Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween from Elgin, TX

Happy Halloween on this idyllic autumn day.

At the last possible minute, I threw together a sort of decoration, since we'll be home tonight and distributing candy. Last night buying candy at Walgreen's (on sale! Procrastinators rule!), I found these two sets of these rather endearing ghost lights (half off), and I thought, "Why the heck not?" So I hung them, dug out our modest collection of Halloween doo-dads, and added a little All-Hallows flair to the front porch.

Pumpkin-Girl. Maybe it's time to scrape the excess paint from 2-1/2 years ago off the window?

Halloween doo-dads

Meanwhile, there a lots of nice blooms going on. 'Ducher,' the only white China rose, is flourishing. Appropriate to the season, this blossom is housing a leggy little arachnid.

'Ducher' rose with seasonally appropriate spider

Matt's pink Turk's Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus) is in bloom. It's a rather unusual cultivar, but these shell pink flowers, I think, are at least as charismatic as the common red. Less brilliant, but more graceful. The color of a 1940s synchronized swimmer's cap. Neither the shady picture nor the sunny picture came out exactly right, so I included both to help you get a better feel for the plant.

Pink Turk's Cap (#1)

Pink Turk's Cap (#2)

And 'Mademoiselle Franziska Krüger' is sporting some especially nice blooms right now. This delicate bud shows her more demure side...

'Mademoiselle Franziska Krüger' bud

...while the wadded tissue look of this fully open blossom is her more characteristic style. Note the color variation--buff with an irregular pink splodge down the middle--that's typical of Franziska, who has a distinctly eccentric streak.

Fully open 'Mlle. Franziska' blossom

The purple Dyckia that I bought a couple weeks ago at Peckerwood's fall open house seems to be settling in.

Purple Dyckia

And the watering system has given the 'Kimberly Queen' ferns from Mom a whole new perspective on life. The front porch looks very lush and much more private now.

A happy 'Kimberly Queen' fern

'Fairy Tale' pumpkins

Sunday, October 25, 2009

It's BEAUTIFUL Outside!

What a lovely day! The temperature's in the low 70s, there's a constant cool breeze blowing, the sky is both blue and cloudy, and everything is bright and green. The roses are blooming, the grass is mown--it's just lovely.

I'm trying to grow Oriental poppies (Papaver orientale) from seeds again. It was (again) quite difficult to find the seeds I was looking for (single red poppies, fer cryin' out loud! Like in all those Georgia O'Keefe paintings! Why is this so hard?), especially since I wanted to buy dark blue larkspur from the same place--no point paying shipping twice for a mere two packs of seeds. Dark blue larkspur are also harder to locate than you would ever believe--everyone wants to sell mixes of larkspur. But it's that dark, deep indigo blue that I want--why mess around with washy-looking, pallid, bleached blues?

This is the kind of blue I'm talking about. Who wants baby blue when they could have this? Taken at the Landmark Inn in Castroville, TX, 2005.

So I ended up buying from the same supplier as last year, which calls to mind that annoying quotation attributed to Einstein about insanity consisting of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. But as the weather is friendlier this year, perhaps I'll get more than two 3-inch larkspur sprouts for my pains.

Poppies and larkspur at the Landmark Inn in Castroville. I loved this combination so much that I've been wanting to replicate it ever since.

The varieties I'm trying are 'Scarlet' for the poppies and 'Galilee Blue' for the larkspurs. I was also seduced by a attractive off-pink poppy called 'Coral Reef.' The pink is going to complicate my color scheme (red poppies and blue larkspur against the white gazebo--so bright and pretty), but the likelihood of either of them germinating doesn't seem to be very high, in which case I won't need to worry about the color scheme at all.

I also picked up a few packets at Peckerwood last week--I got 1 packet of single red Papaver somniferum (opium poppy) and two of Herbertia lahue ("prairie nymph"). I feel pretty good about the P. somniferum, since I know they thrive around here and re-seed generously. So even if the P. orientales let me down, I should have some sort of red poppy come next May.

I'm expecting the single red Papaver somniferums to look more or less like this picture from "Ned30's" photostream on Flickr. As an aside, I don't know where Ned30 hangs out, but he's been snapping some lovely poppies. I especially like the "Single Black" P. somniferum--so decadent!

I'm not so sure about the Herbertia, which I've never tried before, but I'm tickled to pieces to finally have the chance to grow this dainty native member of the iris family (Iridaceae), which is quite rare in the nursery industry.

Herbertia lahue (prairie nymph) from a page from A&M's Botany Dept. (scroll down--same page also has a picture of Sysirinchium, recently purchased from LdyBJ Wildflower Ctr)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Meat Report

Oh, what a glorious day to be a yuppie!

Temperature: in the 60s. Sky: a deep, cloudless blue. Landscape: green and thriving. And I--I am buying a package of duck bacon. That's right: duck bacon.

We've been trying to eat more local meat lately and less factory meat, what with the cruelty and the filth and all the weird chemicals. We haven't gone cold-factory-turkey, but I am buying the majority of my meats from local producers and farmer's markets. This entails eating somewhat less of it, given the expense and hassle of the thing. Thank goodness for my CSA, with its eleventy-hundred pounds of Swiss chard to make up the difference.

Anyway, that's how I happened to be buying duck bacon. I was looking for packs of chicken thighs (much harder to find than you might suppose), but wound up at the charcuterie booth along the way. It wasn't a very practical or economical purchase, but when you stumble on duck bacon, I think you have an obligation to buy some. I did this latest round of research at the Sunset Valley Farmers Market, so I'm writing up my findings before I forgot.

One of the difficulties of eating local meat (other than the fact that it's frickin' expensive and not exactly available at your neighborhood HEB) is that you don't always have the choices you're used to. For example, I have yet to find a supplier for veal (correction: I found a farmer who was willing to sell me an entire baby cow worth of veal. I'm all for purchasing in bulk, but since a single packet of veal cutlets is a bit of a special occasion for us, I can't conceive of how special an occasion would have to be to merit a whole calf worth of veal), I haven't been able to find a truly local lamb producer, and the vast majority of the pasture-fed local chickens are sold whole.

So for the benefit of anyone in the Elgin-Manor-Austin area who's looking into this kind of thing themselves, here's what I've turned up so far by asking around, going to farmer's markets, and searching online. These are farmers from whom I've at least bought something and who are readily available to... people who live where I live.

Local Meat Report
Dewberry Hills Farms ( Sells packs of thighs! The holy grail! They're located in Lexington, which isn't too terribly far away for Elginites, McDaders(?), or Paigeans(?). It's a bit of a slog for Austinites, but they sell at Sunset Valley Farmer's Market (which is where I was today) and some other markets. Judging from their website, they are very much influenced by that hard-core, libertarian, right-wing, organic, pasture-feeding farmer from Omnivore's Dilemma. (I know--seriously implausible string of adjectives. True, nevertheless.)

Shades of Green ( sells whole chickens as well as chicken and duck eggs. Used their chicken to make broth for a gumbo, and, as promised, the broth was astonishingly clear and flavorful. Sells at Bastrop Farmer's Market, but can also make other accommodations for buyers.

Arroyo Kimbro ( sells whole chickens, ducks, and eggs of both. And also massages (for all your poultry/massage needs...). I made a successful stewed duck with cherry sauce from his duck, but I roasted a chicken that was meant for stewing, and the results were not good. User error obviously the culprit on that one, so the jury's still out. Used to sell his eggs at Whole Foods--not sure if that's still on or not. Otherwise, drive out to his place in Manor.

White Egret Farm ( actually sells quite a lot of animals--chickens, pigs, goats, beef, and possibly some other poultry I'm forgetting. We've only tried the pork. We were very happy with the pork loin chops, each of which is the size of Greenland, and came out quite flavorful and (mercifully) tender. The bacon was good, and the sausage was okay, but not phenomenal. On the negative side, they've been hit hard by the drought, and their place looked a bit worse for the wear; also, We found a couple of complaints online about them failing to deliver what they promised. Not sure if those were valid issues, but as I say, the pork chops were really good, so I'm giving them a cautious thumbs up. The sell by delivery.

Peach Creek Farm ( sells some really delectable bacon. Definitely worth the extra money on gustatory grounds, nevermind the ethics of the thing. Haven't tried any of their other products yet. They sell at Bastrop Farmer's Market, or you can pick up orders from their farm in String Prairie, TX, south of Bastrop ("String Prairie"? Really? That's almost as good as "Old Dimebox" or "Oatmeal." Not as good as "North Zulch," though. Nothing is as good as "North Zulch.")

Bastrop Cattle Company ( Bought some ribeyes from them--flavor good, but a lot chewier than I like my beef. These were the folks who offered to sell me a whole (butchered) baby cow. Now if only I could find about 15 friends with whom to split the cost...

Ingel Creek Natural Foods ( sells beef and also various health supplements (they used to run a small health food and grocery in Elgin, but that apparently didn't work out, unfortunately). I should be receiving a bunch of different cuts of beef from them tomorrow, so I'll let you know how they taste.

Ah, lamb. Not many farmers are into the mutton, for some reason. The closest pasture-fed, organic lamb I could find comes from Corpus Christi: Loncito's Lamb (no website, but you can find contact info here: They sell at Sunset Valley, fortunately.

Thunderheart bison ( sells many different cuts of bison, as well as an extremely tasty jerky. I bought some ground bison, too--I'll let you know how that turns out. Previous bison experiences were a bit gamey, so I'm hoping this will be a little less feral.

I think there are a number of local goat producers. Based on my experiences with my CSA, I suspect that after the revolution/apocalypse/cataclysm, those of us in central Texas will be subsisting exclusively on chard, chili peppers, and goat. White Egret Farm sells goat, but I know there are others that do, as well.

Texas is bursting at the seams with local sausages (our favorite: Opa's beef sausage, from Fredricksburg), but other kinds of preserved meats, like prosciuttos, hams, pates, and confits are harder to come by. So I was tickled to stumble upon Kocurek Family Charcuterie and their duck bacon, which I sampled and found quite scrumptious. Their website, unfortunately, isn't up yet, but they do have a twitter... whatever you call it--feed? account? site? Whatever. It's at

Groups of Farmers
Sunset Valley Farmer's Market
Bastrop Farmer's Market
Bastrop Producer's Market
Greenling Organic Delivery--doesn't deliver to Elgin, but those who work in Austin might be able to get deliveries at work. They seem to be universally adored.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

LadyBird Johnson Wildflower Sale

Aquiduct/water garden at the LadyBird Johnson Wildflower Center

We went to the LadyBird Johnson Wildflower Center's fall plant sale today. I had actually never heard of their plant sale till this year, but I'm delighted to have discovered it. While they had a lot of the obvious things (beautyberry, Mexican feather grass, scarlet sage...), they also had some surprises.

They were selling blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium), which I've admired in the wild but have never seen for sale (check out its ineluctable adorableness), and which I'll be putting in the blue-and-purple bed.

The vibrant, trampy red of the heartleaf rosemallow (Hibiscus martianis)

They had a particularly brilliant red hibiscus that loves shade, heartleaf rosemallow (H. martianis), which I will plant at the foot of the cottonwood.

The funky green flowers of the wild shrimp plant (Yeatsia platystegia). Do click to see the picture at maximum bigness--these flowers are best appreciated close up.

And, perhaps niftiest of all, they had a "wild shrimp plant," which looks very much like a tame shrimp plant, but is green and belongs to a different genus, Yeatsia platystegia (formerly Tetramerium platystegium). This one is so obscure that Google can only find two pages mentioning the plant! The newsletter of the Native Plant Project says that it is the host plant to the rare elf butterfly. (Had you been looking for a host plant for the elf butterfly? You're in luck, if you hurry down to the LBJ Wildflower Center tomorrow.) Would make a nice, perverse pairing with the Green Rose.

They also had a wealth of seed mixes for different, highly specific kinds of meadows. One of the grass seed displays read, "Escape from the Bermuda Triangle." Ah, if only I could believe it! But it's going to take more than some blue fescue and buffalograss to drive the bermudagrass population off our property. Climate change on the scale of The Day After the Day before Tomorrow (or whatever it was called) might do it, but probably only temporarily. Generations from now, Mexican anthropologists excavating pre-cataclysm Texas will find dormant rhizomes of the stuff and be thrilled and amazed at its ability to spring back to life once pulled from the permafrost. Poor fools.

The graceful, delicate flowerheads of the (unimaginatively named) "giant muhly" (Muhlenbergia lindheimeri)

The display gardens had a several more interesting specimens. This one, giant muhly (Muhlenbergia lindheimeri), is all over their grounds, but was unfortunately not for sale. I love its lacey gracefulness. We don't really have any established gardens that go with ornamental grasses, but if I could find one of these, I'd make a garden for it.

I also quite liked this weird, spiky little beauty. They look like tiny purple pineapples. It's an eryngo of some kind or other. (Here is an exponentially better picture.)

Interesting mystery gold spike*

And there was this neat gold spike. I have no idea what it is (naturally it was unlabeled--there is a special subsection of Murphy's Law dictating that the plant you are most interested in at any given botanical garden will inevitably be the one without a label or the tree, herb, or water plant ludicrously claiming to be a Berberis trifoliata.) Although it the flowers don't look at all lily-like to me, the strappy foliage looked like classic liliaceae.

CSA: What Do I Do with All This... Chard and Peppers?

My CSA in Burnet, Hairston Creek Farm, finally got some rain, which means our boxes are fatter than before. This is not an unmixed blessing. You would not believe the quantities of peppers I've been receiving every week, and guess what started up again? That's right, everyone's favorite quasi-edible stringy, bitter leafy green that leaves a weird residue on your teeth! CHARD! I thought that perhaps this stuff might be more endurable since the weather is cooler (cooler weather = less bitter leafy greens). Besides, I don't like being defeated by some upstart Swiss, for crying out loud--the country that couldn't pick a side even in one of the most morally unambiguous wars in modern history.

Long story short, I tried again, and this time, I threw everything I had at the stuff. The result was actually not horrible. I call it "Chardage" (chard + sausage). It's not for the faint of heart.

1 bunch rainbow chard, freshly washed, ribs and leaves separated
1 Tbs butter
2 carrots, finely chopped
1 small onion (~1.5" diameter), finely chopped
~1 Tbs brown sugar (I used demerara)
1/2 lb bulk sausage
2 roasted sweet peppers (rec: cubanelles or banana peppers) coarsely chopped
garlic salt to taste
1/3 c heavy cream
1/4 c grated parmesan

(1) Finely chop a small handful of chard midribs; discard remainder. Coarsely chop chard leaves.

(2) Heat butter in skillet. Add chopped chard stems, carrots, onion, and brown sugar. Saute until lightly caramelized and tender.

(3) Add sausage to skillet and break up. When crumbled, stir in chard leaves. Cover skillet and cook on medium low until wilted (~10 min.).

(4) Stir in garlic salt, roasted peppers, and cream. Cover skillet and cook on medium low until cream is completely absorbed, peppers and carrots are barely distinguishable, and chard is reduced to a mushy tenderness (~15-20 min.) Stir in parmesan and serve.

Nutritional value: can't be much left by the time I'm done with it. Still, probably contains a week's worth of stringy fiber.

I roasted enough peppers for two chile-based soups, and I still have heaps of the stuff left over. Every salad is topped with peppers. Every sandwich contains peppers. When I make eggs, I stir in or top with peppers. What do I do with all these peppers? The answer is I don't know.

Here, at least, is one recipe that made a tiny, tiny, barely perceptible dent in the mountain: Cheddar and Roasted Pepper Soup. Note that I endorse all of the recommendations make by reviewers in terms of cranking up the flavor.

What do I do with all these leeks? Wait a minute--what leeks? For some reason, my CSA never gives me leeks. In my opinion, the most useful vegetable there is after onions, potatoes, and lettuce. Perhaps we're out of season? But the chard (which no sane person would use in staple Chez M recipes like bubble-and-squeak or vichyssoise) keeps coming, mocking me, while I look in vain for leeks. Very frustrating.
* Update 16 Oct 09: I was browsing the inventory at Yucca Do when I happened upon this exact same plant. It IS a member of the lily family: Echeandia texensis, the Texas craglily. So now you know.

Fall Update

Do you know what we did yesterday? We burned some more pecan trimmings and huddled around the fire drinking mulled cider because it was cold. That's right--not merely grey and damp, but cold, too. I think that by August, I had lost all faith in the concept of winter. Misery was my native element. "Ye rend me; I care not," I said.

Matt seems to be taking this dramatic reversal of fate in stride. I say things like, "Wow! It's so chilly! I need--I need a jacket! Amazing!" And Matt says, slightly wearily, "It is October." Well, what does that have to do with anything? When the malignant sky gods hate you with an implacable hatred, the mere flipping of a few calendar pages is as nothing to them. The absence of meterological malice is the miracle.

Anyway, I've been enjoying it. I've finally made up my mind: Autumn is my favorite season.

The garden's been enjoying it, too. The roses are all blooming and our "lawn" is covered in a level coat of bright green horseherb. It's actually kind of pretty, horseherb--a very attractive, woodsy shade of green (like something you'd see in Ireland, or so I imagine), and it never gets tall or rangey. Not too horrible, as weeds go.

Among the pleasures is this blooming crinum*. Mystery Crinum #3. It was a in bud a few posts ago, and then I missed its bloom and now it's in bloom again. Attractive, no? Not stellar, but nice. Will do more research and see if I can pin an identity on it.

Pecans: The Agony and the Ecstacy
Also, there is more pecan-related news. Remember those huge, citrus-sized pecans I showed you? They looked like toothsome morsels, right? I expect they would have been, too. But I wouldn't know--you'd have to ask the squirrels. Those fuzzy, larcenous little bastards ate every single pecan off of the back two trees. They never even got the chance to ripen.

So that's that agony part. The ecstacy bit is that the old pecan out front is still covered in pecans, and they've actually begun to ripen; it's dropping fruit that have come out of the husks.

You may remember that our neighber, Mr M, lived in this house as a kid (back in 1920). He remembers his dad planting that pecan, and it was a wild, bitter thing--one year Mr M Senior poured a bag of sugar around the roots of the tree to try to sweeten its small, feral fruits (pecan orchardists: it didn't work). Prior to the squirrel attack, I showed off our trees to Mr M, who was absolutely the perfect audience for this because he adores pecans and also because he knows the property--and he did a complete double-take, jaw hanging open and everything, when I showed him the young trees in the back; but then I showed him the old one in the front, and he was utterly agog. He kept saying things like "Well I'll be gol-damned!" over and over (not kidding about the swearing--so cute). VERY gratifying. Because there were tons of the fruits and they are (apparently) much larger than back in his day.

And they actually taste just fine. I cracked one open, and while the meat was soft (not sure that it's fully ripe yet), it tasted like, y'know, a pecan. And there were tons of them. Nasty little squirrels must be stuck at home with a bad case of indigestion brought on by eating all of my best pecans. Good. I hope they get acid reflux. And ulcers. And dysentery. So there.

Anyway, the pecans from the old tree are all for me!

But I don't know anything about harvesting them. I've got my slinky-on-a-stick, but once I gather the nuts, do I need to let them cure or anything? How long will they keep? What's the deal with the softness (not soft like rotten--soft like bendy)--will that go away if I roast them? I'll keep you posted as the experiment progresses.

*Possibly Crinum × digweedii, winner of Most Improbable Specific Epithet Award.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Fall Planting

We've been getting more rain and cool temperatures. There was a warm, dry spell last week, but we're back in the cool and damp now, and we've got a 80% chance of rain today. w00t!

So, since fall is our big planting season down here, it's time to start planning. We've got big plans in terms of new plants and transplants. Here's the breakdown:

Abelia - from driveway | to shade garden
Knockout - from rose garden | to AC unit
Misc. Crinum - from various parts of front porch bed | to in front of crape myrtle
Misc. bulbs - from front porch bed | to ?
Echinacea - from rose trellis | to Matt's WTF bed (back corner)
1 or 2 C. macowanni - from pots | to dying baldcypress bed
(maybe) Mrs. RM Finch rose - from front porch bed | to ?pole bed?
red shrimp plant - from 'Little Gem' magnolia | to ?WTF bed?
dying baldcypress - from west side | to Primrose Jasmine bed (if it makes it, great; if not, oh well)

We originally just threw stuff in that front porch bed--Mrs RM Finch, some random crinums, a blackberry lily, some crocosmia, sacred lilies, lycoris... And now it looks like a tangly, pointless mess. So we're planning to dig up most of it and impose some organization on it--like a good, old-fashioned, 5-paragraph essay, with a thesis, 3 major supporting points, and evidence to back up all claims.

The 'Tuscarora' crape will be at one end, and a new red crinum will be at the other to match the one on the opposite side of the walkway--like little brackets around the front stoop. And in between will be a bank of Brunfelsia and/or a bank of Mrs. RM Finch (depending on how to comports herself this fall--she had been a bit seedy, but lately she's been doing a lovely job).

We'll keep the lycoris and the two Green Ice miniatures, also flanking the front steps. We'll redistribute the sacred lilies more evenly around the front bed. The blackberry lilies and Crocosmia will have to find a new home. And the miscellaneous crinums will be clustered around the crape's feet, where their writhing, anarchic qualities will be balanced by their somewhat formal placement. I hope. And another small bank of Brunfelsias will buttress the crape from the back, to help give the whole thing definition

2-3 Archduke Charles roses - hedge at end of kitchen patio
Bauhinia mexicana - far side of pond
2 Brunfelsia (Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow plant) - behind crape myrtle
2 Brunfelsia - by 'Little Gem'
1-2 American Beautyberry - shade garden
1 oak-leaf hydrangea (MAYBE) - shade garden
1 Magnolia soulangiana (maybe) - rose garden
1 baldcypress - to replace moribund baldcypress
1 red-leaf crinum - front porch bed
~15 Chinese Sacred Lilies - front porch bed
Leucojum - rose garden?

The oak-leaf hydrangea has not done a particularly good job since we first plopped it in the ground last fall. It had, admittedly, a rough summer, but it hasn't perked up a great deal since going on irrigation. Still, I like to give a plant a couple of years to get established before I throw the towel in. And I do love, love oak-leaf hydrangeas. So green and cool and woodsy. I love how they straddle the divide between being rustic and being elegantly aristocratic. They are coarse in texture, and they have loose, informal panicles, but the little geometric greeny-white flowers have a cool reticence to them that makes a nice counterpoint to the plant's overall garrulousness. Or something like that, anyway. So I may risk a little more capital on a second bush in the hopes that two or three years will see them established and thriving.

And I'd like to add the Bauhinia to provide a backdrop to the pond and the M. soulangiana to add a little shade and a smidge of privacy to the west side of the house.

New/Extended Beds and Paths:
front walk from drive to front porch
extra rose bed extended from planned walk down the drive toward street
formalization of primrose jasmine hedge on east side
walkway to/around expanded pond
expanded pond
AC unit bed
bed around new pond
extended WTF bed
kitchen patio (needs edging and crushed granite)

I think we need to look into getting some wholesale brown steel edging. Buying the stuff 4 or 5 pieces as a time just isn't going to cut it.

And also, wow, that's a lot of stuff I've got planned there. I wonder how much of it we'll actually get done...

Gotta go. Matt trimmed the big old pecan and now he's burning the trimmings. I love fires in autumn!
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