What the Divas Did in 2002

January 2002

At this time every year we all meet for breakfast at a restaurant and get organized for the new season. Because the ground never really freezes here, but the summers are brutal, we try to use the months of February, March, April, May and June. We skip July and August if possible, and meet again in September and October. This gives each of the 7 members a turn at being the hostess for a project. We met to select the name of a month while enjoying black beans, strong coffee, migas and fresh corn tortillas. At this meeting we pass the tortillas instead of the ibuprofen.

Melanie came to Elsi's with her adorable baby daughter in tow. What fun to hold a new little one, while visiting with everyone. I hope the scheduling will work out better in the new gardening year and that everyone will get a turn. Texas weather and busy Diva lives means an awful lot of schedule juggling, but being in this group for a whole year has been incredible.

February 2002

An email came from Sugar:

“Please bring everything you can to build a bed - shovels, claws, tillers, cutters, you name it, we can probably use it!!!!! If someone has a wheelbarrow they can bring, that would be great. I have one, but it seems to be nice when we have 2 to work with.”

It was a cool but lovely spring morning when we met at Sugar’s. We started with baked French toast casserole from a recipe she got at a bread and breakfast. She also served juice, coffee, bacon, melons, kiwi, mango and best of all, CHEESE GRITS! Oh boy, do we all like them.

Sugar’s home looks like an old-fashioned cottage. The one story, two-bedroom house sits on a large lot. It was built around 1954, with the front door right in the middle, protected by a small portico. One large, shutter-edged window is centered on each of the two long walls on either side of the front door, almost but not exactly symmetrical. On the right end was a huge euonymus; on the left were a nandina, another big euonymus in the middle, and a flowering quince beginning to open.

We like these projects, but we’re not nuts. So on the Thursday before our weekend meeting, Sugar hired a team of two burly guys to dig out the 3 big shrubs from under the left window. They replanted the euonymus at the far left end to balance the one on the far right.

She saved the rest of the digging and replanting for us. We sawed the large root ball of the Nandina (AKA ‘Heavenly Bamboo’) in half to divide the shrub, and replanted the halves on opposite sides of a wire fence to the far right past the garage. Then the quince went in a barren fence corner around the left side of the yard. Pairs of Indian Hawthorns were planted under the front windows, and a long bed was dug along the whole left side of the house, reaching toward the back (it extends about 5' by 22').

Some rampant old roses were pruned by one Diva, while 4 others dug, divided and reset existing shrimp plants, cannas and amaryllis. New abelia, holly ferns, and lantana were added to the beds. While the others gardened, guess who used that collection of bricks we’d salvaged last fall? She made a drain field along the left front, and wrapped it around the side, past the air-conditioner. You win if you guessed that Buffy was the one doing most of that brickwork!

Watering in the transplants and mulching the beds finished off our long, busy day. There is such instant gratification in seeing a transformed landscape. We then discovered the biggest mistake of the day – no camera. Resolved: bring a camera to every project! We need 'before' and “after” photos, to record these amazing transformations.

During the lunch break of this meeting, the Divas were reminiscing about being back in high school, when it was common to go out in the evenings to 'wrap' a house, or 'plow' a yard. Apparently, Texas women have to make everything, even mild forms of juvenile delinquency, sound like decorating or home improvement. 'Wrapping a house' is what a Northerner like me might call teepeeing, and 'plowing a yard' involves driving a car onto a lawn, putting it in neutral and ripping the grass by flooring the engine. It must have been kinda wild in Central Texas a few years back!

March 2002

A few days before the Diva-day, Buffy and I met Annie at her house for a joint consultation. Annie & I checked out brickyards, Annie made her decision and we were loading 125 cream colored edging blocks into the van. We stacked them in Annie’s driveway, ready for Saturday. The Divas of the Dirt are a fun bunch, and they will try and tackle just about anything. This past winter, Annie rebuilt the privacy fence surrounding her mid-80’s frame ranch as a solo project.

Our day at Annie’s lasted from 8 AM until about 5:30 in the evening. For breakfast Annie used a recipe from Martha Stewart’s Magazine. She started with sliced croissants, filled them with a cream cheese/orange marmalade mixture, then she sautéed them like French toast. We also loved the potato/egg/cheese casserole, accompanied by melons & berries.

Karla, Sugar, and Mindy worked in one large flowerbed and we all tended several smaller beds, lifting, dividing and replanting daylilies, Shasta daisies, penstemon and salvias.
Buffy did her magic with the edging bricks, forming a gracefully undulating edge and small retaining wall, and we finished by raking, mulching and watering the whole thing.

Annie had access to some bamboo, freshly cut in San Antonio. She and I had creative fun wiring the pieces together to form a 7 X 5 foot trellis. We planted a star jasmine vine and a Passionflower vine at the base. It looks darned professional!

Since Annie had worked on everyone else’s garden last year without getting a turn as hostess, we were especially happy to do something extra good for her on this day.

April 2002

We arrived at Karla’s house at 8 AM, and didn't leave until after 6 on Saturday night. The last time we were here, the work took place in a big shady bed near the front sidewalk, and Karla had many compliments from passers-by. This time she told us we'd done enough for the neighbors - she wanted some personal landscape in the back yard.

There is a sliding door off the main dining area, opening to a 30' X15' concrete patio. The yard is a rectangle, wider than it is deep, and the patio stretches across the back of the house, lengthwise. Karla’s job is intense and she needs a private oasis when she is at home. We tried to grant her wish.

As you stand in front of the sliding doors, from the patio looking outward, you are facing west. There is a 6-foot wooden privacy fence along the right, back and part of the left lot boundaries. The actual patio is screened on the left by lattices with evergreen Carolina Jessamine on it. There is a hidden walkway between the lattice and the lot line that gives access to the front yard. The far left front part of the patio has a nice small rose bed in front of it, but the middle and right edge of the patio had 5-foot hulks of solid shrubs, mostly evergreen hollies, so that you couldn’t see the yard from the patio. There was also a 12-foot pomegranate tree stuck in the shrub border.

Karla’s lived with this confining, closed-in garden since she moved in a couple of years ago, and hates it. She said that she wanted to be able to see the whole space from the patio, so everything must go!

We cut down or pulled out these huge bushes and their roots. We pruned the ligustrum (a kind of evergreen privet) and red-tip photina, changing their dense blobs into graceful shapes along the right back and right fence.

We connected 5 small squidgy beds into one long sweeping border that curves along the back, right, and next to the right edge of the patio. Then Mindy started up ‘Mr. Tiller’ to loosen and add compost to the dug-up area. We dug a trench along the edge of the long border & Buffy did the stone fitting.

Now the whole edge of the large 'S' curved bed is delineated with big, 18-inch long blocks of white cut stone.

Karla wanted us to take down the pomegranate at first, too, but Buffy persuaded her to wait and see. Once the evergreen hollies were out of the scene and we had pruned the interior of the pomegranate, it was revealed as a lovely small tree. You can see through it, and it gives a sense of dimension to the landscape.

The other Divas didn’t think Buffy should have all the rocky fun, so several of them decided to gather all of the flat flagstones stones that had been scattered throughout the yard. They fitted them together into a 7-foot wide path leading from the center of the patio into the lawn area.

The front edge of the patio, where you step into the garden, now has a sunny flowerbed to the right. The beds are all dug, amended with compost and ready for Karla to plant shade-loving plants where the light is low, and perennials in the sunny parts. When we were done it looked like a magazine shoot. The weather was sunny and 80's, the stone blocks for the retaining wall were heavy but the whole back garden is transformed, and we were thrilled with our work. We actually get a little high on the endorphins created by the combination of exercise, the food, the laughter and the sheer delight in seeing a finished product!

There will be a change in the makeup of our group as of this meeting. The new mom Melanie, our seventh member, has been unable to attend meetings for a variety of personal reasons, and regretfully decided to resign. Mindy brought her recently married young friend Donna as a prospective member and she pitched right in to work with us. We all liked her and hope she had fun with us.

Sugar, our most smartass member, told Donna that we were really an eating club, and that we only gardened to work off the food. Since Karla had served us breakfast enchiladas, a huge platter of freshly cut fruit, and homemade cinnamon buns for breakfast, we could not deny the truth of that statement!

Here is Karla’s reaction to our day’s work, “OH MY GOSH - What a wonderful surprise to come home this week from my weekly travels to find it was not a dream - my back yard IS beautiful!! It is exactly what I had wanted, but didn't know how to get there and never believed it would transform so beautifully. Can you tell I am still a little excited??? “

May 2002

The day started off kind of oddly – I arrived at Buffy’s, didn’t see her car, but rang the bell. Annie answered the door – she was the first arrival, but Buffy was still at the grocery store buying the ingredients for breakfast. Eventually everyone (including our missing hostess) straggled in, and it was all delicious and entertaining, if a bit unorganized. When Buffy takes her turn as hostess the spread usually resembles a Martha Stewart episode. She was entitled to be Lucille Ball instead, at least for one day!

Buffy’s lawn sprinkler system was due for installation the next week. She wanted to avoid doing any planting or improvement that could get torn up during the installation process. She set us to thinning out some overzealous ‘Katy’ Ruellia and red Salvia greggii, and smoothing the outline of
one flowerbed. The edge had begun to resemble cartoon boobs instead of the desired Hogarthian curves. (This job was referred to by Buffy as a “flowerbed breast reduction”.)

Buffy told us that Ruellia pops its seed like bluebonnets do:
“Early in the fall I was hand watering one of my beds and kept hearing this sound that I thought were some kind of bugs… then I realized that it was the seed pods popping on the Ruellia. It just shoots those seeds everywhere!”

The medium size trees in the front had sent out a forest of suckers and had stray branches reaching out to the sidewalk. We ended up doing a lot of pruning on these trees and many other shrubs, and we dug a large bed around one clump of trees facing the front corner.

Buffy’s pretty house is now framed by the remaining trunks and branches, with no scraggly look to the trees. And it will be fun to see what she decides to plant in that new, front & center flowerbed.

August 2002

Way back in January I had pulled the month of June, but since then all our lives were a jumble. We kept trying to find one weekend that would work, but practically everyone had out of town trips. We simply could not coordinate our schedules.

The only option was to delay my turn until early August. I knew that in August the heat would be too fierce for real gardening, but it wouldn’t stop some demolition. This was fine with me - destruction was exactly what I needed but could not do for myself.

I’ve been in this house for 3 years, making some good landscape additions, but the plantings at the exact front of the house looked terrible. The villains in my landscape were several huge, spreading, 6-foot tall junipers, growing right up against the house wall, and around the corner, where they blocked the path to the back. I can’t even touch the darned things. I break out in hives and need steroids from contact.

To bribe the Divas for this task I served my version of “Savoury Tomato Cheese Pie” (the original recipe was in the Vegetarian Epicure cookbook), along with lots of cut-up fruit, hash browns and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. (Yep, they finally made it to Austin.) The group included Donna, who has decided to join us. She will take over Melanie’s planned day in September.

The wonderful Divas then went out and banished my monsters, roots and all, filling bag after bag of debris. With the canvas cleared, a new plan (one not involving prednisone) has a chance to emerge. I didn’t go anywhere near the junipers, but fetched tools, took photos, brought out chilled water and GatorAde and offered much appreciated expert advice to those doing the actual labor.

After the bags were filled, we all drove over to Donna’s newly built house and consulted on her upcoming project. Next we drove up to Buffy’s for a quick tour while she fetched requested garden books, then over to the nearby Red Barn Nursery. A ride through a ritzy new subdivision gave us the chance to glean ideas, while dissing some tacky landscaping. The last stop was back here for lunch, Glinda’s signature dish of shredded chicken & sweet peppers in barbeque sauce. It was a great day!

September 2002

Donna hasn't been married long and her house is a newer one. It’s a two-story home... maybe you could call it Craftsman style?? There are great big natural wooden porches across the front and back. The back porch is shaded by another deck/porch on the second floor.
Something about the porches reminds me of houses in Frankenmuth.

This was an interesting project since there was so little landscaping in place.

The yard was sodded with St. Augustine grass and there were a couple of existing trees. Donna had been having fun at the Great Outdoors Nursery, and had a driveway full of plants in containers, bags of compost and more bags of mulch, and a stack of red river rocks in the back.

We were one worker short, since Mindy was celebrating a family birthday at a big party, and couldn’t be with us. The temperature was 90 degrees, but the rock-like ground had been softened by nearly an inch of rain on Friday night.
The Divas’ session was as usual both exhausting and amazing. We are lucky there has not been a gapers’ car accident when we do a front yard project. The sight of 7 women with tools must be the fulfillment of some guys' fantasies. A lot of cars roll slowly by, baseball-hatted heads hanging out. We do a better job than speed bumps as traffic stoppers! It also got out the folks who live there, and Donna and her husband met some of their neighbors.

We dug a long bed across the front of the house, edged by Buffy with the large tumbled red river rocks, and we made a smaller bed out near the drive/street junction. Some of the plants used were plumbago, black foot daisies, esperanza, salvias and an orchid tree.

The Divas also met a few of the neighbors, and took a walk to see some really interesting stuff done by owners of some of the older houses in the neighborhood.

Says Donna,” I cannot thank everyone enough for all the work done on Saturday. I've been watering daily, and all the plants still look perky. Mostly, it just makes me so happy to look out over my beautiful lawn. I can't wait until next month.”

October/November 2002

At our planning meeting back in January we had discussed news articles concerning La Nina and El Nino. The long-range forecasts told us a stormy season was coming, and we’d wondered if our garden days would be regularly rained out. It didn't actually happen until this month. The
weather was a bad deal for Mindy, but the rest of the year had been better than originally predicted. Mindy’s original date was the 19th of October. When 2 inches fell by Friday the 18th, it was obvious that the date could not be kept.

Mindy had done a lot of preliminary work, getting ready for us. The focus of the project was to be the front of the house, where a large triangular flowerbed slopes from the house wall down to a concrete sidewalk. The walk leads to the front door, where creeping fig covers the mellow stone.

She’d had a small bobcat level the area and dig in some amendments. The result was 400 square feet of garden bed to plant, using the large group of plants in containers that had been delivered on the 17th.

Many emails flew back and forth on weather and the project - and one went out from me announcing that Judy Barrett's Homegrown Magazine was publishing an article I'd written about our group. "Digging With the Divas" would appear in the next issue. What fun!

Meanwhile, the planting area was covered with a tarp, the dozens of plants languished in the driveway, and weekend after weekend, our project was washed out. We finally met on November 2. The plants and amendments had to get into the ground. By this time, as Annie put it, “ We might have to trade our umbrellas for long johns on Saturday, but I'm up for it.”

(Ed: We made that front path above at Mindy's 2001 day - Barbados cherries did well!)
On the actual day, there was mist and drizzle, but no downpours. We were able to weed, dig and plant with great difficulty, but with even greater determination to complete the project! Our shoes grew to twice their usual size with encrusted mud oversoles… we were getting pretty tired and draggy. Mindy had a good bribe – she’d rustled up a simmering pot of fresh pinto beans – mmmm.

December 2002

In December the Divas of the Dirt met at Buffy’s house for our Jolly Holi-Diva-day. Here’s the beautiful table, set with vintage linens:

Just as we join forces to garden, the Divas all cook for the feast. We started with Glinda’s Spinach-Artichoke Dip on crackers, with wine, lots of happy conversation, and one of those silly gift exchange games where you repeatedly ‘steal’ the wrapped package from the original recipient.

The gifts need to say ‘garden’ or ‘flower’ in some way. Some of the prizes were a decorative outdoor thermometer, a rubber tote for garden tools and a darling little birdbath.

The main dish, prepared by Buffy, our hostess, was a wonderful Broiled Salmon in Dijon & Caper Sauce.

Annie’s Whole Green Beans in a Secret Sauce proved that eating vegetables is a delight. The Rice Pilaf brought by Karla had the Christmas sparkle of Pomegranate Seeds. The Homemade Sprouted-grain Rolls arrived with Donna. Mindy’s Traditional Texas Green Jello with Pistachios
rounded out the side dishes.

The dessert was brought by Sugar, our continental cook. She has learned new techniques from a cooking course in France, but this was a pleasing old family favorite, her delectable Amaretto Bread Pudding.

Here are recipes for the appetizer and the dessert – y’all will have to think up your own main dishes!


Melt 3 Tablespoons butter in a large saucepan on medium-low heat. Gently saut̩ 2 cloves of minced garlic in the butter, then add a thawed, drained box of frozen chopped spinach, and a 12 ounce jar, [or 14 ounce can] of chopped, drained artichoke hearts (the plain kind РNOT the seasoned & marinated in oil kind). Cook gently, stirring frequently for a few minutes. Add 2 packages of cream cheese (the 8 ounce size), one cup of sour cream and a cup of grated Parmesan cheese, stirring constantly over low heat until smooth, thick and hot. This might take 10 or 12 minutes. You can serve it on crackers, rounds of bread, dip little carrots on it, or whatever!

If you manage to tuck a scoop of this dip in the refrigerator before the guests arrive, it makes a great topping for a morning bagel.


A loaf of French bread

A quart of half & half

2 Tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature

3 eggs

1 and ½ cups granulated sugar

2 tablespoons almond extract

¾ cup golden raisins

¾ cup sliced almonds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Tear the bread into chunks and place it into a 9X13X2 inch greased baking dish. Sprinkle the raisins and almonds over the bread, gently mixing together.

In a small bowl, beat together half & half, eggs, sugar and extract. Pour over the bread mixture. Bake for 50 minutes or until golden brown and not mushy to touch. Remove from oven; let cool while you prepare the sauce.

8 Tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature

1 cup confectioner’s sugar

1 egg, well beaten

4 Tablespoons Amaretto liqueur

In the top of a double boiler over simmering water, mix together the butter and sugar, then stir constantly until sugar and butter are dissolved and the mixture is very hot. Whisk the egg well, blending into the hot mixture. Remove from the heat and continue whisking until the sauce cools to room temperature. Add the Amaretto liqueur.

Pour over the bread pudding and serve immediately.

It seems to me that Sugar doubled the sauce recipe – and probably upped the amount of Amaretto, too!

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