Sunday, June 28, 2009

But I Had Scheduled a Weekend of Utter Slothfulness!

Against all my principles and my better judgment, I worked outside this weekend. It started innocently: I just wanted to dump a few bags of mulch over the dead bermudagrass in the rose bed. Just to make things look tidier. It won't take a second...

But the new mulch was so much darker than the old mulch that one corner of the bed was black, while the rest was light brownish-grey. And thus one thing led to another, and I ended up buying 20 bags of mulch from our nursery-around-the-corner, Bloomers. So I spread a lot of mulch yesterday. And then today, I felt (grudgingly, unwillingly) morally obliged to help Matt out with the water on the 'Mutabilis' bed--my part of the effort took till around noon (his took till about 2:30). Among other things, I learned that I have no talent for trench-digging; mine meandered and veered all over the landscape, while Matt's cut from Point A to Point B with the precision worthy of a Roman civil engineer.

The whole thing was a massive pain, but we hope to see ecstatic, lush plant growth towering audaciously toward a harsh blue sky. And then it will have been worth it.

Some Blooms
In other news, our Mystery Pink Globes rose bloomed recently. The oddest little pink balls of flowers--unlike any other rose I know, yet also completely unidentifiable, so far. This is how they look at full bloom.

Mystery Pink Globes rose

Also, during one of my many trips to Bloomers this weekend, I happened to spot the same unknown plum-colored perennial that I bought at Finch's Farm a month or so ago. Its name is Angelonia, possibly 'Serena.' You know what's amazing about the Angelonia (and its buddies, the little leadworts)? They aren't dead, despite having been planted in May/June in our meanest flower bed. Good little Angelonia!

Our tough little Angelonia

Requiem for Four Pines
Finally, a refresher on why I hate drought:

Sad stumps of once-proud great big trees

This, of course, is not our house--it's an utterly adorable little bungalow "downtown" (i.e., two blocks away). Until last summer's drought, it had 5 massive, ~50-year-old pine trees in its front yard, of a stoutness that is pretty rare for pines in our area. Then four of the them succumbed to drought after surviving decades of scorching Texas summers. You can see the effect that the loss of those trees has had on the lawn, and you can imagine the effect it's had on their electric bills. It's drastically changed the feeling of that block of the street, as well, which went from a shady green tunnel to a bleak and exposed bit of desert. Hence our watering efforts. And hence the need to water even very established, adapted specimens in the midst of a really ghastly drought like this one. Do you have a tree that you take for granted, that's always been there, unobtrusively providing shade and cooling your yard? For the love of Mike, water it!

In the midst of prolonged dry spells (let alone a really vile drought like this one), I always think of the passage from Out of Africa, in which Isak Dinesen describes a drought that felt "as if the Universe were turning away from you...

Everything became drier and harder, and it was as if all force and gracefulness had withdrawn from the world. It was not bad weather or good weather, but the negation of all weather, as if it had been deferred sine die. A bleak wind, like a draught, ran over your head, all colour faded from all things; the smells went away from the fields and forests. This feeling of being in disgrace with the Great Powers pressed on you. To the South, the burnt plains lay black and waste, striped with grey and white ashes...
Our droughts are a little different from Kenya's, I think, but the sense of joylessness and blight--we know that all too well.

CSA: What Do I Do with All This... Zucchini, Chard, and Beets?
I made another attempt at CHARD, the vegetable that loathes me. This time, I boiled it with a little red wine vinegar, browned some butter and then browned a cup of leeks in the butter, and then stirred in the drained chard (A variation on this recipe). Matt, when pressed persistently, gave this one 3/4 of a star out of a possible 5 stars. But, he hastened to emphasize, it's way better than my last attempt at chard. Well. Progress is being made.

Also, I'm making some ice cream cookie sandwiches as a treat to my hard-working Spouse, and I folded in a cup of finely grated ZUCCHINI. These were double-chocolate Andes Mint cookies (mentholated and adapted from here), and the zucchini gave them an interestingly cakey texture. We'll see how they react to being frozen and slathered with mint chocolate chip ice cream and then frozen again.

And this evening, I'll make my BEET-and-beef meatloaf (a beet-ified version of this). I'll let you know how it goes.

Friday, June 26, 2009


Here's how the Seasonal US Drought Outlook describes conditions in Central Texas this summer:

It purportedly reached 107F today in Austin, though it was only a balmy 104F here in Elgin. IN JUNE.

Concomitant bad plant news: the new weeping yaupon crashed this week, the baldcypress that's been struggling grimly ticked several notches toward "mostly dead" and away from "partly alive," and the Montezuma cypress, hitherto so blithe, is suddenly full of rusty leaves--oh, it's not good, not good at all.

Bright spots in the crispy, sere gloom: Some plants that are practically never watered seem perfectly unconcerned about living in the heart of a neutron star* (I just threw "neutron star" in there because it sounded good--what I'm really trying to convey here is that it's quite, quite hot. Are neutron stars very hot? Or are they sort of wussy little failed stars? Because we're like a raging inferno of nuclear fusion--not like a chilly old has-been of a star. We're talking greater than 3,700 degrees Kelvin in my backyard.) The troopers are Lacey oaks (Quercus laceyi), the antique rose 'Georgetown Tea,' the antique-ish rose 'Belinda's Dream,' and the Eve's Necklace (Sophora affinis). Honorable mention to the Tilia, which does get some water, but grows and thrives far beyond the effort put into it.

So. More water.

This weekend, the 'Mutabilis' roses and the 2 oaks on the south side of the house. And the Chitalpa as part of the blue-and-purple garden. The 'Mutabilis' don't actually need water the way some of our plants do (O, baldcypress, nothing we do is good enough for you. Why? WHY?), but they are plants with a mission--to make a big, dense hedge for privacy--so Matt really wants to give them every possible advantage. The oaks, children of that blissful rainy summer 2 years ago, need next to no supplemental water, but I'm becoming tree- and shade-obsessed. I'm desperate for some relief on the barren, exposed southwestern sides of the house. So we're giving the oaks a steroid shot, metaphorically speaking. Grow little oak trees. We need you.

Of course, it's too hot to work (or think or breathe) outside when the sun's up, so Matt & I were out between 9 and 10 this evening doing yardwork, pruning the moribund baldcypress, and watering with the zestful abandon of a freshwater Poseidon. Meanwhile, Elgin's got a festival going ("Western Days," I believe this one's called), and the music from the park--of the "Margaritaville" and "All My Exes Live in Texas" variety--wafted across the backyard. Not the accompaniment I'd have chosen, but I suppose it's local color. (There is an inevitable repertoire of songs played by bands at street festivals. And sure enough, before too long they were covering "Brown-Eyed Girl," which will be stuck in my head for the next three days.) Anyway, there's something oddly decadent about doing yardwork in the dark.

And there is also something peculiarly liberating about being completely hot and sweaty and disgusting, at least at night, when the sun's gone down. You pass beyond all hope of keeping up appearances or maintaining a genteel pretense of hygeine. You abdicate all responsibility and just glister wetly in the moonlight: reechy, humid, and torpid. You are the wetness and the wetness is you and everyone is completely feral and gross and unlovely and no one cares. I suppose it's the sort of defiance of les convenances that nudists find so intoxicating.

CSA: What Do I Do with All This... Okra, Beets, and Chard?
The BEET risotto went well. I roasted the beets for an hour, then finely diced them and cooked them into the risotto. Also added a handful of chopped prosciutto. I thought the taste was pretty good, though I had some slight qualms about the discernable texture of the beets. Matt didn't have "qualms," as such--he just hated it. A texture issue for him too.

I made OKRA beignets (substituted 1 c boiled CSA new potatoes for the 1/2c rice) to use up about half of the okra--wow--very tasty! Very crisp and delicious and creamy and tangy, and they improve after sitting in the fridge and then being refreshed in the skillet the next morning. I struck out here too with Matt, which didn't surprise me. You could taste the okra and the slices were very apparent in terms of texture. No slime, though.

Shall be trying seared leeks with CHARD and stealth beetloaf--meatloaf with grated beets mixed in. Here's hoping both the flavor and texture are subsumed by the beef. I don't want to send Matt into despair or anaphylactic shock or something.

Thus saith Wikipedia: Neutron Star - "The temperature inside a newly formed neutron star is from around 1011 to 1012 kelvin. The neutrinos it emits carries away so much energy that the temperature falls within a few years to around 1 million kelvin." Yeah, that metaphor will work.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Pleasant Afternoon Outside?!?

It was, actually.

Thus the astonishing power of shade. Matt's installing a sprinkler system in the shade garden to coddle some of our pickier cultivars. I'm especially concerned about the oak-leaf hydrangea, which is sensitive to drought and doesn't yet have much of a root system; the cordia, which needs to establish a root system and needs to grow quickly to replace our decrepit ligustrum; and the tiny wisp of a palmetto (one sad, scrawny little leaf), which, if it keeps a positive mental outlook, eats right, and gets plenty of exercise, could someday form a very nice component of our privacy screen. The Iris virginiana and the Japanese maples are also looking a bit dubious about life here in Elgin, so I wanted to reassure them. Eventually, this ghastly drought will end. For the shade bed, it ends now.

So, in my role as consultant/cheerleader, I perched on the porch glider and, you know, consulted. And what was really mindblowing and amazing was that it was nice. There were breezes, some of them cool. There was gently filtered light. And the temperature just wasn't particularly oppressive--maybe 85F or so degrees in the shade, compared to 95+ in the sun (this was in the early afternoon--it's probably closer to 101F now in the sun. And I'm no longer outside). And before Matt buried the system, he had to test it, which I felt wasn't reason to enough to get up off of the porch glider. I may have looked slightly crazy to the neighbors sitting blithely under the spray, but lemme tell you--the kids are on to something. Playing--or in my case, lolling--under sprinklers feels good. And all of this pleasure is due, ultimately--well, largely to Matt--but other than that, to the power of our giant cottonwood. Hail cottonwood! Long may you reign, Father of Gardens!

I'm also rather excited about having a more formal irrigation system with actual sprinkler heads--it seems so bourgeois and la-di-da. One or two paychecks down the line, I'll buy a 12-station timer as well, which we will eventually use to control irrigation throughout the property from one centralized, automated location. S-e-x-y!

That said, the hope is that after this area is a bit more established, we won't need to use the system very often. I do feel a bit guilty watching all that precious water arching profligately through the air. But we are in the middle of a drought, so even xeriscapes need water these days. And it isn't as though we're watering our lawn, anyway. Just our young trees, shrubs, and perennials that will ultimately help to cool the property, consume CO2, and, uh, do other productive things for Planet Earth. Provide earthworm shelter or something. Yep. No rationalization here.

Surviving a CSA
Or, What Do I Do with All These Zucchini, Pattypans, and Oriental Cucumbers?
To return to what is, for the summer, my domain (the indoors), I joined a CSA (community supported agriculture) a couple of weeks ago. The interesting thing about this project--and it is very much a project--is that I'm forced to come up with ways to eat things that I--let alone Matt--would never ordinarily eat. So it's an adventure!

We get a box every week, plus eggs every other week and an extra--jelly, pesto, &c--on intervening weeks. Thus far, we've gotten some good stuff (tomatoes, potatoes, onions, carrots, and garlic), some indifferent stuff (Oriental cucumbers, zucchini), and some horrors (beets, chard, yellow squash! Bleh!)

I'm rather proud of the interesting ways of prepping veggies that I've tried. Zucchini became chocolate chip zucchini bread--oh hell yeah! Tasted like chocolate chip cookies. One batch of beets became beet-and-tasso consomme (adapted from epicurious)--which was surprisingly tasty. Probably helps that they were golden beets, so the soup didn't look like blood--always a plus. Last night I broke out the mandoline to make fritto misto out of the squash and zucchini (adapted from, plus dill and smoked salt). It was delectable--crispy, salty; so good, I didn't even make a dipping sauce--that would have obscured the flavor. The bacon-zucchini quiche wasn't half bad, either. Thing about zucchini--if you slice it thinly enough, it loses both flavor and texture, and then what's to complain about? And the squash-lemon-poppyseed muffins are okay, too (loosely adapted from a GardenWeb forum). Not fantastic, but better than a kick in the head.

And there have been the bombs. Underdone stuffed pattypans, overly charred chard, inedible chard-based eggs sardou, dreary little cucumber sandwiches--I must be the only person in the world who can't make a decent cucumber sandwich.

For this week, I've used up most of my Oriental cukes in a cucumber-based gazpacho (threw in the last of the yellow cherry tomatoes, too), and I'll be tackling a beet risotto for dinner. Hopefully, the sherry and parmesan will join forces to mask the fact that beets taste like dirt.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Irremediable Horridness: A Sustained Whine

I think I'm done for the summer.

It's vile outside. Unforgivably, misery-inducingly, brutally vile. It was 99F today.
And because we actually got a quarter of an inch or so of rain a couple of days ago, you have to do the breast stroke just to clammily press your way through the dense humidity in the air. It's just too much for the 13th of June. By August, sure. But in June? UNFAIR. The record high for Elgin (on wunderground) for today is 100--we're a mere 1 degree below the historical high. The average is a blissfully crisp 87F. So we're 12 degrees above average. WHY GOD WHY??? After the horrors of last summer, the weather gods owe us a little moderation. Is this global warming? Because I hate it.

Heat this intense is just ghastly. Your brain misfires. Your sentences come out all jumbled. You and your significant other have to brainstorm for five minutes to figure out how to navigate your own home town. And, whew, brother, do you smell ripe.

So we may not see a lot of progress outdoors for a good long while. Matt, who is much doughtier and more valiant than I, is going to upgrade our irrigation system in the shade garden this week. But me, I fold. I'm out. I have a handful of plants that we (ridiculously) bought today at a half-price sale at the local Eden Nursery on FM95 that will need to be planted, and some spaghetti tubing to attach to our existing irrigation system, and then I will prostrate myself on the sofa with my beloved internet and a stack of books for the next 3 months: blinds closed, lights off, and an ice pack on my head, compulsively downing whisky sours to blunt the horror.

New plants:
purple skullcap--very nice
fernleaf lavendar
red yarrow
Russian sage

If any of this lives, it'll be a miracle.

I feel like this.
Actually, joking aside, these are some pretty frickin awesome picture of the Namib desert: I just wish I didn't live there. As Aida said after a particularly trying day and prior to being entombed alive, "Un deserto è la mia vita." I know exactly how she feels.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Mood Indigo & Garden Updates

For some reason, all of our (very limited) stock of indigo flowers all popped into bloom at once. Frost was dead wrong about gold being Nature's "hardest hue to hold"--as anyone can attest who has ever tried to identify one of the [fake statistic:] 47,568 species of yellow daisies. In June and July, hot, blaring, gaudy, distressing gold--along with sulfur, canary, and banana--is everywhere, making you feel even hotter and more exhausted. Indigo, on the other hand, cool, crisp, clean, bright indigo, is much harder to come by.

So here's what we've got. One two-inch tall larkspur.

Several leadworts (which I had to molest violently in Photoshop so that the color would come out at all right)
And some morning glory that we keep trying to get rid of without success.

It's not a lot, I know, but I have to appreciate it while I've got it.

Things That Are Thriving (Or Making a Miraculous Comeback. Or at Least Looking Less Puny Than Expected)
In other happy news, we have about 4 big lemons on our Meyer lemon and a good 4 or 5 more that are still teensy--smaller than the pink part of my pinky fingernail.

We have the variegated pink Meyer lemon, which has this wonderful mottled foliage and striped fruit with a pink interior.

The two Kimberley Queen ferns Mom gave us nearly crashed upon arrival. But now they've greened up and have some nice, new foliage. I think they've decided to live, which is great--we're counting on them to provide much-needed privacy on the front porch.

The cordia keeps blooming, somewhat to my surprise. It's put on some new foliage as well, though not as much as I'd like. Its scrawniness makes the blooms that much more of a coup.

And the tilia/linden/lime/basswood has shot up a good foot or so in the past month! It's handsome, leafy, fast-growing, and one of the few trees we own that isn't crooked--it's gone from being a tree I viewed with mild curiosity to a fast favorite. Plus, I love all the history and folklore around tilias.

At the same time, our little bur oak seedling from Mom & Dad is looking healthier and bigger than ever. I assume this means that it's finally got a good root system going. Back in Houston, the sister seedling to ours is apparently 3 times taller--ah, the copious rains (and irrigations) of Houston! Our little fellow has a tougher, more rigorous life ahead of it, but he seems to have finally girded up his loins and accepted his fate. Funnily enough, this one's leaves are actually bigger than the leaves of our much older ~6-ft bur oak by the garage. Rather variable species, apparently.

The 'Fruit Cocktail' shrimp plants, while looking a bit scrawny in the shade garden, have put on some of their adorable lime-and-cherry-colored blooms. Why isn't everybody growing these?

And the roses are beginning to bend their wills to the task of climbing the gazebo. ' Buff Beauty' is slowly recovering from whatever it is that's been inhibiting her for the past two years. It's growing and blooming a little. Nevertheless, the roses we bought last fall after Pete & Christi's (brother-in-law and sister-in-law-in-law's) wedding are still out-thriving BB. Climbing Cécile Brunner, in particular, is growing and twining with enthusiasm.

In other good news, the Crinum jagus that I got early this spring is--slowly, cautiously--leafing out. We've got C. x powellii all over the place (fruits of an early propagation effort on Matt's part), several C. macowanii seedlings in the ground, and now the C.j.

The only fly in the ointment is the fact that the crinum I actually wanted (C.j. was a bonus freebie), C. jagus scillifolia, has been very reluctant to come to life. This sad green stub is all we've got, at present. Grow, little C.j.s., grow!

And the last bit of good news is that one of the Texas Mountain Laurel seedlings Mom & Dad gave us a couple of years ago is finally growing. The other two seem to have stalled out (too much shade? Too little water?) but this one may actually go somewhere. A few decades hence.

Plants That Are Grumbling (or Worse)
So the baldcypress is still alive; it just isn't very alive. What it is, is very crooked. Below, I superimposed a straight line and a protractor. The tree has a 20-degree angle. I assume this is drought damage.

And the oak-leaf hydrangea we bought this winter has been annoyingly wussy. The good news is that it lets you know when it's feeling the least bit neglected. The bad news is that it always seems to feel neglected. So I use it as an indicator species to let me know when to water the shade garden. Since I intended it to act as a screen, I dearly hope it toughens up by next year, when, presumably, it will have a stronger root system.

And finally, worst of all, the farkleberry is no more. Apparently, I didn't use anything like enough sphagnum when I planted it. It's been scorching and dying limb by limb. It was a beautiful dream. And now it's dead.

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