What the Divas Did in 2004, Part 1

2004 January

The wonderful 2003 Christmas party at Donna’s house had lulled us into a false sense that Diva life was settled & things were going smoothly. Surprises were in store as the new year 2004 began.

Breaking with tradition, we met for breakfast in a different restaurant - Chez Zee on Balcones Drive in northwest Austin. This place is famous for lavish breakfasts featuring seafood, and beloved for serving late night desserts that are the definition of decadence.
Buffy’s recommendation of Chez Zee’s turned out to be a very elegant experience, indeed. She had no problem convincing us to meet and share those croissants with strawberry butter. There are few restaurants that escape the personal review of our Buffy!

In another break with tradition, Sugar was not present to enjoy the breakfast meeting. The clues were there, but we’d preferred to ignore them. For quite a while, Sugar had been juggling a demanding new job, complicated house renovations and increasing family obligations. She wasn’t exaggerating when she said that she no longer could fit in time for gardening. Attending the Diva meetings was becoming impossible for her. We were sad and surprised, but could not argue with the facts.

Sugar said “You have all become great friends & very important to my life. Now, get out there & find someone really great to take my place! Thanks for all of your hard work, advice, great times & camaraderie! Please keep in touch… Love ya all.”

Finding a new Diva has never been a problem so far – there are usually several friends who’d love to join our group. When we met at Chez Zee, the Divas had some candidates and one name was drawn. Sugar & Karla are cousins, but this year we will have Divas who are sisters – Wilma, Donna’s sister, is the new member. She lives on the far north edge of the Austin area up in Round Rock, an expansion of territory for us. Donna was on the phone immediately to give Wilma the good news.

We pulled our months and set up the schedule for the next year – would this be a lucky season, with no projects called on account of rain?

DivasoftheDirt, snow art treesFebruary surprised Austin with some genuine snow! If you were out driving at 2 in the morning like me, you’d have seen some excited people building snowmen by porch-light! There was a beautiful, magical snow scene for a few hours, until the next afternoon. This was a warning that the year 2004 would have some wet weather – approaching the all time records for rainfall in Austin.


An email came from Buffy, “Garden Club is still on at my house, weather permitting! I know we really need all of this rain but hopefully everything will be dry by then. We will be doing some bed maintenance and some major pruning, so bring all of your pruning equipment.”

February up North was never suitable for gardening – even in the nicest years, but in Austin, February can be one of the most pleasant months. We spent a lovely day working at Buffy’s house, starting out with a breakfast casserole, hash browns, and fruit. We’re kinda slow to get going on the first garden day of the year, so the coffee maker had a workout.

Our newest Diva was at Buffy’s house bright and early. Wilma knew her own sister Donna, of course, and she also knew Mindy. Now Wilma got to meet the rest of us, and pitch in with the garden project – mostly spring cleanup, bed renewal and pruning.

DivasoftheDirt, consultThe Divas all found lots to do, like digging and replanting one of our earlier projects – a large bed surrounding a clump of trees, mostly live oaks. Over the last couple of years the soil has been gradually improved, and Buffy keeps tried a variety of plants, experimenting to see what will be
best up there.

Some Divas were reworking another group of shrubs that had overgrown the living room window. Others were cutting back and delineating a bed of tough, waterwise plants including the native Salvia leucantha, Copper Canyon daisy, some silvery artemesia and Perovskia [Russian sage] located where the drive meets the sidewalk. They are root hardy plants [the artemesia and Perovskia even grew for me back in Illinois] but the tops die back to some degree, with the extent of dieback depending on the severity of the winter. These sturdy plants won’t need a lot of attention during the growing season if they are weeded, pruned and mulched now.

I brought my extending pole pruner, just in case. Good idea! As we Divas went to tour Buffy’s back yard, the large pyracantha waved thorny branches at us in a threatening manner.
DivasoftheDirt, pyracantha B4
“I just pruned it in late fall,” lamented Buffy. “I love the way the berries look, but it grows so darned fast!” Her firethorns had not always been a problem. We think that the installation of an automatic watering system a few seasons back may have ensured that nothing dies of drought, but has also ensured that the pyracantha will be growing way too well!

DivasoftheDirt, back bed B4Buffy’s garden is amazing and full of delights. It’s a good place to go for inspiration. She has both structures and structure in her landscape, with a boulder and gravel path area in shade, vegetables in sun, a covered patio, a nice wooden storage and work building, a rose arbor with a bench and a vegetable garden with lots of herbs, too! DivasoftheDirt, main wall B4Buffy grows a broad range of shrubs, perennials and annuals. A tour of her garden can be a short class in plant identification. Her North Austin lot is not huge, but it contains antique roses, Feijoa sellowiana [pineapple guava], a glorious Loquat tree, nice crepe myrtles, ‘Will Fleming’ yaupon, Indian Hawthornes, verbenas, daylilies, Salvias, Rudbeckias, Echinaceas, dwarf Wax Myrtle, daylilies, Gerber daisies, columbine, Poliomentha longiflora [Mexican oregano], the charming Bat-faced Cuphea llavea, ferns, Ruellia brittoniana [the dwarf blue variety named ‘Katie’, variegated ginger lilies, Melampodium leucanthum (Blackfoot daisy), Dolichos lablab [Hyacinth bean] and a lot more!

DivasoftheDirt, outside fence aftAfter working quite a spell, we needed a break and were delighted with Buffy’s lunch idea, thinking it made a virtuous contrast to the lavish breakfast. And since this soup was so full of vegetables, we could have a few cookies for dessert!

A note from Buffy contained this frequently requested recipe:

Zucchini Soup

7 Chicken Bouillon Cubes
4 Cups of Water
6 Zucchini - sliced
2 Carrots - peeled and grated
1 Onion - chopped
1 8 oz package of cream cheese
salt & pepper to taste

Dissolve bouillon cubes in water, add zucchini, carrots and onion and bring to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer and cook for 15 min.
Process vegetable mixture with cream cheese in the blender, add salt and pepper to taste.
*When pureeing the vegetables you will need to do it in batches. Be careful because the mixture will be very hot. To cut calories I use low fat cream cheese. This soup is good hot or cold!!!”

Back in the garden after the break, the Divas returned to the front bed we’d made a few years ago, surrounding and connecting a group of live oaks. Every year the soil is improved a little more, with different plants added. Next, the unruly bed under the living room windows was tamed and groomed for the new season:
DivasoftheDirt, back bed aftGood thing Buffy had a pile of yard bags handy. Between the various clean-up jobs and the enormous amount of pyracantha prunings, she’d have a lot of debris for the yard waste pickup. But the entrance gate now was welcoming and berry-spangled rather than looking like the thorn-encircled front of Sleeping Beauty’s castle.

DivasoftheDirt, pyracantha after
We could have kept pruning for another whole day. We had to leave before we ever got to the enormous ‘Mermaid’ Rose!
DivasoftheDirt, Mermaid rose after

The invitation came for the second meeting of the year, at Donna’s: “Hi Divas! I am very excited about garden club next week. Essentially, we are going to create two large greenery beds in the back corners of our backyard. As for tools, we will need shovels, pitchforks, Mindy's tiller, and whatever else you guys can think of to aid in this process. If you can think of things we might need for the project, let me know so I can have them ready. Looking forward to digging with everyone!”
DivasoftheDirt, rock wagonWe arrived at Donna’s house in Central Austin and knew we had quite a day planned for us. There were two enormous piles of soil and mulch blocking the alley, a wagon piled with stone blocks, and a huge array of flats and containers awaiting our attention. DivasoftheDirt, plants readyAs we buzzed around looking at all the cool stuff we saw holly ferns, wood ferns, columbine, liriope, bignonia, oxalis, butterfly iris, and a ‘Forest Pansy’ redbud. It was the biggest single planting we’ve ever attempted.
DivasoftheDirt, more plants ready
We went inside & tucked into Donna’s delicious frittata and melt-in-your-mouth cherry cheesecake, served by Wilma who had come early to act as Donna’ assistant.
The project encompassed a kind of cleared area under trees that stretched across the entire back of Donna’s yard, up against a wooden privacy fence. Donna dreamed of a restful, beautiful retreat and had enlisted the help of a garden designer, who had drawn sweeping drifts of layered shade plants covering the area under Donna’s tall old trees. But before the restful part could begin, there would be digging, amending the beds, placing edging stones, and then planting trees, shrubs, ferns, perennials & vines with mulching as the final step. This is the left half of the area before we began, with a glimpse of the mulch & amendment pile through the gate.

DivasoftheDirt, B4 west bed
We spent several hours of work to get the plants ready for the actual planting. The amendments were mixed in and the rock edging put in place along the perimeter. As the work progressed, it became obvious that while using a pencil to position a plant on paper is quite simple; actually making that planting hole in a bed full of tree roots and rocks is not simple. DivasoftheDirt, E bed in progressThe tree trunks were not aboveground columns, but had extended structures making unexpected patterns under the soil. We wanted to make a shade garden, but we didn’t want to kill off the forest with our excavations! With everyone consulting and advising, design adjustments were made and the project progressed once more.

DivasoftheDirt, pup and plantsAfter a break for tuna salad and some hearty breads, we got back to the project. Luckily, Donna’s husband Joe not only helped with the rock edgings, but also pitched in with some of the heaviest digging. DivasoftheDirt, consultThe beds were finally planted, and then we reduced that mulch pile and rejoiced as we completed the transformation from scrub to tranquil woodland garden.
DivasoftheDirt, East bed done
DivasoftheDirt, west bed done
“Dearest Divas, Thank you, thank you, thank you for all the hard work yesterday…our back yard truly looks amazing…My booty is sore and I'm exhausted-how does everyone else feel? I hope not too tired and sore… Again, Joe’s and my deepest appreciation for everyone’s super hard work yesterday. Now we just have to keep it alive! Donna”

Mindy had this to say, “OOOOhhhhh Yeah!!! Sore booty, sore hamstrings, sore shoulders--but the result was TOTALLY worth it. Hey, no gym in town has a better work out. I loved it. [BTW] I wish everyone could see our Mountain Laurels. I was thinking before Saturday they're looking much better than last year, but yesterday while working the property, even Warren agreed the bushes and abundant blooms are just spectacular!!”

Karla chimed in, “Yes, that "keeping it alive" is always the big issue with me. Donna, I didn't feel that you had tortured us enough on Saturday, so I spent Sunday afternoon working in my yard. It has a very long way to go before having that wonderful view like you now have. .. I got a Forest Pansy Redbud at Red Barn yesterday - they had about 3-4 left. Mine was a little smaller than the one you had…Now, I need some help as to best position it so I can get it in the ground.”

Annie wrote this note, “I'm so glad that you are enjoying the view from your backyard. It was hard work (seems to be the largest project so far) but totally enjoyable. Yup, plenty of sore muscles, but that only means haven't been using them enough. Got out in my yard some on Sunday after the rains stopped (got a good drenching) and trimmed and pulled some weeds. Your yard is so totally peaceful and beautiful. If you find me hanging over your fence some day just to take a look, please don't send me away. It's an oasis!!”

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