While I Was Gone

Vacations are great, especially when parents meet up with an adult child living in a far-flung place. We connected with that character-of-a-child in Vienna, Austria, not quite mid-way between where he lives and where we live, adding a side jaunt to Salzburg (with him), and a week-long dash of Paris before Austria. I won’t get out the white sheet to hang on the wall and bore you with my vacation slides, but I will lament my freeze-damaged garden with readers who probably suffered the same, or something similar.

While I enjoyed balmy 40s F in Vienna, Austin dipped to 15 F overnight and remained below freezing for several days over the Christmas weekend. The garden is now a palette of brown, beige, and grey, bits of green suggesting that life exists.

This Purple Heart, Tradescantia pallida, reflects my feeling about the garden when I arrived home and got my first look!

Native plants and those from Mexico or Western U.S will be fine. In fact, all of the annual Texas wildflowers are green and gearing up for a nice show,

Blue Curls or Caterpillars, Phacelia congesta. I have scads of these throughout my front garden.

Evergreen native perennials, even if freezer-burned, are returning from their roots or flushing out new foliage. I’m also seeing a few blooms pop up. Yay!

Native to Arizona, Globe Mallow, Sphaeralcea ambigua, is typically a cool season bloomer.

Some evergreen plants are truly evergreen. This young Softleaf Yucca, Yucca recurvifolia (left) and mature native Basketgrass, Nolina texana (right) are green year-round no matter how hot or cold,

…as is this Red Yucca, Hesperaloe parviflora. Huzzah for the green stalwarts!

The plant that suffers most are the clumps of Flax lily, Dianella tasmanica, in my back garden. This summer drought-tough non-native is the only plant that I always cover before a hard freeze. My peach of a sister-in-law prepared my garden and pipes for the freeze, but some plants just had to weather the cold, come what may.

Sad as this and the other flax lilies look, I’m already seeing some of their striped foliage emerging from the frozen apocalypse. Going forward, I guess I don’t actually need to cover these, which is great news!

The garden is in a dull state, but there are birds (chirping), squirrels (chasing) and even a few butterflies (flitting). The honeybees forage on warmer days.

Bright spots in my garden are silvery grasses. They’re not green and lush of the growing season, but they’re still full and graceful, moving in the breeze, rustling with the wind.

Since those cold, cold few days, Austin’s weather has been mild and dry. I returned from my trip during the first week of January and have worn shorts and t-shirts often. I’ve also begun the pruning process which will require time and patience to help the garden prepare for the upcoming growing season.

I have my work cut out for me in the next 6-8 weeks. Virtually everything will need pruning to the ground. What fun! Would that I could be a resident of old Versailles, France gazing out at the gardens, concerned only with court intrigue and how much powder to put on my wig!

Frost After the Freeze

On Saturday, January 1, 2022, it was 78 F. The next morning I awoke to a garden at 26 F. Brrrrr! Shorts and t-shirts one day; leggings, layered jackets, cap and gloves the next!

The first thing I saw when I walked into the front garden was a hummingbird zooming past me heading straight for Mexican Honeysuckle. Unfortunately, the orange flowers were freezer-burned and the poor little bird, after trying several blooms and clearly not finding any nectar, flew off to find his breakfast. My SIL ambled over I and pointed to the hummer and suggested she put out her hummingbird feeder so the hummer could get its energy drink.

After this freeze, there’s little for pollinators. Hello winter! Sunday was a cold, windy day and it was clear that most perennials in the garden would have some freeze damage, time would tell just how much.

By Monday morning the wind had died down, but it was another very cold day, 26 F, a hard freeze. What brought me into the garden so cold and early was the appearance of the frost sculptures of Frostweed, Verbesina virginica. So named ‘frostweed’ this particular plant is known for its elaborate ice sculptures along the stems, caused by the first hard freeze of a season. The sculptures develop when water in a stem freezes and expands, breaking through the stem’s epidermis. As the water moves up the stem, it freezes into thin, fragile ribbons. The curls of ice that develop are delicate and can be quite elaborate, though I thought this year’s ice show was a bit restrained.

Frostweed produces substantial ice sculptures along its main stems, but it isn’t the only plant to rock these ice designs. On Sunday morning several perennials burst outward in icy winter performance art.

Firecracker Plant, Russelia equisetiformis:

Lemon Rose Mallow, Hibiscus calyphyllus:

Behind the frostweed, the stems of Barbados Cherry, Malpighia glabra:

The destruction of these stems means that a complete pruning to the ground is now required. The stems that grew during the year are permanently damaged and new spring growth will come from the roots. If the freeze wasn’t so hard, the plants might have suffered some freezer burn (like the aforementioned Mexican Honeysuckle), but not the bursting of the plants’ frozen pipes, effectively killing the plant above the ground. These plants are hardy, at least to 8F, so they’ll come back with warm spring breezes and longer days.

What I found interesting is that the ice sculptures happened on Monday, the second day of the freeze, not on Sunday, the first day of the freeze. Typically, it’s the first hard freeze that produces the ice sculptures. Best guess? I think because our fall and early winter has been very warm, the ground temperature prevented the stems from freezing that first night/morning, therefore there was no breakage and no ice. By the second morning, warmth from the soil had dissipated and all bets were off–it’s ice art all around!

The winter gardening chores are now set: raking and shredding of leaves, most of which go into the gardens, the rest into the compost; pruning of perennials, which is a weekly chore through February, and cleaning the pond which will be a very long, stinky day, indeed!

Flowers Before the Freeze

It’s been a warm autumn and early winter here in Austin, Texas. December 2021 is now tagged as the warmest December on record and it sure felt like it. That said, there was finally a significant freeze at the flip of the calendar. While I’m always sorry to see the lush foliage of the garden and accompanying flowers disappear, it’s good that plants will rest, even though gardener’s work will increase.

Here’s a fond farewell to the the last blooms of the long growing season in the garden. When a hard freeze is forecast, I walk through my garden, bidding appreciation and adieu to my plants: those that completed the 2021 growing season and those who started 2021 and will initiate the 2022 growing season in a few short months.

Each year, the last perennial in my garden to flower is Forsythia Sage, Salvia madrensis. With grey-blue foliage during spring and summer and added sunny spikes in mid-to-late fall, it’s a welcome nectar source for pollinators toward the end of the growing season.

This native to Mexico blooms from September/October and until there is a significant freeze; some years as early as late October; this year in the early morning hours of January 2. Recently, the honeybees have engaged in nectar stealing and it’s a convenient place for them to dine, as the sage grows within about 6 feet from the honeybee hive.

Two days ago, I enjoyed viewing the last bunch of Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea. I don’t pick flowers for indoor vases often, but I was tempted to pick these. Then a butterfly landed and I decided it (and its pollinating colleagues) need the flowers more than my kitchen table. The flowers are done now, after two nights of 26F (-3.3 C).

Most of the Plateau Goldeneye, Viguiera dentata, finished with blooms and graduated to seed production, but this one shrub plugged along with its yellow pops of color. After the freeze, it’ll be naught but seeds, pleasing the various finches, sparrows, and wrens who will visit.

The “new” garden is done–sort of. With mature sections on either side, but no tree in the middle, I’ve planted/transplanted perennials, shrubs, and grasses that will take a few years to fill in. I planted, repaired soaker hoses, and mulched, but I’m still moving in some spring blooming annuals that have developed since November. So I guess the work isn’t actually done.

Almost, I keep saying. Almost done.

A stump is all that remains of the Arizona Ash tree. I placed a large red ceramic pot on the stump, planted with a Squid agave, Agave bracteosa and Silver Ponyfoot, Dichondra argentea. In the garden’s shady past, the pot housed a Texas Beargrass, Nolina texana. With help from The Hub, we removed the beargrass–which was a BEAR– and it’s now planted to the right and in front of the yellow chair, which about 15 feet this side of the chair, though it’s hard to tell from the photo.

Pre-2022 first freeze, the only bloom in this part of the garden was one luscious Globe Mallow, Sphaeralcea ambigua. It’s a sun worshiper, so it should be very happy in its spot near the street. In fact, this plant blooms more in the cool season; during summer, it’s mostly about lovely foliage.

Roses always perform nicely during our milder winters and the Martha Gonzales rose is no exception. These red beauties will be nipped by the freeze, but new ones should develop, so there will be something for the bees.

The crazy-tall American Basket flowers, Centaurea americana have bloomed since mid summer, but I imagine that the flowering is now done. Their winter rosettes should be fine as they hug the warm ground, but those spikes topped by spidery, pinky flowers are vulnerable to cold air. I plan to move some of these pretty pollinator-friendly native annuals throughout my front garden and maybe a couple to sunny spots in the shadier back garden.

Before the freeze, several Queen butterflies, Danaus gilippus, worked basket flowers,

…and remaining blooms of the Mexican Orchid tree, Bauhinia mexicana.

Both plants will be dormant and then pruned to the ground after this hard freeze.

Another native plant to Mexico, Mexican honeysuckle, Justicia spicigera, blooms, as it does during a mild winter. Bees, some butterflies, and an over-wintering hummingbird enjoyed the blooms.

A reliable, long-blooming perennial, Tropical sage, Salvia coccinea, is a favorite of bees. It provides flowers throughout a mild winter, but anything in the 20sF makes it irrelevant for the pollinators until spring warmth brings on the dainty, white blooms.

This is also true for Firecracker Plant, Russelia equisetiformis. It blooms throughout the growing season, reveling in the heat of summer. These tubular blooms attract small metallic sweat bees. I’ll be pruning it to the ground after these chilly temperatures.

Four-nerve Daisy, Tetraneuris scaposa, will bloom throughout winter. The freeze will impact current daisies, but new ones will replace them immediately. It’s nice to have some cheerful yellow during the winter months.

The last bloom I noticed on the goodbye tour was a singular Lemon Rose Mallow, Hibiscus calyphyllus. I’ve never seen this plant flower so late, though with a record warm autumn and early winter, I guess continued blooming of the warm-season perennial makes sense. I’m certain that the freeze will render this sunny hibiscus defunct until sometime in May.

After the freeze, the garden rests. All it will need is occasional water, preferable in the form of some gentle rain, though with the drought conditions, will probably come from the end of my hose. This week I’ll begin pruning to the ground those that benefit from a complete whack and later in winter, pruning to shape for those that prefer a less dramatic end to the growing season. It won’t be too long before some of the spring-blooming trees will offer life to the insects awaiting meals and the cycle will begin anew.