Monday, February 25, 2008

A Visit to the Ogdens

On Saturday morning I had the good fortune to visit the garden of Scott Ogden and Lauren Springer Ogden in South Austin. I have to admit that when the tour opportunity came up I hadn't heard of the Ogdens. I certainly didn't know they are gardening celebrities, or that Lauren had coined the term "hell strip." I merely jumped at the chance to peek into someone else's garden.

I was thrilled to learn upon arrival that their front and back yards are primarily dry shade gardens. Live oak trees cover most of the yard. I am always looking for help with my dry shade front yard, and little did I know at the beginning how fortunate I was to be learning from these professionals. The Ogdens were delightful--funny, knowledgeable, obviously very passionate about plants, and generous with their time.

And wow, what a garden. The only downside of the visit was that we weren't allowed to take photographs, but I'll do my best to still give you a picture of it.

This urban garden is a plant collector's dream, jam packed with agaves, palms, and cycads, architectural power plants, which are softened and sweetened by plants with finer textured foliage. Because of the shade, the Ogdens choose plants that emphasize foliage and texture over flowers.

The garden is also tough and low maintenance. It has to be. The Ogdens live bi-state-ly: two weeks a month in Austin, and two weeks in Lauren's home in Fort Collins, Colorado. The plants must survive with watering. The only garden area with any irrigation is the hell strip and that's more because of the risk to life and limb when trying to water or weed near the busy street, than a concern for the plants' well being. Lauren has a very stern, off with their heads policy for underperformers.

Scott started this urban garden in 1999; the house and lot were what he could afford at the height of the dot com boom. The front yard was essentially a parking lot; the backyard held a bicycle half pipe taller than the house. The only amendment Scott made to address the heavily compacted soil was live oak leaves from his trees that he spread across the lot. On occasion he and Lauren have added rabbit food—alfalfa pellets—from Callahan's to reintroduce microbes into the soil.

Scott's gardening style is casual. His plan, if you can call it that, includes strewing seeds across the yard and waiting to see what grows. Part experiment, part laidback Austin. When he and Lauren married, the challenge became how to incorporate her desire for a more formal, designed garden with his existing beds.

(Scott's more infamous seeds came a palm in the parking lot at Expose, a nearby, ahem, gentleman's club. Lauren jokingly chastised him for adding that particular detail, but he assured her that he was there only because the way the palm was trimmed made it easy to see and "rescue" the seeds.)

One of the changes Lauren made was to add a circular space in the back to give the area more structure. Originally St. Augustine grass, the patch is now a form of Texas sedge that Scott rescued from an empty parking lot. The plugs made the space originally look like the hair club for lawns. Now, fully filled in, the sedge is very tough and low maintenance. According to Lauren, the fine texture makes the yard look bigger.

The plants Scott and Lauren include are from areas with similar soils and temperatures as Austin—the panhandle of Florida, the Mexican states due south of Austin, and South Africa, where the Ogdens have made several trips recently.

I really can't do justice to the number and variety of plants in the garden. The Ogdens provided us with a partial plant list, and it was three, single-spaced typed pages in a small font!

So I will try to highlight the unusual plants or just the ones that caught my attention.

In the front yard, Lauren pointed out golden groundsel, a small, ground cover. Its yellow flower isn't spectacular, but the foliage looks lush even through the summer. The giant groundsel also has dark green, wet-looking leaves.

While gardens are often used to soften or highlight a house's architecture, the Ogdens decided the best use for their garden was to hide the house! The front is covered in an evergreen clematis. A large Mexican weeping bamboo also disguises a less than beautiful façade.

Palms and cycads are not my personal favorites, but I really liked the foliage on the silver Mediterranean fan palm, which is listed as a full sun plant but is growing well there in part shade.

The only flowering plants in the front yard were cyclamen. They are blooming now, but Lauren likes them because the foliage remains attractive for most of the year. And, if I remember correctly, they come back regularly. In the back yard, they grow hardy cyclamen, c. hederifolium, at the base of the trees.

In the one full sun area, in the backyard, the Ogdens have used some unusual plants to soften the mix of aloes and yuccas--fennel, giant fennel, and salad burnet. I was also taken in by an unusual purple oxalis with a beautiful tube-like pink bloom. A friend of Lauren's has been cultivating these, and they should be available at the Natural Gardener some time this spring.

Many of their bulbs were in bloom. Some of Scott's favorites include Blue Magic iris, which has beautiful reflective foliage in addition to the pretty flowers; grand primo daffodils, an heirloom variety that comes back each year; and toadshade bulbs, which have interesting foliage.

Among the other standouts were the sunquat, sour orange, Mexican grass tree, Saratoga bay tree, South African asparagus fern, tree yucca, and Arbequina olive tree.

At this point, I just have to stop myself because while I took notes, I was only there for little over an hour, which is isn't even enough time to notice all the plants, much less take notes on them all.

The garden really is full, too full, both Lauren and Scott admit, but when you hear them talk about each plant—each seems to have a fascinating history—you understand why they want them all.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Return to the Big Easy

My husband and I spent the weekend in New Orleans. An old college friend was having a huge 40th birthday party. She and I met as freshman at Tulane more than 22 years ago—eek! that's a sobering number of years. She had always said that if she hadn't married by 40, she would make her birthday party her "wedding." And she did. A crawfish boil at her house in the Bywater Friday night, and the official party Saturday night at the Saturn Bar, an infamous dive bar and one of her regular hangouts in the Bywater.

At first, I wondered how a dive bar fit into her idea of the party cum wedding, but it turned out great. It's an old New Orleans bar with lots of style and charm that is made more charming by the low lighting. My friend had rented out the bar and brought into yummy catering. Servers passed hot crawfish pies and fried green tomatoes. While my husband bellied up to the raw oyster bar (I'm still not a fan), I ate the mini muffeletas and boiled shrimp. There were not one, but two bands, and of course, being New Orleans, an open bar.

I have lots of pictures and will probably turn this into a few posts, but before I do that. I want to pass along a plea from New Orleanians.

Go, visit New Orleans.

The city is still about excess and eccentricity. The people still know how to laissez the bon temps roulé. The areas of town that most of us would visit—the French Quarter, the Garden District, Uptown—are intact and look much like they did pre-Katrina. The city has the vibrancy and lust for life and fun it always had. The restaurants and bars, the zoo, and now even the streetcar are waiting for you.

What it doesn't have as much of these is tourists. For better or worse, tourism remains New Orleans primary industry, and it is hurting. This weekend the NBA All-Star game was being played in the Superdome, and even with that huge influx of people, the city wasn't full. The bartender at the Napoleon House commented that the game had brought some attention to the city, but business was still down.

In the year post-Katrina, tourism and sales in New Orleans were good. My friend runs a cute boutique on Magazine Street, which sells New Orleans-centric items, and she did great business shortly after Katrina. People in the city and around the country wanted to support New Orleans businesses. Now business is slower and has not recovered to pre-Katrina levels.

So if you are looking to support one of the country's great cities, go to New Orleans. The drive from Austin is manageable. A flight is even quicker, but both are doable for a weekend. The Crescent City Classic 10K is on Easter weekend. Jazz Fest takes place the last weekend in April and the first in May.

And to answer the question I know you have: New Orleans has for many years been among the most violent cities in the United States. That dubious distinction remains. But for the most part, the crime now is as it was when I attended Tulane—limited to certain areas most of us would never knowingly venture into. Yes, there are times when crime spills over into other areas, but you are smart travelers and know where to walk and where to take a cab.

Okay, off my soapbox and on to the photos. We didn't have nearly as much time as I needed to reacquaint myself with New Orleans, but I did make some visits to Tulane, Audubon Park and the surrounding streets, and the French Quarter.

In bloom around the city:

A camellia bud behind the ubiquitous iron railings:

Another bud but I am not sure of the plant. I didn't see any open flowers.

Look to the right of the bird, and you'll see the chick poking its head out.
The oaks in Audobon Park:
You often see horseback riders in the park. There are stables in the back of the park.
You don't often see someone walking her pet goat in the park:
But in New Orleans you come to expect the unexpected.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Good Flower, Bad Flower

I guess there really are no bad flowers, but I was struck by the difference between the two yellow flowers blooming in my yard right now.

The good:

Yellow bulbine. This summer I helped a friend thin out her bulbine, which was growing crazy with all the rain. I ended up with quite a few bulbines of my own, but I wasn't able to plant them for oh, two weeks, I think. They just sat on my tarp, partly because of the rain and partly because I was busy. So I am very happy that some survived.

They are in my free plant zone, the strip behind our fence in the alleyway. It's technically part of the right of way, and whenever there's phone, cable, or electrical work to be done, these plants get trampled. They also get trampled and pooped on by dogs so I don't want to spend much (or any) money on them but will gladly stick whatever I get for free back there.

The bad flower:

The pak choy, going to seed. It's only bad because I didn't had a chance to harvest it before it went to seed. I also did not thin the seedlings when I should have so the remaining ones didn't really flourish.

And then there was this guy (or gal):

An orange and black that is all over the pak choy and the other greens. It's not in my organic bug book so I am not sure what it is. I've been gently removing them and giving them a new home but there are a lot of them. And they eat. A lot.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Stroll through Memory Lane

As my current garden is a little boring right now, I thought I would document my vegetable garden. Here are some photos from the first year, 2005.

I dug the bed according to the biointensive methods of John Jeavons, which I learned at a workshop put on by Green Corn Project, a local nonprofit that installs organic food gardens for families and individuals in need in central Texas, as well as schools and community centers. I also volunteered at one of their dig-ins, where they put in the beds in about four hours. (I've since become a board member of GCP, part of my amazing transformation from brown thumb to almost gardener.)

Double digging is the most labor intensive part of the biointensive method. It involves digging up the soil in trenches--the first dig--and then forking the same trench again, a slightly misnamed second dig. The goal is to dig down two feet, although this almost never happens with the first digging. And in Austin's soil, you'll often hit caliche long before that.

It took me (and my roped-in husband) a long, long day to double dig my bed, which is 4 ft x 12 1/2 ft. (Jeavons recommends beds that are 5 feet by 10 feet, but he also warns not to walk in the bed when you're done, so he either had freakishly long arms and could reach the middle of the bed without stepping in it, or I have short arms. If you are gardening with kids, I would highly recommend a bed no wider than four feet).

We pulled out pails and pails of rusty nails, broken glass and asbestos tile, and various other oddities. I did have a brief moment of hope when I found a coin. I thought the buried treasure would pay for the new garden, maybe a new house, . . . ah, the dreams I had, only to find out that the badly eroded the commemorative 1955 Eisenhower inaugural medal was worth three dollars, brand new.

Oh well, good thing I was saving money by growing my own organic veggies.
Here's how the bed looked a couple of months after I first planted it.

A slightly more close-up view: I was growing broccoli, cauliflower, buttercrunch lettuce, kale, swiss chard, mustard greens, and the compost crop.
A close-up of the buttercrunch lettuce, which was quite prolific.

This fave bean was part of the compost crop in 2005--to help amend the soil--but I am growing some windsor beans (aka fava, or so says the seed packet) this year to eat. No beans yet but I remember they were slow growers.