Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Not that we hadn't guessed as much...

I was cleaning up my bookmarks and came across this handy link to NOAA's US Seasonal Drought Outlook.

See that big patch of brown? That's where we live. Needless to say, brown isn't good.


Monday, December 29, 2008

Making Stuff

Hideous Objects
Now that all the lucky recipients of this Christmas's arts-n-crafts projects have been given their dubious gifts, I can finally blog about them. They're picture frames (I later put a photo of Matt & me inside a giant, lightning-struck baldcypress trunk in each one).

I think I earlier characterized them as hideous objects. You can see why.

Ours, Ladonna's, Mom & Dad's

Aunt Pauline's, my brother & sister-in-law's

The responses were the most fun. I made a prototype for the K's (not a frame, but a star--not gonna try that again--too many edges), and when Kate opened it, she said "Oh! Did--you--make--this?" In the sort of strangled tone a non-smoker would use with a five-year-old who had just presented her with a particularly hideous hand-made ash tray.

Mom's response was along those same lines. Ladonna cleverly skirted the issue of the frame by commenting lavishly on the photo.

My brother, on the other hand, took one look at the object and said, "Oh my god the sofa!"

You'll remember the hideous old family sofa that we replaced earlier this year. Well, it had been a member of the family for so long (since before my birth), that I thought maybe some of my loved ones would like to have a keepsake. So I made little picture frame ornaments, using foamboard, hot glue, Swavarski crystals, and ribbons. I tried to dress them up as much as possible--that upholstery is really overwhelming--but to make them attractive was beyond my skills. Aunt Pauline's turned out best because it is the most thoroughly covered in ribbon. And Ladonna's wasn't too awful. The others, well, they have sentimental value. I hope.

Victory Garden
In other artsy-craftsy-homemakery news, I got a jump on a veggie garden for next spring. It's been a while since I've attempted such a thing, but in the current economic environment... Hell, it beats learning how to darn socks. Plus, I want access to those stripy eggplants and to our favorite Aji Limon chiles, which are so hard to find. I ended up ordering from The Pepper Gal, the only source that had poblanos, pasillas, chile pequin (for the wildlife, not for us--we're nowhere near that badass), and Aji Limon. In the past, I've preferred to buy seedlings from nurseries--it can be hard to match nursery-grown stoutness and vigor--but now that I have a greenhouse at my disposal, growing plants from seed seemed like the obvious choice--much cheaper, much more variety.

In addition to the Pepper Gal seeds, I also ordered from Harris and dark horse Swallowtail Gardens.

Here's what I should be receiving in the mail:

  • Poppy, Oriental--Beauty Of Livermore
  • Larkspur, Giant Imperial-Blue Spire (to go around the gazebo--I positively adore blue larkspur against a white fence)

  • Basil, Lemon--Mrs. Burns (my favorite basil)
  • Lemon Grass, East Indian

  • Artichoke, Violetto (See artichoke advice from Natural Gardener)
  • Lettuce, Loose-Leaf--Lollo Rossa
  • Radishes, D'avignon (Do radishes grow in Texas? Especially ones with Frenchy names? We'll find out.)
  • Tomatoes, Cherry--Super Sweet 100
  • Tomatoes, Cherry--Yellow Pear
  • Tomatoes, Heirloom--Black Plum
  • Tomatoes, Heirloom--Brandywine, Pink (I know these heirloom tomatoes aren't going to grow here, yet I'm compelled to try)
  • Watermelons, Charleston Grey (really, really pretty. see pic)
  • Watermelons, Sugar Baby
  • Eggplant Ophelia
  • Eggplant Twinkle
  • Eggplant Classic (Seriously? Three eggplant varieties? Damn those seed catalogs with their irresistable veggie porn!)
  • Lettuce Harmony
  • Okra Cajun Delight (which Matt doesn't eat, but we both feel that it's a necessary nod to our southern roots)
  • Pepper Sweetheart
  • Guajillo Peppers
  • Aji Limon peppers
  • Peru Yellow (Hopefully, a synonym for Aji Limon)
  • Ancho Mulato (Poblano)
  • Peter Hot (a very naughty pepper that Matt loves, yet refuses to eat. I don't suppose I can blame him--I expect I'd feel the same way if it were a girly-part pepper.)
  • Chile Pequin pepper
  • Holy Mole Pasilla pepper
  • Aji Cristal pepper

For Fun:
  • Gourd Baby Bottle
  • Pumpkin Fairytale
  • Pumpkin Lumina
So far, I've only received the pepper seeds. Today I planted a few seeds of the most practical varieties, hoping for an early harvest: Aji Limon, Ancho Mulato, and Guajillo.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

We Finally Got That Pony for Christmas

Matt & I bought our main Christmas present this year, a riding lawn mower. To my intense amusement, we ended up with a model named "Pony." Since we only have half an acre, we chose a model that's on the small side. Which makes it (...wait for it...) Our Little Pony (TM).

For some time now, we've been getting by using an old push mower that came from goodness knows where. Half the time, it's out of order. And even when running, it takes half a day to mow the entire yard. And if we let the grass get too thick, the mower actually dies on us as it wrestles with the grass. So this will be a huge improvement.

It's a zippy little thing, as Matt demonstrates in this dramatic reenactment.

You put it into gear and the rocket thrusters kick on.

So that's our second major purchase of the year. (1) the sofa and (2) the lawn mower. Exciting stuff. A few years ago, we wouldn't have been able to afford either. It's nice not being completely impoverished.

In other nice(ish) things, our garden is trying valiantly to stay in bloom. 'Ducher,' '4th of July,' 'Souvenir de la Malmaison,' 'Green Ice,' 'Burgundy Iceberg,' 'New Dawn,' 'Comtesse du Cayla,' and our camellia, 'Yuletide,' are all (sort of) in bloom. I'm not sure why, really; we haven't had any rain. But perhaps they're celebrating the end of the miserable heat of summer.

Sadly, the weather gods have not favored them with the kind of benevolent conditions that their efforts deserve.

We've already had one or two hard freezes, and we're in the middle of a third. The poor plants get a flower half open, it gets nipped by the frost, and what's left is this balled-up, asymmetrical, brown wilty thing.

Our 'Yuletide' camellia. Look, it's doing the best it can.

I'm particularly impressed with 'Yuletide's efforts. This is a camellia that supposedly grows well in Austin and blooms around Christmas. You can see what a sad twig ours is. It can't handle the ongoing drought at all. Nevertheless, it is gamely attempting to live up to its name by giving us several big, vibrant pink flowers the week before Christmas.

The interesting colors of cold-stressed 'Burgundy Iceberg'

'Burgundy Iceberg,' the infelicitously named Floribunda, seems to have almost profited from the freezes. Its half-spent flowers have turned this really interesting crushed-raspberry shade, and if you look very closely, you can see tiny darker purple/pink streaks.

Ever-blooming, ever adorable 'Green Ice'

And, that outstanding trooper 'Green Ice' is still blooming like mad. Freezes manifest on this one as splashes of pink at the tops of the petals. I feel, by the bye, that GI is an under-appreciated wonder. I love the old-fashioned shape of the flowers and the sparky green eye, but its most valuable quality is that it blooms all the time. It outperforms 'Cramoisi Superieur,' 'Duchesse de Brabant,' and even the odious but prolific 'Knockout.' While those other roses will have a scattering of blossoms during the really tough seasons, like August and January, GI has great big heads full of flowers. It isn't just that it blooms all the time; it's so enthusiastic about blooming. Yet no one ever raves about this rose. I just don't understand it. It came out in the 70s, so perhaps it's too modern to be noticed by the antique rose crowd and too old to be cherished by modern rose lovers. But there it was, getting western exposure in one of central Texas's dryest and hottest summers, seemingly having a perfectly fine time. And here it is now, facing down multiple freezes in the 20s with cheerful aplomb.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Whaddaya know? The weather outside IS frightful!

We had a really lovely weekend, temperature-wise. In the sixties and seventies, with a lively, brisk wind blowing. Last I checked the wunderground, they were predicting more of the same, if slightly cooler, all week. Imagine my feelings when I stepped outside this morning in capris and a short-sleeved shirt to discover it was below freezing, with a wind chill at something like 12 degrees. 12 degrees Fahrenheit, I might add.

And I'm afraid I didn't even enjoy the weekend weather like I should have. I got caught up in a round of indoor activities. I've been stripping the paint out of the corners of some of our antique doors (we finally got an estimate from carpenter Javier for resizing and installing all 6 doors--ouchie! Will have to save up for that project). You may recall that we had all 6 dipped and stripped at the local antique refinishers in downtown Elgin. However, the three skinnier doors had very persistent coats of paint, and extra hand stripping is required to clean out the trim. This takes much, much longer than you would have ever thought, and apparently requires 2 coats. Bother, bother, bother. So far, I've worked on one side of one door. I'm using a paste that turns blue and dry when it's ready to be scraped off, which at least minimizes the mess somewhat.

I also worked on a special craft project for Christmas (in addition to proper store-bought presents--I'm not Laura Ingalls Wilder--I don't expect my recipients to be satisified with the equivalent of an orange and a rug made out of rags.) I can't go into details, but I found myself in the scrapbooking supply section of Hobby Lobby for the first time. My, there were lots of flower-shaped decals! However, I flatter myself that my offerings are sufficiently Horrid as to subvert any overweening cuteness from the scrapbook aisle. Horrid, but fabulous.

And I worked on Christmas cookies. I made macarons for the first time (first time eating them, too. Not sure what possessed me. A sort of gastronomic keeping up with the Joneses, I think. Macarons are apparently all the rage this season.) Fidgetty little blighters. One batch turned out picture perfect. The second batch, baked on parchment instead of silplat, and having sat for about 15 minutes before baking, were wrong in apparently all the ways a macaron can go wrong. No "feet," cracked surface, too lumpy and rounded, and chewy inside. Then, per the recipe, I made a disasterous filling called Italian buttercream , which is prone to separating and melting and is also too sweet. So out of the whole fiasco, I got about 8 cookies that are gift-worthy: 4 for my boss and 4 for my cleaning lady. Fortunately, the pralines I made with pecans given us by Mr. Marek turned out just dandy.



Finished product. Only the ones with the chocolate ganache filling are giftable. Chocolate never lets me down.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Most Twinkliest Time of the Year

As is our wont, Matt & I bought our tree and put up the Christmas decorations the weekend after Thanksgiving. My official, prudential, mature reason for this is that if we're going to shell out the ooftish for a tree, we obviously want to get our full money's worth for it--from Thanksgiving weekend through 12th Night.

The true (somewhat embarrassing) reason is that I really, really like the twinkliness and want to get out the sparkle as early as possible every year. And Matt, who endures these rituals with stoic forbearance, lets me.

We've expanded our efforts this year. Matt's work threw out a bunch of strings of C9 lights. Some were quite crapped out; others were still in their boxes, oddly enough. So this year, we were able to wrap some trees in lights in addition to our garland, wreaths, and faux-luminaries. These C9s, though. I'd never used them before. My people were always strictly mini-lights people. Restrained. Modest. Understated. Consequently, these huge, oversized lights look either naive or ironic to me. They're so big and kitschy and jovial and 1950s-ish. Cartoonish, if you will.

C9 string lights

They are also really, exceedingly, startlingly bright.

Whoa. Massive pillars of light. You could read a book by the light from our pecan tree.

In other news, we went to Janice's wedding in Houston on Saturday. Janice is an old friend from Hort Club back at A&M. She had a lovely ceremony, the highlight of which, for me, was the diminuative usher who must have been all of 7 years old asking us with perfect solemnity and gentlemanliness if he could take us to our seats. It was great to see Janice again, whom I haven't seen in years, and who is exactly as I remember her, and also very nice to get to meet her charming new husband, Michael.

I was also reminded, as I always am when I drive down to Houston or Louisiana, of how much I miss the Gulf Coast. Even by Sealy or Columbus, neither of which are especially close to the Gulf, you can start to see the landscape taking on a more coastal look. I'm very fond of Austin in so many ways, but at heart I'm still a girl of the coastal plains--flat, green, wet, alluvial lands with thick, sinewy live oaks and towering cumulus clouds. Although I'm nowhere near them on that stretch of I-10, that geography always calls to mind marshes and shrimp boats and egrets and briny air.

...Which is what always makes it such a surprise to find myself suddenly whisked away to the immortal glades of Arcadia.

Sealy's astonishing golden god/dess

Somewhere near Sealy, the owner of what I think is a cement yard art store has set up this... phenomenon, which defies categorization. Those are larger-than-life golden unicorns, pulling a chariot containing a heroic winged personage of indeterminate gender--muscular, yet more curvaciously endowed in the chest region than your average man. Sort of a hybrid of Athena and Helios. We exited and looped around in order to study this work in greater detail, and to snap the picture (on a cameraphone--sorry for the quality). I think of it as Manthena, the Hermaphrodite God(dess) of Wise and Just War in the Sunshine. Every time I ponder the time, cost, and effort of this project, my mind boggles. Even assuming that it's just tin covered in gold paint, this is still an undertaking so monumental yet preposterous yet somehow perversely admirable that it beggars all attempts to contain it in language.

And finally, because it's a good time of year for excess, we are currently prepping for a holiday dinner with the Ks. They're making a "Flaming Feast" (consisting entirely of food on fire--even including the salad), and we're to bring the dessert. From various recipes online, I've cobbled together something I'm calling "Ragnarok: a Meditation in Four Elements." (It's actually a tarted up Bombe Alaska, but I like my name better.) It's made of genoise cake, dark chocolate ice cream, coffee parfait, and meringue. Earth will be represented by the chocolate ice cream and by the cake, which didn't rise properly. Air will be provided by the many forms of whipped egg whites and whipped cream in the dish. Water will be present (sort of) in the form of rum, and for the fire, we're using, well, fire. Matt, who is amused but doubtful, will be standing by with a fire extinguisher.

Saturday, November 29, 2008


In between Thanksgiving with Mom & Dad (dry-brined smoked turkey) and Thanksgiving with Matt's folks (steak and potatoes), we had a little bitty Thanksgiving with Cathy. I didn't want it to be any huge production, and I definitely didn't want the formality (or size) of a turkey, so I decided to do quail instead: like turkey, only much, much smaller. Individual nano-turkeys, if you will.

And I've never done quail before, so that was quite exciting. They're so cute! If we have to live off the land after the final, cataclysmic economic meltdown, I'm definitely raising quail. Matt says no, chickens are more practical (he has a soft spot for chickens), but I say it's important to diversify your poultry portfolio.

For all of our Thanksgivings the weather has been almost comically appropriate: chilly, grey, and moist (no substantial amount of rain, of course, but some light drizzles just to tease the plants). And the leaves are turning nicely. The nurseryman we met at Medina Gardens, the native plant nursery in Medina, said that you generally get better color in a droughty year and worse color in a wet year. Something about the sugers in the leaves being really condensed. Since then, I've been noticing a lot of color, but I'm never sure if it's because he pointed it out, or if it really is more than usual. Matt, who is less suggestible than I am, says it is indeed much better color this year. Interestingly, even the pecans are looking unusually bright and showy--an appealing clear gold color. Below is a yellow Chinese tallow in a neighbor's yard.

A neighbor's Chinese tallow puts on a bright gold on a dull November day.

But I digress from the quail.

I have fond memories of eating delicious bacon-wrapped grilled quail at various restaurants (Royer's Round Top Cafe, the Liberty Bar in San Antonio), so that's what I hoped to reproduce (turns out my memory's faulty--Mom & Dad say Royer's famous quail is bacon-less. Oh well.)

However. There were very few recipes on the internet for quail that were wrapped in bacon, cooked on a grill, and served whole. Consequently, I had to cobble mine together from several other recipes. For the benefit of Webland, I'm including my recipe below.

Marinating quail. So cute!

Grilled, Bacon-Wrapped Quail

8 semi-boneless quail (backbone & ribcages removed)
1 container of Italian salad dressing
1 long log or 2 small logs of soft goat cheese
1 bunch of fresh sage (with at least 16 leaves)
16 pieces of bacon (I used applewood & cinnamon smoked bacon)

Special supplies: Charcoal, wood chips, grill

(1) Cut the tips of the wings off of the quail (from the tip to the first joint).

(2) Marinate the birds in Italian dressing 6+ hours or overnight.

(3) Start the charcoal in a charcoal starter. We (inadvertently) bought charcoal made of actual pieces of mesquite—not little briquettes. Chi-chi!

(4) Put the wood chips in some water to soak.

(5) Cut the goat cheese into disks approximately ½” thick. Put 1 sage leaf on either side of each goat cheese disk. Stuff 1 disk with sage into the body cavity of each quail.

(6) Fold the wings across the quails’ breasts: To fix the wings in place, cut a slit in the last section of one of the quail’s wings. The cut should run parallel to the wingbones and should be a little longer than ¼”. Thread the end of the opposite wing through the slit. This should make the quail look like little bitty decapitated vampires, with their arms crossed on their chests.

(7) Use the same technique to cross the birds’ legs: Cut a small slit in the meat of one leg parallel to the leg bone and thread the other leg through the slit.

(8) Wrap the birds in 2 pieces of bacon each: wrap one piece around the bird laterally. The ends of the bacon should over lap on the bird’s breast. Wrap the second piece dorsally, going between the folded legs and wings. The end pieces of this piece of bacon should meet under the folded wings, which will help hold them in place.

(9) Now the bacon should make the birds look like Sumo wrestlers. Decapitated vampire Sumo wrestlers.

(10) The internet, at this point, recommends searing the bacon in a hot pan. This will pull off a little of the extraneous fat, which will help to reduce flare-ups in the grill (a little). Also, the theory is that it will seal the edges of the bacon so they won’t curl away from each other in the cooking. Well, I guess maybe I didn’t do this part long enough, because the bacon went ahead and curled right in the pan, and I had to stab my little vampires through the heart with a wooden stake to hold the bacon in place. If it were to do this again, I’d probably use a spatula to apply pressure to the birds as they cook and sear them for a little longer than the 30 seconds or so that I attempted this go round. Be sure to sear both front and back of the birds.

(11) Spread the charcoal, sprinkle some wood chips on top of the hot coals, and place your birds on the grill. Close the lid of the grill to trap the smoke.

(12) Grill for 15 minutes.

(13) Flip the birds and cook for 15 more minutes or till the juices run clear/the legs wobble in their sockets.

Decapitated vampire Sumo wrestlers. With sage.

Some of the recipes I used were:
They were deliciously moist, tender, and smoky, if I do say so myself. We also had Brussels Sprouts with browned butter and pecans, creamed spinach, rolls, and butterscotch pots du creme for dessert. The Brussels sprouts were really almost tasty--a little sweet, a little buttery, a little nutty, barely cabbagey at all. They were a combination of two Eating Well recipes (BS with Hazelnut Brown Butter and BS with Pecans) plus about a tablespoon of bacon drippings left over from the quail.

And now that we have done Thanksgiving, it's time to start in on the Christmas season. Tomorrow: hang the lights outside and a buy a tree.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Goo on the Roof and a Smidge of Fall Color

I like having multiple projects going at once. If you get bored with one, you can switch to another. If you run out of supplies/funding/ideas for one, do something else that requires less material/money/vision.

So it is that this weekend found Matt monkeying around on the garage/shack roof, applying roofing goo. We currenly have 2 other major projects in hand (removing the last traces of paint from the antique doors Mom & Dad gave us last year and installing new gutters), but we needed a third to round things out.

The garage is a vexatious pile that causes me all kinds of indecision. Here's the thing. It's rickety, has an ugly leaky roof, and is too short. Because it's so short, there isn't really room for normal garage doors with a normal garage door opener. I haven't spoken with any garage door specialists (in fact, I don't even know what the proper name for a garage door specialist is--some sort of carpenter? A gates-and-large-doors contractor? Some dude sub-contracted out by Sears?), but I'm hoping that we could someday install non-corrugated metal doors that open horizontally on the kind of hydraulic arms that the special people in gated communities use to operate the gates that keep out the peasantry and other such undesireables.

And then, too, maybe we could replace the corrugated metal walls with actually siding. And maybe someday we'll re-do the roofline to eradicate the stupid valley where the water collects on the rare occasions that it rains. Instead of having two separate roofs that just happen to be joined, we could just have one, whole, unified roof.

The garage/shack with the Mr. Marek's rather nice Chinese tallow behind it. The garage/shack is a composite of two shacks, unconvincingly joined in the middle. The valley is right over the Studio-to-be.

But then I think, is it really worth it? We're talking about an excessively short ramshackle tin shack with antediluvian wiring, rotten timbers, and a rusty roof.

So maybe the thing to do would be to tear it down and build a new structure on the cement pad. It would be normal height, it would have new wiring, it would have a rational roof, and we could design the floorplan ourselves.

But then that would cost tens of thousands of dollars wouldn't it? Which we don't have. And then again, would it be worth it? I mean, as a structure that houses our spare crap, it currently does (most of) what we need it to do: stand up and hold stuff.

So I go round and round. In the interim, we're trying to enhance the garage/shack's functionality by enabling it to stand up, hold stuff, and keep the stuff dry, which will be a nice upgrade. Thus the roof goo. It's this weird tarry stuff that comes in a paint can that you smear into the crevices of your roof's metal sheets using some variant of a wooden spatula.

If we decide (as I expect we will) to just make the most of the structure we've got, then the roof goo is the necessary prerequisite for gutting and refitting the craft room/studio/call-it-what-you-will.

See, although short, rusty, and rickety, our garage/shack (oh, hell, let's just call it a shackrage) actually has some nifty features. It's got a spare fridge that holds our Costco provisions. It's got a two-car garage with wooden bins lining two of the walls. It's got a separate 1-car garage with a wall of pegboard. And in between, it has a third room with actual sheetrock walls and a linoleum floor. So while we don't actually use the shackrage for storing vehicles, we are able to get a lot of use out of the rest of it.

Unfortunately, thanks to a seive-like roof, that nice central room is currently a foul and pestilential fungus fest. There are holes in the ceiling where the wallboard disintegrated, there are puddles and streaks of black and green and purple mildew all over the walls and ceiling. If I have to go in there, I take a big lungful of fresh air at the door, dart in, grab whatever I need, and dart back out while doing as little breathing as possible.

All of which is too bad, because I really need a place to set up a stained-glass making workshop, and Matt needs a space (other than the kitchen countertop) to practice Gourd Art in all its dremeling, supergluing, gourd-innard-shredding glory.

So we need to tear down all the sheetrock, maybe rip up the linoleum, douse everything that remains with 100% bleach solution, and start over. But we can't do that until the roof is hermetic. So. Step 1: goo the roof. Step 2: get some rain so we can test the integrity of the roof goo.

("...get some rain..." Oh, I crack me up.)

...And that's why we've got two other major projects going on at the same time.

Grasping at Straws
Someday, when our landscape is more mature, we're going to have glorious fall color all over the place. For now, we just have tiny little smidgens of glorious fall color: one red leaf on the red oak, a bit of orangey tint on the margins of the Lacey oak leaves, one yellow bur oak leaf.

Bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa)

The interesting red petioles on our pomegranate

'Tuscarora' crape myrtle

One of our pecans

Lacey oak (Quercus laceyi)

...and the grand climax, our Texas red oak (Quercus buckleyi)

Friday, November 21, 2008

"Too Many Roses?" I'm Sorry, You're Not Making Sense.

Ordinarily, one would think that autumn is the ideal time to plant things because the heat and drought break and we get some nice, hospitable, cool, moist weather to ease the strain on a root system until the long sleep of winter. Or the short snoozes of winter, as is more often the case.

Needless to say, only one of those conditions holds this year.

Nonetheless, we keep buying plants because (a) that's what we do, and (b) I keep assuming that--any minute now--the autumn rains will be on their way. There's only a month of autumn left, so those rains better get hopping.

Our latest exercise in optimism was the purchase of a couple of '4th of July' roses to go on the trellis we just erected in the rose bed. They are the richest, most gorgeous shade of vermillion, with pale pinky-white streaks--very decadent. But at the same time, they're only semi-double, so they have an informal, breezy, cheery quality to them. So they're on the edge. They either remind you of the silk lining of a vampire's cloak or they remind you of a picnic blanket, depending on your mood and which particular blossom you're looking at.

Giant picture of '4th of July,' pinched from http://www.rosewallpapers.com/jun_09-fourth-of-july.htm.

In addition to the roses we picked up at ARE the weekend of Pete's wedding, the new 4th of Julys make 6 new roses this fall. Plus Matt brought home a 'Mademoiselle Franziska Krueger' that we put in the Pole Bed. So, 7. Which means that we currently have a total of 43 roses in our yard. It ain't Josephine's garden at Malmaison, but even so, that's a lot of roses.

The elusive Mlle. Franziska K. This is the only picture of her I could find, and it's not very representative. (http://lacroix.maui.net/userimages//5/5550594d2515.jpg)

And we're not done yet. One of these days, we'll be adding a 'Ballerina,' a green monster rose, a 'Fortune's Double Yellow,' and dear 'Madame Joseph Schwartz' (a long-time favorite of mine), as well as a short hedge of 'Archduke Charles.' (Okay, and also 'Kaiserin Freidrich', 'Kronprinzessin Viktoria,' 'La Reine Victoria,' 'Mme Hardy' and 'Mme Plantier.') And then we may be done, but I doubt it.

So what is it about roses, anyway? Why do we have nearly one rose for every hundredth of an acre in our yard? I think it's a combination of variability, intensity of color, availability, personal history with the genus, and adaptability. There aren't many genera that have so many named cultivars that are so readily available. There are hundreds of rhododendrons and lilacs and peonies, but we can't grow them here. There are probably hundreds of hibiscus, but a only relatively small subset of them is reliably available. There are hundreds of crinum, but they are hard to find and expensive. There are thousands of orchids, but they are much too prissy.

It's actually really easy to be a rose fancier--there are lots of nurseries that sell moderns and a good number propagating antiques. And antiques do very well here--they're a great choice for lazy and/or xeriscapic gardeners. And of course, Matt & I used to work at, and in fact, met at ARE, so we've got a personal connection that way. And because there is so much variability, the roses have their own personalities--different habits, susceptibility to diseases, thorniness, glossiness, darkness, floriferousness, &c. The longer you grow them, the more you get to know their personalities, the more of a relationship you have with them. You don't have a relationship with, say, Indian hawthornes or crape myrtles, however nice your crape myrtles may be. Roses, you start calling by nicknames: "Madame Jo," and "Graham," and "the Duchesse," and "Miz RM." Probably because there is a relative unchangeability to Indian hawthornes (they either have scale or are about to get it) and even to crape myrtles, which bloom, change color, and drop their leaves fairly reliabily.

Roses, on the other hand, keep you guessing, especially the "remontant" roses, which tend to bloom in the spring and fall. Sometimes they seem to have two flushes of bloom in the spring. Sometimes their fall bloom is really early. Sometimes it's late. Sometimes they throw out a flower or two between bloom times just to tease. Some roses are more intensely pink in early spring or in cooler weather in the fall. In August, some of them bleach to nearly white. Sometimes their blooms are large; in stress, they'll be smaller. Sometimes the petals are smooth and regular; in drought, they'll ruch up; in humidity, some of them ball up (I'm looking at you, Clotilde Soupert). So your garden is full of surprise pleasures--plants reaching their peak or suddenly outdoing themselves, plants retiring due to cold or heat or season, plants putting on an unusally perfect bloom, plants putting on a freakishly misshapen one, plants reaching a new intensity of color or introducing an unexpected variation. There is always something to discover.

And then, too, roses are kind of like Shakespeare. So many people have loved them for so long that all those generations of affection and endeavor and stories embue the plants with extra layers of meaning. How many stories do you know about particular cultivars of pansies or boxwood or redtip? I don't know any. But there are any number of stories about the origins or discoveries of different cultivars and classes of roses. So I suppose roses are a logical plant of choice for a bookworm--they're plants with character development, rising action, climax, and denoument. (And maybe this is the core reason Matt & I dislike 'Knockout' so much. They never change--there's no story.)

In other, lesser plant news, we're also looking for a Cordia boissieri for the SE corner of the house, where we currently have an aged and rather crapped-out ligustrum, a chitalpa for the SW corner of the house, and a bay laurel for the front corner of the rose bed.

Because any day now it's going to rain, and then it'll be perfect weather for transplants.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Weathermen Are Idiots.

Yesterday, the wunderground gave us an 80% chance of rain in the afternoon and a 70% chance of rain in the evening.

How much rain do you think we actually got? Go on, guess.


Stupid weatherpeople.

They've been doing this to us all year--promising us thunderstorms and heavy showers with blithe confidence: 60%, 70%, 80%. And we get a big, fat nothing.

You may think, Sheesh woman, so they made a mistake or two. Let it go. Allow me to show you why I'm so hung up on this issue.

This is a chart of average annual rainfalls around the world and of Elgin's rainfall for this year as of 11 Nov. Note the usual rainfalls of our nearest sister cities. Houston gets a lush 50 inches. Dallas, "the City that Works: Diverse, Vibrant and Progressive," (they paid someone for that slogan? Why not just say "the city of pin-headed corporate drones" and be done with it?) gets a comfortable 33.7 inches. San Antonio, to the southwest, gets 28.

So far, Elgin has 17.4 inches of rain this year. And that's measured at a weather station on the other--wetter--side of Elgin (I kid you not. They get rain when we have blaring sunshine. Austin has had just over 10 inches this year, and I suspect our little patch of Elgin is more in line with them.)

But let's be conservative. Let's go with 17.4". How bad is 17.4"? Look a little to the left on the chart. That's less rain than Casablanca. Casablanca--town of which Claude Rains remarked "The waters? What waters? Casablanca is in the desert"--gets 18 inches per year.

Our next closest rain buddy in my unscientific study is Windhoek, Namibia. Windhoek gets a paltry 14.7 inches of rain per year, "which," the internet helpfully tells us, "is too low to support crops or gardens."

Park outside of Windhoek, Namibia

To be fair, the ultimate winner of this depressing game of Our Weather Sucks Worse Than Yours is Cairo, a city whose annual rainfall is so low, it couldn't be represented on the chart above. Poor Cairo gets a thirst-mocking 1 inch of water per year. Which is why there's no landscaping around those pyramids.

Undeterred, wunderground.com gives us a 70% chance of rain today and a 60% chance tonight.

As I write, the sky is blue with some fluffy, white clouds.


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Trellis Completely Done!

We were out of town last weekend, taking a long weekend in Comfort, Texas. However, now we're back, and the tide of home renovation rolls on.

This week Matt finished the trellis. Here he is, wielding a post-hole digger with typical self-assurance and efficacy (I did a little, too, but Matt's definitely better at this sort of thing than me).

Matt digs holes for planting the trellis

Then we jimmied with it to get it level.

Matt jimmies with the trellis

And there you are. In this picture, it's just leaning in the holes; this evening, though, Matt cemented it in, so it's all nice and straight. But this is the best picture we've got. Sorry about that.

Ta da! Our mighty trellis

I think it turned out really, really well. We're going to grow 4th of July roses on it and hopefully get a little privacy for the west side of the house. A woman should be able to eat breakfast in her PJs in her own yard. That's what I think. Hopefully, now I can do so without shocking the neighbors.

We also need to plant a bay laurel and a Magnolia x soulangiana to finish the bones of the rose garden--they will both mitigate the lumpishness of the rose garden (which is sort of shapeless and lost looking) and provide a some screening.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Trellis Half Done

You may recall (or possibly not) that our house had, inexplicably, two breaker boxes: the main one in the mudroom and an ancillary breaker box in the crawlspace that was only reachable by wriggling all the way under the house. Not only is that (a) stupid and annoying and (b) unsafe, but (c) the box didn't even work, which meant that the pond, greenhouses, and sundry indoor outlets also didn't work.

So, subsidized by the New Job, we hired an electrician to sort this out, install a ceiling fan on the porch, and add some exterior outlets. Oh, and put in a front doorbell. The fan turned out great, and the exterior outlets are both exterior, and outlets, which I think is all one can ask. The front doorbell... I bought it cheap(ish) from a Home Depot that's closing, and I didn't get to hear what it sounds like before buying. But the description was all Deluxe, so what could go wrong? I mean, the thing plays something like 65 different sounds. Yeah.

Only after the electrician installed the thing did we discover that it has this awful electronic sound--like a ringtone from 2001. On top of that, every one of its 65 sounds is utterly inappropriate, from "Feliz Navidad" to "Dixie." We've basically installed the doorbell version of the Walmart Singing Fish. And on top of that, no matter which sound we set it on, the ridiculous thing always defaults to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Two less sporty people than Matt & me you could never hope to find, so this is especially cringe-inducing.

Matt & I were out of town this weekend for his brother Pete's wedding. Pete & Christi were married in an old church in Chappell Hill, which had a lovely ambiance. Matt's posting his pictures from the wedding (url to be added later). I got to spend some time with Ladonna's sister, Denise, and her best friend, Lucy, both of whom were absolutely delightful people.

Then on Sunday we stopped at the Antique Rose Emporium on the way out of town (where Matt & I used to work and, in fact, first met). The gardens are more expansive and mature than ever, which is nice, though they've rearranged the roses in a way that is more user-friendly to the average buyer, but is a little less precise, from the perspective of the dedicated rose fancier. We picked up 4 roses ('Climbing Cecile Brunner', 'Climbing Old Blush,' and 'Mme Alfred Carriere' for the gazebo; 'Souvenir de la Malmaison' because it's a gorgeous old thing), a deep purply curcuma called 'Raspberry Ginger,' and the crinum 'Claude Davis.'

Souvenir de la Malmaison

Glad to be home, though. Weddings can be a bit exhausting for an introvert like me.

Now that, uh, the check's cleared on the electrical work, we can turn our attention back to the trellis.

We put the antique fence pieces the Ks gave us as a house-warming present on top and the hog/goat/whatever-wire that came with the house as the bottom panels.

The trellis, in all its (half-completed) glory

The hardest part so far has been sawing through the wire and doing the math to figure out how everything fits together. You can see that the wire fencing is quite thick. We used up three reciprocating saw blades on this project--wore them down to completely toothless smoothness.

Wire fencing--very, very hard to cut, even with a reciprocating saw

Defunct reciprocating saw blade--click image to see full size.

We had to use 2 x 6s because the antique panels are wider than the hog/goat/whatever-wire panels--the wider frame compensates for the difference.

And we're sticking the whole thing together with these metal flange/bracket thingies (sorry to be so vague--no idea what their proper name is). You can see Matt screwing one on below.

Matt screws on the brackety-flanges

We've got one side done, and will hopefully finish the rest soon. Compared to all the tiresome sawing and multiplying and adding we had to do on this project, screwing in metal flange-brackets is really pretty speedy.

Last item: 'Ducher,' the only white China rose, has started blooming. It's the nicest, softest sort of lemon-chiffon-white color (not, frankly, well-represented by the picture below, but I'm too tired to try to photoshop it into shape).

'Ducher' rose.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

$2.99/gallon ! Halleluja!!!

Exxon on 290, just east of Elgin

Yup. Today I paid less than 3 dollars for a gallon of gas. Takes just a little bit of the sting out of the whole Great Depression: The Sequel thing we've got going on.

Other updates: (1) We finally got some rain on Tuesday. It was only 4/10" but it was good to know that water still falls out of the sky sometimes. (2) We gave Izzy her first bath. She didn't much care for it. Poor little skinny kitty. (3) They finally moved Mt. Albert II last week, although the road that they presumably put it on looks about the same. Mt. A. II had been there since August--I think communities of woolly marmots and lichen had started to move in. (4) We finally tried the red taco stand on far east Main St (Dos Amigos)--they make a damn fine smoky chicken fajita taco. (5) After a year in the ground, 'Buff Beauty' finally put on its first--kinda funny-looking--bloom.

Buff Beauty's first bloom. When it gets its act together, it'll climb up the gazebo.

We're lovin the cooler temps. Aside from being hopelessly dry (that little rain doesn't seem to have accomplished much), the weather's been consistently beautiful. A little warm in the afternoons, but clear, cool mornings and evenings. It occurs to me that we haven't been grilling nearly enough, which seems ungrateful of us.

We finally took our inaugural bike ride in Elgin this morning. One of those things we've been meaning to do (for a year and a half) but hadn't quite gotten around to. It was very nice--we biked to HEB, which is pretty exciting for this suburbanite. I've never really lived in a place where the non-hard-core could bike to run errands. That was one of the original attractions of Elgin (well, that and really cheap real estate), and now that it's October and all mellow and gorgeous, there's no reason not to.

Biking in the towny part of Elgin (10th St to Ave C, Ave C to 11th) was just fine. The streets are wide enough and the traffic slow & infrequent enough that there were no problems at all. And we got to admire people's Oxblood lilies and yard bling.

But crossing Hwy 290, on the other hand, was a bit nerve-wracking. Lots of fast-moving traffic, lots of people impatient to turn left, and my hand-me-down bike is about 2 inches too tall for me, which makes stopping and starting an ungraceful and often painful process. Next time we may take the long way around via Central Ave., which goes under the highway.

Other possible bike destinations: the Seed & Feed General Store on Dildy St. (yes, "Dildy." It was named in a more innocent time), the dry cleaners at the intersection of Main & 290, the organic grocery downtown, the ice cream shop downtown (if it's still in business. sigh...), Bloomers nursery at Ave F & FM95, the park on 12th, the gas station at Taylor and Main, and possibly the hardware store, though biking on FM95 is probably not the safest thing a person could do.

Izzy, trying to recover her dignity after the trauma of a bath. She was not happy with us.

Saturday, October 4, 2008


We finally finished it! We've been working on it since February, and we finally got it done.

Completed porch glider in its new home by the patio

The rotten, rusty original came with the house, and we replaced the slats, the metal brackets, and all the hardware and painted everything. It's now go stainless steel bolts, red oak slats, and brackets made from hurricane fence pipes. It glides beautifully, it's wonderfully sturdy--it's altogether satisfactory.

And when we finished, we sat on our porch glider in the mellow, breezy, golden afternoon and just chilled. Exactly as I had planned.

View from our shade patio

Matt did most of the final work on the swing (I did help with the hacksaw, though. Sawing through fence pipe--not fun work). Meanwhile, with my trusty cultivator hoe--I love that thing--I slowly, carefully chipped the large mound of hard-backed earth from the buttress part of the cottonwood. Our tree guy was adamant that we needed to pull that soil back and let those buttress roots get air.

In the picture below, you can see the bit I had fully excavated on the right and the partially excavated side on the left. I think I gingerly dug off about 8 inches of soil.

And now I remember why I decided not to become an archeologist.

Partially excavated cottonwood

At the same time as all the swing/tree excitement was going on, one of our Oxblood lilies was blooming pink. I know that a pink subspecies or variety exists, but why didn't we see these last year? Do we have the true pink, or is it just some response to drought stress? Pretty, though, isn't it?

Pink Rhodophiala bifida (Oxblood lily)

And here are some picture of the cats. They are still pretty wary of each other (Po keeps getting in Izzy's personal bubble. Izzy doesn't like this. At all.) but no blood has been shed. And we only let them mingle under supervision. On the good news side of things, Izzy adapted to her litter box right away.

Po, whose gargantuan paws are twice the size of Izzy's.

Po's GlamourShot (TM)

Izzy, who sometimes looks shockingly sarcastic for such a young little kitty (1 to 1-1/2 yrs)

The Great Dictator

Matt and Izzy
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