English Cottage Garden Deep in the Heart of Texas

Did you see Downton Abbey this past Sunday?  OMG!!!!  I did not see that coming!!!!  I am not going to spoil anything for any of you that missed it but OMG!  Killing Matthew – yep saw that one coming, but this past episode truly blew my mind!

Downton Since Downton Abbey is such a hit, our friends at KLRU’s Central Texas Gardener decided to do a tie in on their program for the season opener.  I must say, they did “a jolly good job!”  The clip below feature’s a Texas interpretation of an English Cottage garden in Austin.  Click below to see how David and Jennifer Stocker utilized their English heritage to build their beautiful and water wise “English Garden” deep in the heart of Texas.

If you garden in the US, there is a very good chance that a lot of the design principles you use and the plants you choose came to you from the English.   The English are great gardeners and have been for centuries.  Dr. William C. (Bill) Welch from Texas A&M talks with Tom about the many ways that the English horticultural traditions have shaped our views about landscaping, especially in the south.  If you have not heard Dr. Welch speak before, or read one of his many books, you are in for a treat.  Dr. Welch is one of the most knowledgeable horticultural historians in the entire United States.  Enjoy!

Celebrate the Bulbs of Fall!

All across Central Texas, Oxblood lilies (Rhodophialia bifida) are at the peak of their season.  For those of us that live in areas that were once part of Mr. Austin’s original colony, these red trumpet shaped flowers have announced the arrival of fall for generations.

Oxbloods in my front bed

Here in Central Texas, no other bulb is as loved or celebrated in the fall as these Argentinian imports.  Sometime in the 1870’s the German immigrant/botanist/horticulturist Peter Oberwetter introduced these bulbs to the German speaking areas of the Texas Hill Country.  These bulbs were so pretty and so reliable that they quickly spread throughout Texas.  Now, thanks to the work of people like Chris Wiesinger and Dr. Bill Welch, oxbloods (and other heirloom bulbs) are becoming hugely popular throughout the entire Southern part of the U.S.

A mass of oxbloods on an abandoned homesite. Photo from The Southern Bulb Company

Even though oxbloods are the most common fall blooming bulb in Central Texas, they are not the only ones.  Two members of the of the Lycoris genus (Lycoris radiata and Lycoris aurea) also produce prolific blooms during the early days of the fall season.  Spider lilies (Lycoris radiata) are my personal favorite of the fall blooming bulbs.  All Lycoris bloom on top of a single, unadorned stalk after the first fall rains.  Because of this they are often called “Naked Ladies” or the “Surprise Lily”.  How can you not love their big, red, exotic looking heads?  Their curly petals burst open and arch backward to release long, curved stamens that look like the most gorgeous eye lashes imaginable.  I truly love these flowers!

These exotic looking  Japanese beauties have also been popular here for a very long time.  While they do not reproduce as rapidly as the oxbloods, Lycoris are tough and reliable.  These flowers are beautiful in their own right, but a mass of them is truly stunning.  If you want to see some of the best pictures of spider lilies that I have ever seen, be sure and catch this month’s issue of Southern Living.  My friend Dr. Bill Welch has an excellent article about them and the supporting photography is exceptional.

A stunning mass of Spiderlilies. Photo from The Southern Bulb Company

The blooms of the fall blooming bulbs of Central Texas last for only a couple of very short weeks.  Since they make terrible cut flowers and are almost impossible to dry, get outside in this amazing weather and enjoy them now.  These flowers make these fleeting early days of the Texas autumn truly special.

Since these flowers last for such a short time, be sure to give them ample water while they bloom.  This will extend their life by a few more precious hours. If you don’t currently have your own (or enough) fall blooming bulbs, contact my buddy Chris Wiesinger at The Southern Bulb Company.  Chris knows more about these charming antiques than anyone I know.  His bulbs are truly the best available anywhere.

This post has been shared on the Homestead Barn Hop and the HomeAcre Hop.  Be sure to check in on other homesteaders and organic gardeners!

P.S. Bulb blooms aren’t the only way I know fall has finally come to my garden.  Each year around this time I begin to see Green Tree Frogs all around the beds and borders of my property.  I don’t know where these guys hide the rest of the year, but the cool fall weather seems to erase their shyness.

This cute little fellow thought the cushion of one of our rocking chairs was a great place to hide.

Garden Art

In my opinion, no garden is complete without garden art.  While it is true that a well designed garden needs no artificial elements to be beautiful, the addition of art allows the garden to become truly represenative of the gardener.

The Clio Garden at Bayou Bend after a heavy spring rain. Note the Italian marble statue of Clio, the muse of history

All of my gardening experience has happened in the South.  And one thing that I have learned about Southern gardeners is they love their garden art.  Garden art in the south ranges from the truly tacky (tire and toilet planters) to the truly elegant (the Greek Muses at Bayou Bend), but it all says something about the garden and the gardener. 

Garden art in Dr. Bill Welch's Louisiana garden cosists of an antique iron headboard, a whirlygig and a tire planter from his friend, Felder Rushing

Felder Rushing is a true Master of Horticulture who has done more to promote rural Southern garden art than anyone I know.  He is extremely found of bottle trees.  His website has a whole section devoted to them.  He also has a ton of pictures of the tire planters that he uses in his own gardens.  He even has a picture in one of his speaking presentations of a large stand of elephant ears with big black numbers spray painted on them.  When he saw this he pulled over and the owner what the numbers represented.  She quickly informed him that they were the numbers of the NASCAR drivers that she loved.  Now that is creative self expression in the garden!

My bust of St. Francis from Jim Jeffries of Crockett, Texas

I myself have a lot of this art scattered throughout my property.  One of my favorite pieces is a fairly large bust of St. Francis from Jim Jeffries of Crockett, Texas.   He was very good friends with my mother-in-law Pat Krischke.  The bust is a head cast of a large sculpture that he did of St. Francis playing with a deer and a wolf for St. Francis Catholic Church in Crockett.  Jim has now gone on to his heavenly reward and my mother-in-law is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s.  I miss them both dearly but this sculpture allows me to think of them every day.  Plus, it looks great behind my lantana.

The bottle tree in my potager

Bottle trees are probably the most common form of garden art in the South.  These trees take on a myriad of shapes and forms.  The tradition of the bottle tree was adapted from the African slaves of long ago.  In their native lands they believed that they could ward off evil spirits by hanging pieces of brightly colored glass in the trees around their homes.  They continued to do this once they were here.  This tradition evolved from hanging pieces of glass to placing whole bottle in the limbs of trees.  It was believed that the evil spirits would become trapped in the bottles.  It is also believed that the haunting “woooo” sounds that come from the wind blowing over the bottles are the cries of the trapped spirits.  I don’t know about you, but I can always use some help keeping evil spirits at bay. 

A whimsical piece of garden art at the Antique Rose Emporium. I love the addition of the rubber ducky in the "water"

I recently bought a new camera.  In order to learn how to use it I headed out to the Antique Rose Emporium (ARE).  While the plants were beautiful (and they always are, even in July and August), my best shots were of the art that Mike Shoup and his designers have incorporated into their display gardens.  As you can see, some of the art was elegant, some whimsical and some of it was just down right “cute”.  But you know what, it all worked.  Each of these things represents the spirit of the owners and staff of this incredible place.

A fountain made from an old watering can at the ARE in Independence

There is no doubt that Spring is the best and most beloved time of the year of most gardeners.  So this year, while you are out there digging and planting, why not showcase your personality by adding some art to your yard, beds and borders.

Thornless Prickly Pear-The Perfect Plant?

Thornless prickly pears and maximillian sunflowers at Wildseed Farms in Fredericksberg.

My botanical brother Morgan McBride swears that thornless prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) is the perfect plant. You don’t have to water it, it flowers, you can eat the pads and the buds, and it’s evergreen. Plus, if a piece of it falls off onto the ground, it will grow you another plant. I am not sure if I agree with him completely, but you have to admit, he makes a good point.

While I am not as enamored with thornless prickly pear as Morgan is, I do really like the plant. One of my favorite plant combinations of all time was at the weekend place of Dr. Bill Welch. He paired the sculptural, medium green cactus with a dark burgundy castor bean that he got from my plant mentor, Cynthia Mueller. The dark burgundy was a perfect back drop and the combination was stunning. I also felt it was, for lack of a better word, appropriate. Texas is a big place. Some think of it as a southwestern state while others consider it definitely southern. The pairing of the quintessential southwestern plant (the cactus) with the very southern castor bean made me conclude that this was the perfect plant combination to express the dichotomy of Texas.

Thornless prickly pear fruits ready for harvest

Thornless prickly pear does appear in the wild. However, the plant that most of us grow is a hybrid developed by a California breeder named Luther Burbank. Mr. Burbank was busy developing plants around the turn of the century. His two biggest successes were the Russet potato and the thornless prickly pear. Mr. Burbank was a shameless promoter and rather sloppy plant breeder. Because of his poor record keeping, we have no idea what plants he actually used to create the plant we now call thornless prickly pear. Regardless, he was very proud of his creation and he sought to market it as dry land forage for cattle. While the cactus did not catch on as a forage crop (turns out it will grow all of its thorns back if it is subjected to extreme drought), no one can argue with its success as an ornamental.

The cactus blooms in the spring (and sometimes fall). The flowers are typically yellow but can be found in white and red. The fruits of the cactus are very sweet and some say they taste like a very sweet watermelon. Native Americans loved the fruits of this plant so much that they are often called Indian Fig.

Thornless prickly pear and fall asters

Like any cactus, the thornless variety is incredibly easy to grow. Just stick a pad (or nopal) half way in the ground. Water every once and a while and in no time flat you will have a very large mass of cactus. In fact, this stuff is so hardy that it is difficult to control if it is planted in a well drained site with plenty of water.

I don’t know if thornless prickly pear is the perfect plant or not. However, you have to admit, it does have a lot going for it. It is attractive, durable and makes quite a statement in the landscape. Very few plants evoke as strong a sense of place as do cactus. So, if you are looking for something that is guaranteed to grow, thornless prickly pear may be the plant for you.

Friends and Fresh Cut Flowers

This past Friday, two very pleasant things occurred at the Yupneck’s house;  an unexpected visit from my youngest daughter and the first formal dinner party hosted in our newly remodeled farmhouse (celebrating the “almost end” of a five year remodeling project).  While visits from the kids are always welcomed, it is those rare, unexpected drop ins that I love the most.  Whitney is a senior at North Texas University.  She is also a very talented floral designer.  While there, she found out that we were hosting the renowned Master of Horticulture, Dr. William C. Welch (Bill) and his lovely wife Lucille.  She asked if she could make us some arrangements from the garden for the dinner.  Of course I said a most enthusiastic YES!!!!!

Whitney grabbed some shears and left the house for about 20 minutes.  When she returned, she had a large bundle of flowers and foliage from just about every plant on my property.  It was a joy to watch her sort, strip and prepare these cuttings for arrangement.  What happened over the next fifteen minutes was truly amazing.  In less time than it takes me to brush my teeth, she created three incredibly lovely arrangements that I felt I had to share.

Arrangement for the yupneck's table. Made with things from my gardens by my lovely and talented daughter.

The first was a large arrangement that she made for the center of the table.  If you look closely, you will see hollyhocks, love-lies-bleeding, salvia, dried yarrow, coral honeysuckle and PURPLE HULL PEAS!  Who puts peas in a floral arrangement?  A young Master of Horticulture, that’s who.  This arrangement was stunning!  I wish my camera skills did it justice.

Close up of the table arrangement. Notice the use of purple hull peas and coral honeysuckle.

Next, she made a small arrangement for the bath.  This arrangement was built in a small water pitcher.  She incorporated  tatume’ squash, zinnias, love-lies-bleeding and southern wax myrtle foliage. 

Lovely arrangement using zinnias, amaranth and a tatume' squash.

Finally, she turned a vintage Mary planter into another stunning arrangement.  Here she used zinnias, salvia, wax myrtle foliage and iris leaves for effect.  Beautiful!

A vintage Mary planter featuring zinnias and salvia.

Whitney’s arrangements were the cherry on the top of the truly fabulous meal that my lovely wife prepared for the Welch’s.  Mrs. Yupneck created a carmalized onion and goat cheese appetizer, steak with bearnaise suace, stuffed summer squash and a tomato and balsalmic salad.  This was washed down with a lovely red brought by the guests and finished with a decadant “mudslide” dessert.  The evening was perfect.  My wife and daughter’s combined skills came together to create a dinner that was memorable for all.

The yupneck with his very talented floral designer daughter and his equally lovely and talented culinary wife.

P.S.  My daughter is a very talented floral designer.  She has started her own business in the DFW/Denton area.  She will be more than happy to give you a bid on events of any size.  To see more of her work you can check her out at Arbor Floral.

P.S.S.  Since the dinner was to celebrate the almost completion of our FIVE YEAR LONG remodeling project here is a picture of the entryway.

The entryway of "The Nest"

Heirloom Gardening in the South – Yesterday’s Plants for Today’s Gardens


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Bill Welch and Greg Grant are the premier “Masters of Horticulture” in the country.  Both of them have ample credentials to back up my claim.  However, what really sets them apart is their deep knowledge and sincere love of the plants and gardening traditions of the South.  They have worked for years to document, preserve and re-introduce “time tested plants” that have helped to color the fabric of the southern landscape tradition.  These true southern gentlemen share a common, and almost evangelical zeal to share that knowledge (which is another southern tradition). 

Heirlooms, a whirligig and a tire planter in a Louisiana garden. You can learn all about the origins of these southern garden accesories in this book.

Their latest book, “Heirloom Gardening in the South – Yesterday’s Plants for Today’s Gardens” is a masterful compilation of their many years of saving, growing and educating others on the value of heirloom plants.  Combining equal parts history, plant catalogue and how to information, this book is the perfect resource for all of us that garden in the South. 

The book is easy to read and full of eye catching photographs that document everything from stunning gardens to geranium cuttings.  The book is divided into five sections that tell you the history of the southern garden tradition, how to find and propagate these living antiques, where to plant them, and how to use them.  It also includes an exhaustive inventory of the heirloom plants that grow here.  Each plant in the inventory includes an in depth discussion of its history and habits.  This section alone would be worth far more than the cover price.

Byzantine gladiolus and a bottle tree in an East Texas garden

As an avid reader of gardening books, I have come to realize that most of them fall into two distinct categories: picture books and books that tell you how to grow things.  Rare is this book that combines these two elements.  “Heirloom Gardening in the South – Yesterday’s Plants for Today’s Gardens” is just such a book.  If you are serious about growing heirlooms in the south, then this book has to find its way to your bookshelf!