territories, so as not to step on each others toes so often. Plus, as in any good relationship, he started to rub off on me, and vice versa. For instance, check out what he just did with our old water-guzzling fountain pots, which we replaced with a simple birdbath.

If that's not great design, I don't know what is!

Another area where we differ is in the amount of bed space we are willing to deal with -- back to that "control" issue, I suppose. The downstairs Cantina Garden, the front door bed, and a few pots are all I'm willing to take on. I weed and prune and deadhead because I want things to look nice, but I have never loved doing it. There is a limit to how much I am willing to do, especially when our summer heat kicks in! Since maintenance never actually crosses my hubby's mind, however, he never tires of adding new beds!

Anywho, like I said. We've learned a few things along the way, and things are finally starting to come together.

Two Favorites - Perilla 'Magilla', and a Tall Gomphrena Called Sparkler (I think)

Only problem is, the longer we stay here...

Purple Coneflowers in Bloom
and the more glorious the garden becomes...

the harder it will be to ever walk away.

Tomorrow I'll talk a bit about things we have learned along the way -- maybe save you a bit of time, money, and heartache, if you too garden in the Texas Hill Country.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


We are coming up on our 39th wedding anniversary and, since I can't think of a single gift my hubby might want or need and, since I am much more into experiences than "stuff" these days, I decided to whisk him away for a mini-vacay instead. We had such a great time on our two urban get-aways last fall. We love exploring downtown areas in search of the hidden gems, be it local food specialties, art, architecture, gee-gaws, or just general quirkiness. Oh, and people! Always the people! However, when I asked my hubby whether he'd rather go back to stay in downtown Austin, San Antonio, or somewhere different his time, he said "What about the Hill Country Hyatt? We haven't been there in years."

Suddenly I was remembering the wonderful adventures we had there with our kids when they were in elementary school, when the place first opened -- floating on the lazy river, making s'mores 'round the fire pit each evening, checking out bicycles to ride around the humongous property, eating lunch wearing swimsuits at the poolside cafe, choosing from the hundred or so options on the ginormous breakfast buffet, fun activities scheduled throughout the day for the kids, poolside waiters bearing icy beverages for dad, and gardens filled with native plants for mom to explore. We'd never experienced anything quite like it before! So, of course, I told my hubby "Yes! Let's do it!"

My only concern was that, last time we went, the place had become so popular one could hardly squeeze into the lazy river for all the rambunctious kiddos. So, genius that I am, I came up with the brilliant plan of arriving on a Sunday, rather than Friday. I figured since school hadn't let out yet, we'd probably have the place to ourselves, right? Well, not exactly.

Luau Night
You see, one of the biggest problems with being retired is that you tend to lose track of the days, and sometimes forget about things like Memorial Day Weekend! So, that first afternoon we mostly just explored the grounds to see what was new, and did our best to avoid the mobs in all the water features.

A Tempting Hammock in a Secluded Alcove
The New Flow Rider Feature
The Flow Rider and the water slide are both new since we were last here...

but I was ever so happy to see that some things are still the same!

Samoan Fire-Eater
Samoan Fire-Dancers
Anywho, we still had most of Monday, after everyone else checked out, and half of Tuesday to do the water stuff, right? Again, not exactly. You see, it started raining that night. Thunder and lightening all night long. And it kept raining right through lunchtime. So what happens when a thousand disgruntled kids and their frantic parents are forced to stay indoors?

You get creative, that's what!

The rain eventually stopped -- though it was still chilly enough to light the huge fireplaces in the lobby -- and the hordes cleared out not long after. We started to feel a bit smug again. At least for a few moments. Then we tried to make dinner reservations at their luxurious Antlers Lodge restaurant, only to discover that it's closed on Mondays! So we thought "Ah well, we still haven't had one of those char-grilled burgers out by the pool yet. We'll just do that tonight." We finally donned our swimsuits, and I did a couple of laps around the lazy river while hubby sat reading, wrapped up in a warm beach towel. (It was actually warmer in the water than out!) A few minutes later the waiter comes up to us and says "Last call! The cafe closes at 5:00 today, I'm afraid." Noooooo!!! We were left with no choice but to eat dinner in the Springhouse Cafe. Though it does a lovely breakfast buffet, I'm sad to say that ordering dinner from its menu is on a par with dining at Applebees or Denny's. Soooo, not high on our list. Fortunately, a craft beer and peanuts in the Long Bar helped to cheer hubby right up afterwards, though it didn't do much for me.

On our last morning there, I spent the lengthy hike from our room down to the restaurant plotting out just which items from the huge buffet were my best options, and which were just "fillers". When the hostess tried to hand us menus, I cut her off, saying "No thanks, we're having the...", only to discover I am pointing to empty space where the buffet should have been -- yet another thing that seems to disappear on low-occupancy days.

So, yeah, it was that kind of get-away. But you know what? Even if everything had gone exactly according to plan, and the sun had shone down on us throughout? Well, there still would have been a vital ingredient missing. You see, I finally realized that it wasn't the place itself that made us so happy. The magical part had ever been seeing it all through the eyes of our giddy little kiddos! I guess it's true -- you can never go back.

Sunday, May 25, 2014


Never thought I'd see the day...

when a (soon-to-be) family member would come roaring up our driveway on a Harley. And I do mean roaring. He actually switched the pipes out so they would make more noise. He says this way he doesn't need a horn. He can just rev his engine to let people know he's coming.

Notice Alexis followed him over in her little red jelly bean. She takes after her mama in more than just looks. At least she made it home nice and dry, unlike some people we know. Just glad he made it home safe and sound!

Meanwhile, Hubby and I are headed off to our favorite resort in San Antonio for a little anniversary get-away. The plan was to spend our time floating on their Lazy River in peace and quiet, before the schools let out and it fills up with rambunctious kiddos. Unfortunately, it's looking as if those same thunderclouds that caught Nate on his ride home yesterday are planning to stick around the whole time we are there. Better pack some good books, just in case.