I have a small garden near the center of Austin, Texas in an old neighborhood that was designed in the 1930s. (Across the street from us is an elderly home originally built for war widows.) It’s not so small by many city standards, nearly a quarter of an acre, and enough to keep me very busy. It has an old barn, built along with the house in 1937, and only last year did we tear town the falling-apart chicken coop that the original owners once kept.
When we moved here in 2005, I had never owned a home nor gardened before. Although I’m an artist and writer, I never really thought I could be good at gardening, which is basically creating outdoors. I used to think I was a plant killer. My first plant ever was a pot of African violets that I bought at a grocery store when I was 21. Not long later the plants died, probably because I kept forgetting to water them. I bought a little jug of MiracleGro and didn’t know what it was so I never used it.
But it was the mysterious, wooded backyard dominated by an Eastern red cedar that sold our house. Over the next year I discovered all sorts of signs of an earlier, loved garden from the property’s first owners. Two massive rose bushes, and a host of intermittent bulbs that flowered all over the yard. It took me two years to identify them. I have to thank the lavish Souvenir de la Malmaison rose for giving me the rose bug. To see and breathe this rose in her spring beauty is to be converted forever to roses. She is growing right in a clump of St. Augustine grass and clay. I had always considered roses to be the province of experienced gardeners, but once I gave myself permission to tend such beauties, I started collecting them like mad.
Then there were the Texas wildflowers. My first trip to the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center sent me on a massive wildflower seed buying spree. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was obsessed with recreating a small patch of the wildflower beauty that made me fall in love with Texas.
Which isn’t easy. Nearly 6 months of the year it is too unbearably hot to be outside gardening any time after 10 a.m. And the stress of that heat and sometimes drought makes for desperate times for a garden. Not to mention the soil here is rock hard clay and nearly impossible to dig when dry. But Texas (and Texans) have a reputation for being rugged and stubborn, and are proud of making something out of nothing. This is still the inventive frontier mentality, and I am learning to love it.