Prentiss Riddle: Garden

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The best thing to see in a garden is your shadow

Summertime and the livin' is itchy

At last night's weblogger meetup the conversation was about itchy and annoying topics like mosquitoes, chiggers and Movable Type licensing policy.

Chiggers, for those of you fortunate enough not to know, are microscopic bugs which may be even worse than mosquitoes in making life miserable in the summer months here in Texas, at least for people who leave the pavement for the woods and tall grass. Instead of flying and biting, chiggers crawl onto your body and make itchy bumps wherever your clothes are tight, especially the waist, crotch and armpits. Imagine mosquito bites on your tender bits and you'll get the idea.

Chris said something about chiggers which, alas, I feel compelled to debunk. Here's Iowa State on chiggers:

Contrary to popular opinion, chiggers do not burrow into the skin nor do they feed on blood. Instead, chiggers inject a digestive fluid containing enzymes that cause skin cells to rupture. The fluids from the skin cells are then consumed as food. The injected enzymes cause the skin to become red, swollen and itchy. The itch may last for several days and will persist even after the chigger has detached from the skin.

So much for the remedy I was taught as a child, to cover the spot with Elmer's glue and smother the chigger.

Iowa State is silent about Chris's suggestion for the prevention of chigger and mosquito bites: brewer's yeast milkshakes for a vitamin B boost. I wonder how that's supposed to work -- could you put vitamin B in a spray and use it topically, or is it less about repelling bugs than making your body produce less of whatever attracts them? This is a pressing topic for me right now, as Inside Books is one of the most mosquito-infested places I've been lately despite the Rhizome Collective's claimed interest in biological pest control. I used to believe in citronella and lemongrass as mosquito repellants but now I think they're just placebos.

P.S. I'm tempted to repeat as a sociolinguistic curiosity a racist pun about chiggers that was common in my elementary school. It's not quite as bad as you're probably thinking but almost. If you must know what it is, ask me privately -- there are some things I just won't say in earshot of Google.

garden 2004.05.20 / link / 11 comments

Loquats at Pacha

The loquat trees are bearing heavily all over town. There's one behind Pacha and when Laurent saw the girls picking some for themselves, he put them to work picking more for him. They filled two buckets. I've never seen them work so enthusiastically -- wish they'd do it here.

Give Laurent a few days then stop by Pacha and ask for a bagel with loquat jam.

garden 2004.04.25 / link / 3 comments


This year I'm living for nearly the first time in my life in an apartment without its own patch of dirt, so if I want to garden I have to learn to do it in containers.

herbs in a pot tomato plants in containers

Here are reference photos of a little pot of herbs and peppers and three tomato plants in plastic bins salvaged at a garage sale. I drilled drainage holes in the bins and filled all of the containers with expensive organic potting soil. (I need to look up a good potting soil recipe and make my own.) I think this should work, provided my porch still gets enough light when the trees are fully leafed out. I'll post again in a few months so you can see the results.

garden 2004.03.18 / link / 19 comments

Polka-dot lawn

What was already the most colorful house in Austin now has a polka-dot lawn.

Polka-dot lawn

The lawn belongs to the multicolor stucco house with the blue-tile roof at the intersection of West 29th and Glenview, where Bryker Woods starts shading into Pemberton Heights. As the buffalo grass took on its faded fall and winter color, evidently the owner decided it was time to brighten things up a bit.

Knowing that John Erler of the Elk Mating Ritual Hour grew up in Bryker Woods I phoned in to his show this morning. He suggested we call a FlashMob to appear and dance a polka. Purple Haze, anyone?

garden 2003.09.25 / link / 27 comments

Plant bamboo, go to jail

Why on earth do people plant bamboo outside its native habitat? Don't they know that once it's planted it's virtually impossible to remove? And it's extremely invasive -- it will not only take over your yard but your neighbor's. It's common to see bamboo planted for privacy along a fenceline consume 15 feet or more in every direction. You can't plant anything around it because it will outgrow and engulf everything in its path. If you cut it down it sends up spikes immediately, so even if you try to control it by chopping it to the ground and mowing frequently the resulting "lawn" will be an unusuable punji trap. Barriers are futile because it sends out subterranean runners like bermuda grass and digging it up is equally useless because it will grow back from any shred of root you miss. Short of tactical nukes or laying concrete there seems to be no way to get rid of it.

Supposedly there are non-invasive varieties but I don't know how widely available they are. Maybe the people at the Texas Bamboo Festival could say, although something tells me that asking might be like inquiring about "smart handguns" at an NRA meeting. I have bamboo-loving acquaintances who think of me as an anti-bamboo bigot because I made the mistake of sharing these opinions with them -- in much milder terms, of course!

Bamboo isn't just a backyard nuisance. Here in Texas there are numerous groves of bamboo in parks and undeveloped land. As an invasive exotic species, bamboo displaces habitat for native plants and wildlife as effectively as a bulldozer. I don't see how people who complain about clearcutting or acres of parking lots should feel any more kindly toward bamboo.

Native plant activists would do well to come up with a responsible alternative to bamboo as a privacy planting. There must be some native Texas tree or shrub which could be trained or trimmed to grow in a dense and compact vertical form, without being as aggressive as bamboo. (And if not, there's always the composting fence idea.)

garden 2003.08.11 / link / 26 comments

Mutant grinning daisy and a newborn butterfly

A couple of noteworthy things appeared in the garden recently. A fat green caterpillar had been decimating my dill, but I let it be since it looked like the classic butterfly caterpillars in all those educational films in elementary school. Sure enough, a week or two later I see a fat-abdomened butterfly hanging out in the adjacent parseley. I assume it had just emerged from its chrysalis; although I never found the chrysalis, it didn't fly away when I got near and its abdomen didn't look like it was in flying trim yet.

newly emerged butterfly mutant smiling daisy

Stranger is this odd double-headed daisy. It's from some perennial daisy I planted but I can't remember what kind. The plant was a 1-1/2-foot sphere of foliage all spring until it suddenly burst into copious bloom in mid-May. Sticking up from the rest of the plant is an inch-thick stalk (the other stems are 1/4" or so) with this obscenely grinning double bloom looking like something out of Little Shop of Horrors. There's another shot here or you can see it in context here.

garden 2003.05.27 / link / 3 comments

Of loquats and lonely old men

Get Donkey mentions his fondness for loquats, which reminds me of a sad story from my Galveston days.

The loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) is a wonderful fruit, very sweet when ripe, small and with some largish seeds inside but well worth the effort. People commonly grow loquat trees as ornamentals in Southeast Texas and may not even know that the fruit is edible, which means that you can walk around grazing on bushels of them at the right time of year (sort of like pecans in Austin). I'm told loquats will grow in Central Texas as well but may need some protection from severe freezes, so you don't see them in Austin as much.


I'll always associate loquats with a neighbor in Galveston, a weathered old man and gifted gardener from Sicily with whom I had no language in common. I spoke a little Italian but since he spoke only Sicilian dialect that didn't help much. He was always chasing neighborhood kids out of his loquat tree (the kids were forever trying to strip the tree of fruit before it was ripe, breaking branches in the process) with cries of "Getty! Getty!" so that became my private name for him.

Once I sat down next to him on the steps of the Victorian house where we each had apartments and tried to engage him in conversation. I managed to learn that loquat is nespola in Sicilian but before long he surprised me by trying to get me to hold hands or kiss him. I don't make a habit of kissing guys, let alone 80-year-olds with whom I can't communicate, so I had to get up and leave. I tried to remain neighborly but kept my distance from him after that. The fact that he couldn't accept a simple "no, grazie" left me suspecting that there was some dementia at work and not just a cultural barrier.

Sometimes his Galveston relatives would stop by to check on him and we'd chat. Before long I put two and two together and realized that he lived alone rather than with his family because he also made passes at his teenage nieces and nephews. Often in the evening scruffy young men would visit him and I'd hear loud arguments; I don't know what arrangement he had with them, but apparently on more than one occasion he ended up being robbed. Eventually he had a heart attack and his family moved him out, I assume to a nursing home.

So anyway, I can't see or eat a loquat without memories of that old man, his wonderful garden and his disastrous attempts at seeking human contact. One of these years I'll plant a nespola in his memory.

garden 2003.04.23 / link / 8 comments

Rosedale Elementary School garden

The playground behind Rosedale Elementary in Austin has a beautiful xeriscaped garden of flowering perennials.

One unique feature of the garden is a curving stone wall into which are set rocks, shells, and ceramic and glass objects contributed by the students and their families. Each object has a story behind it. The garden is a lovely contrast to the battered landscape of so many public school playgrounds.

garden 2003.04.05 / link / 2 comments

Waiting for tadpoles

Inspired by worldwide amphibian decline, I've made my first foray into water gardening by building a small frog and toad pond.

This is what it looks like after the initial planting. Hopefully the mint (leftmost terracotta pot), maidenhair fern, marsh marigold, river fern, and horsetail will thicken up a bit and provide cover for the froggies. The Texas betony (right) is already happy and putting out blooms.

Now I'm watching for tadpoles. Supposedly I can wait for the frogs and toads to find my pond, but if I find an ample supply of local tadpoles somewhere I may stock it myself.

I found Robyn's Tub Pond Page helpful in getting started, as well as her general amphibians page and her notes on mosquito control. Herps of Texas: Frogs and Toads has details on native species. I bought the true pond plants (marsh marigold and horsetail) at pond specialists Emerald Garden, the rest at my usual haunts. Now that I've got my own thimble-sized pond I probably won't be able to resist attending the Austin Pond Society Tour June 21-22.

garden 2003.03.29 / link / 6 comments

City of Austin native landscape plant booklet

The City of Austin's Grow Green program is distributing its Native and Adapted Landscape Plants list as a beautiful free full-color booklet at nurseries around town. It includes detailed info about the plants in table form as well as mouth-watering photos of every plant on the list.

I've seen similar information in the form of photocopied texts available from volunteer gardening groups, but it's great to see it made available not only at specialty organic and native-plant nurseries but at places like Home Despot where less clueful gardeners buy their plants.

It's also gratifying to see the list in complementary online and hard-copy formats. If you're like me, you don't always have access to your gardening library when you're daydreaming about the garden, nor do you haul a laptop around when you're prowling nurseries or digging in the dirt. And as nice as the online photos are, the printed glossy versions are even better.

Turk's cap mountain laurel big tooth maple

garden 2003.03.22 / link / 2 comments

Spring gardening daydream

If I had four hours to spare in Austin* (and no sleet on the ground) I'd get started with my spring gardening.

First I'd take the drive out to John Dromgoole's Natural Gardener and load up on some bag-it-yourself Lady Bug Brand compost and mulch. I'd bring along an apple for the girls to feed to the donkeys and we'd see if we could find our way through the labyrinth. Of course I'd pore over the plants in their greenhouses, too, even though it's still early to set out my usual tomatoes or peppers (maybe I'd go ahead and take the risk on some herbs, though).

Then I'd go home and double-dig my beds, work in the compost and cover up with mulch. I would probably use up more than four hours and end the day blistered and sore, but dreaming of flowers and fresh tomatoes.

(* This is written for Austin Blog Day on the chosen theme, "four spare hours in Austin". See the other pieces at

garden 2003.02.24 / link / 3 comments


November 5, 2002, will long be remembered as the day the Republicans swept Texas and the nation, and I caught a skunk under the house.

I'd seen a couple of holes dug under the deck and the skirting of our pier-and-beam house but hadn't thought much about them until I saw an Unidentified Furry Object run into one late one night. In the dark I couldn't tell what it was; my first guess was raccoon, since I knew we had raccoons on the porch pretty regularly looking for leftover cat food, but its fuzzy gray shape didn't seem right and the hole seemed too small. Nor did it quite look like a possum, and do possums burrow, anyway?

After consulting some local sites on humane trapping I bought a cheap Havahart live trap at the hardware store ($30-$40 for the largeish, one-doored raccoon model). I baited it with cat food for a couple of rainy nights and caught nothing. Then on Tuesday night the weather turned clear and I thought, this is it.

Of course the first thing I caught was our cat. I'd expected that, but figured I'd only catch her once and she'd learn. Sure enough, the trap was quiet until 4:30 this morning, when I woke up to the sound of wild thumping and rattling. I turned on the porch light and saw -- oh no -- a skunk.

Specifically, I think it was a common Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis). I never saw a stripe, but it definitely was black with white fur on its head, much like the specimen on the right above.

Great, what am I supposed to do now? I thought. Pay somebody a hundred bucks to haul it off because I won't be able to move it or open the cage without getting sprayed?

But before I panicked, I visited the helpful Havahart skunk pages. There I learned that if I covered the cage with a blanket, I could probably handle it safely.

Blurry photos appropriate to my mental state at the time.
Left: Skunk Patrol Agent Riddle reporting for duty, sir! Note blanket, mask, balaclava. Not shown: eye protection, gloves.
Right: "Nessie" the skunk (NASA-enhanced photo).

So after improvising some chemical warfare gear, I followed Havahart's skunk tips. They worked like a charm. I loaded the blanked-covered cage on top of our minivan, drove to a nearby wilderness preserve (resisting my wife's suggestion to release it at the Governor's Mansion!), carefully opened the cage and stood back. The skunk walked out and scurried into the brush. Success!

Now I get to repeat the process tonight, for, as the online Mammals of Texas site says:

They are social creatures; often several individuals occupy a well-situated winter den. J.D. Bankston of Mason, Texas informed us that he removed as many as seven striped skunks from one winter den and that one of his neighbors found 10 in one den in December.
Seven to ten skunks! Wish me luck. The good news is that with all this experience, I may soon have an honest trade to fall back on. There'll always be money in wrangling skunks.
garden 2002.11.06 / link / 9 comments

Rosedale hip

On a small corner lot opposite Rosedale Elementary, just a block from the Moore-Hancock Farmstead, is a remarkable modern formal garden: spiny yucca set in conical mounds of gravel, nine large metal stock tanks, and steel-edged raised beds in strict but oddly placed rectangles. It was spectacular going in, but it's already showing signs of entropy as gravel settles here and leaves collect there. Can this sort of formalism succeed in laid-back Austin?

Click for a larger view

Unfortunately these photos don't quite do the garden justice. For one thing the water garden aspect is missing, but I didn't want to trespass to catch it. If you're in the neighborhood, stop by for a look.

I wonder what is the significance of the name, "Malinaland"? (No connection with my own Malini.)

garden 2002.06.25 / link / 3 comments

Finding peace with bermuda grass

Seems like I spend half my time in the garden cursing vile bermuda grass, but some people figure out how to live with it. For instance, this small wildflower meadow bordering the Moore-Hancock Farmstead in Austin has a bunch of native annuals and perennials and a few exotics looking quite happy among the bermuda.

The Moore-Hancock Farmstead is itself a pretty interesting place. In other parts of the world it wouldn't be unusual, but in Austin it's remarkable to walk down a street of postwar tract houses and find an 1849 farmhouse.

Hmm -- I see that the Judge John Hancock who gave his name to the homestead (and later to nearby Hancock Drive) used it to house slaves, who also happened to be his kin. After Emancipation one of his slaves and half-nephews, Rubin Hancock, founded another historic farmstead in Austin.

garden 2002.06.11 / link / 3 comments

What to do with all those leaves

How do you convert a yardful of leaves into something useful?

Answer: A row of 8-foot high cylindrical wire mesh bins turns leaves into an attractive privacy fence around the side yard of this house on a corner lot in Maplewood. As the leaves break down (very slowly, since they're not being actively composted), they'll fertilize the lawn.

This is the best new recycling idea I've seen in ages. The only drawback I can think of is that it must be a lot of work lifting the leaves into the bins each fall.

garden 2002.06.09 / link / 4 comments
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