Fixing a Rain Barrel

A few (or six) years back I bought some plastic rain barrels. They had nice little planters in the top. For a while I had succulents growing in them.

A garden gnome surrounded by green succulents.

But the freeze and this summer killed off the succulents. And then the lid started failing. Turns out having 50 pounds of granite and mulch on a plastic lid might be bit much.

Rain barrel with a failing top. Work overseen in the distance by a small garden gnome.

So I scooped out all the mulch and dirt, and took a saw to remove the old top.

I put screws along the edge, and ordered a mesh draw string netting off of Amazon. I tightened the drawstring around the screws and everything is in place.

Hopefully I’ll get a few more years out of this barrel. We’ll see how it holds up when the rains come back.

Keeping the heat out

Midcentury homes with gigantic windows are wonderful. We love looking out at our garden. But the heat…. the heat…

In years past we replaced all of our windows with modern double-pane ones which was a huge upgrade and made our lives much more pleasant – especially in the winter. But in the summer, I sit at the breakfast table with my back against the windows and roast. We live in a greenhouse.

A conversation on Twitter brought up that in Europe they routinely cover their windows to keep the heat out or in, depending on the season, which is something we haven’t really done in the US. We tend to focus on interior window coverings, but those just trap the heat by your windows. The heat is still inside your house. The 50s and 60s had awnings, but those don’t work for the morning hours when the sun is blasting into our kitchen.

Exterior shot of a garden and patio full of furniture with white roller blinds covering the window.
The roller blinds from the outside

One of the things that has changed is that we have smart homes so having outdoor blinds no longer requires going outside twice a day to pull them down and roll them back up. We decided to give outdoor roller shades a try. We went with Graywind custom shades* with a Zigbee motor. They can be triggered with a remote control and/or smart home hub. They have a battery that supposedly last 6 months and can be charged with USB-C cables.

Installing them was fairly trivial although it took a while because it’s hot outside. Every time we went out to work; it sucked out our will to live. But it involves putting up two brackets to hold the blinds and two magnetic brackets at the bottom of the window frame. It’s 10 screws per blind so really not a huge job. You need two people to mark where the brackets go, but you can let your helper free after that. You can add wire cable guides if you live in a windy area, although we skipped that for now.

Getting the remote to work and setting the top and bottom limits of the blinds was fussy and irritating. But it’s something you can do sitting in a chair in the shade.

Inside picture of a dining room with white exterior roller blinds covering the window.
Julie says it feels like we live in the movie E.T.

I use Home Assistant for home automation which is nerdy, but something most folks who have hosted a website or dealt with Docker containers can handle. I’ve setup the blinds to come down at 11:30pm each night. And to go up once the sun starts setting – i.e after the solar meridian. Here’s the trigger for that:

  - platform: template
    value_template: "{{ is_state_attr('sun.sun', 'rising', False) }}"

A very nerdy post, but hopefully someone finds it useful. It is great for keeping the heat out of your house and enjoying the garden in the afternoon.

A picture looking out towards the garden in mid-afternoon with patio furniture in the foreground and a pool and fire pit in the background.
The garden in mid-afternoon.

* Not a sponsored post. I received no compensation for this.

Weeding Gayfeather

One of the things that I think can be a struggle for every native plant gardener is “what to weed”. We want our wildflowers to spread, but not our weeds. As part of that I thought I’d try to start doing comparisons. It’ll help me remember and maybe someone else.

I’m going to start with Gayfeather. It’s a plant you usually have to leave until fall before you see blooms so there are lots of opportunities to accidentally weed it.

I have two other plants in my yard that look like it. Here are the three:




Gayfeather’s leaves are very distinct and separated from one another.

In Horseweed the leaves are tightly packed.

Ragweed is apparently an artemesia and definitely has those delicate lace-like leaves. I find that when it’s short its color makes it blend in with Greg’s Mistflower.

Please excuse the pictures, but hopefully this is a helpful comparison.

“Let’s Care for Texas Plants” Zines

I recently got Colleen Dieter’s “Let’s Care for Texas Plants” Zines. I love gardening books, but frequently finding information again can be a real struggle. Colleen has done a great job of creating 3 indexed volumes on plant care in Texas that are short and to the point. The first is about care for turf grass and trees. The second is common perennials. The third is common “other” plants like Agaves, Yuccas, and Roses.

She said she expects some of this to be controversial, but most of it lines up with my experience. Of course that makes sense. In a rather wild coincident we live in the same neighborhood a couple streets apart. We have the same street number and first word of addresses (think 123 Oak Ridge and 123 Oak Valley) so the mail person loves to give us each other’s mail. I’ve been walking over to return mail for years and admiring her yard, but somehow it took me years of reading her blog at Red Wheelbarrow to put two and two together.

I would recommend this for anyone growing plants in Texas. I’m also hoping other people start making zines like this.

I think I’m going to make and decorate a binder and put these inside. I’m going to add the City of Austin’s Grow Green guides and some well labeled tabs. It’ll be like a Better Homes and Gardens Garden Book, but actually relevant to my zone!

I highly recommend anyone who is trying to grow any plants outdoors in Texas buy this great resource. Pick it up over at Red Wheelbarrow:

Shop For Stuff — (

Roping some plants

This past weekend I looked at the completely dead splotches in my backyard. The one thing that’s consistent about them is that they’re dead. I have St. Augustine under a live oak that is very happy. But the minute it gets out from under the tree’s shade the grass spends its time in one of two states – yellow and struggling or dead.

Looking at those dead splotches and the rain chances I got an itch to do some planting. I have been getting ads for “Plant Cowboy Delivery” for quite a while. I browsed their site a lot this summer knowing I shouldn’t buy anything during a historic drought. But this seemed like the perfect opportunity to give them a try.

I don’t know if you’re anything like me. But I tend to make fairly detailed plans for my yard. Then I go to the nursery and can’t find half the plants and so I substitute with what’s on hand. Half of what I buy dies or doesn’t look right. So having a way to order the exact plants I want is really appealing to me. And I noticed “Plant Cowboy” updates their inventory so I could plan for what I needed.

I ordered on Friday and got the delivery on Monday morning (they don’t work over the weekend which is fair). The plants were stunning. These are 1 gallon Big and Gulf Muhly. Aren’t they beautiful?

Big and Gulf Muhly

They were a bit root-bound, but for the size that is probably pretty obvious. I’m going to definitely order from them in the future.

There’s a $25 delivery fee, but I figure I easily saved that in not buying extra plants I don’t need at the nursery. And the prices are pretty great. Especially for agaves and cactus.

Anyway, check them out – Plant Cowboy. I don’t make any money off or free plants off of this. Just want them to stay in business.

Natural Wasp Control

Last year I had a wasp problem. Weeding I kept stumbling upon nests and getting stung 5 times at once. It was not good. I lost a lot of sleep to allergic reactions.

We’ve also had several parties that wasps crashed.

So, I started buying the black wasp spray and taking out nests. But:

  • I really hate using chemicals
  • The chemicals tend to spray back into my eyes
  • Any wasps that don’t die can recolonize the nest the next day
  • The cans are expensive when you have dozens of nests

We were moving out of the house we were renting, and the landlord had sent out an exterminator. I noticed rather than using any sort of chemicals he was using a long pole with a puff on the end to get rid of wasps.

This year I looked it up and got one for myself. They’re called cobweb dusters – and also work great for dusting cobwebs inside your house.

Cobweb duster

I take mine out around dusk and just press the duster firmly against the wasp nest, scraping it off. I wait a second and then just move enough that the nest and wasps can drop. I stay still for a few seconds and usually the wasps just fly away.

It’s very quick and easy.

Removing your grass?

With this summer looking like a brutal repeat of 2011 you might be thinking about removing or limiting the amount of turf grass in your life. That’s great! Here are a few things I’ve learned. Note, that I’m East of Lamar which tends to be a fairly good dividing line for the Edwards Plateau. I’m on Blackland Prairie not rocky limestone.

The most xeric plant is an established one.

Well established St. Augustine I rarely water

I had parts of my lawn that were always struggling. I also have some parts that are in dappled sun under a nice tree that never require any additional water. Focusing on ripping out the struggling parts first can help keep your workload in control.

Austin is not the desert.

My yard in August with no irrigation is NOT the desert.

I cannot emphasize this enough. If you rip out your existing turf grass and cover the area with rocks you will either be pulling weeds or using pesticides constantly. And rocks are HOT. It’s like making your entire yard a BBQ pit.

Cactus can have a place, but Austin is both too wet and too cold for most species. In Austin xeric does not usually mean cactus. Make sure the plants you plant are cold hardy into the 20s.

Decomposed granite is a wonderful growth medium for most of our wildflowers. I think it’s wonderful and can be a great part of your landscape, but it will require weeding. Having a decomposed granite path with a large flagstone or concrete stepping stone in the middle will help reduce your weeding.

Rent a sod cutter

You can rent a sod cutter from Home Depot for about $100 per day. And you’ll probably be able to rip up all your grass in a single day. If you do it by hand you’re probably looking at a couple months of weekends.

Avoid landscape fabric!

Landscape fabric promises to help you avoid weeds. And it does prevent “weeds” like Native Grasses, Bluebonnets and other wildflowers. It does NOT help prevent Bermuda Grass or Nut Sedge. They LOVE it and it helps protect their roots from weeding.

Mulch is good… at first

Mulch is great for helping perennials get established. But a few years in you should be able to stop mulching around your perennials. Plant density should be able to keep the soil cool and reduce weed growth.
And anything you plant from seed should not be in a mulched area. You’ll end up wasting money.

What do do this summer

First apply for your Austin Water rebate if you’re planning on doing that. You need to rip out healthy grass to get the rebate. When I did this, they did not need the most formal plans.

Rip out the grass and let it solarize. The sun and heat is probably going to nuke anything so no need to add carboard or plastic. You can’t install plants until the fall, so this will be ugly, but worth it. Also broadcast your wildflower seeds in the fall. Wildflower’s won’t really grow in mulched areas so I would suggest mulching areas where you plan on planting small perennials and ornamental grasses and leaving areas where you want wildflowers un-mulched.


I’m not going to lie. At first there will be quite a lot. In East Austin to reduce maintenance you should try to get as much plant density as possible. Open spaces are spaces where weeds can thrive. One a year usually in late March I do a cutback of most plants with a string and hedge trimmer. March frequently feels hectic with tons of weeding, but the yard fills out in May and by June there’s little weeding left to do and beautiful flowers to admire.

Plants I’ve had success with

These are plants I like and have had success with in East Austin. I specify Bluebonnets separately because not only are they beloved, but they also are really important for out-competing early spring weeds. They also love your crappy dirt that has been solarized all summer.


Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
Seed Mixes from Native American Seed (pick ones that match your enviroment)


Flame Acanthus
Red Yucca
Big Muhly
Texas Lantana (Lantana urticoides)
Mealy Blue Sage
Texas Sotol



Texas Persimmon


Density Buffalo Grass (not eligible for rebates, but it is a great full sun xeric yard cover)

Chihuahuan Desert Gardens

As COVID continues to rage we took an outdoor hiking vacation to El Paso and the surrounding parks. A flat tire left us stranded in El Paso for an entire day waiting for a replacement. We ended up checking out several local gardens including the Chihuahuan Desert Garden at UT El Paso (UTEP).

The garden meanders around a museum. I was expecting the “introduction to native plants” you find at many state parks, but the number and quality of specimens was amazing.

The most common common name seemed to be “shindagger”. Multiple plants carry it. Seems to be a big issue in the desert.
UTEP has its own architectural vernacular which melds well with the garden.
The campus itself is landscaped with native and adapted plants with the jaw-dropping backdrop of the Davis Mountains. I wish UT Austin would do more of this.
This Algarito specimen is amazing. A plant that in our wet environment I expect to be spindly was bushy and full in their garden.
We all loved the shape and remaining seedheads of the Mexican Tree Sunflower (Tithonia fruticosa).
Assuming this is a bigtooth maple with fall color (I didn’t take a picture of the sign). We saw a lot of these up in the Guadalupe Mountains, but they had all lost their leaves.
Lots of Queen Victoria agaves that were much more open than I’m used to. Is this because of the dry air?
An amazing caterpillar we saw chomping away. The neon greens and blacks reminded me of an energy drink can.
For my friends who think my garden is too spiky, at least I don’t have this plant. The aptly named “allthorn” (Koeberlinia spinosa).
In the middle of the garden was this respite from the sun – a delicate water feature.
And leaving my favorite plant for last – this is a Desert Willow. No really. My daughter is provided for scale, and she’s 5’9″. I have never seen a Desert Willow even remotely approach this. We all had to look at the label like 12 times and compare it to some of the smaller specimens in the garden. Now I have high expectations for the one outside my back window.

The UT El Paso campus had some amazing views and kinetic sculptures.

I-10, the wall, and Juarez.

Our vacation was supposed to be hiking and this wasn’t on our schedule, but it was an unexpected surprise. This has definitely gone one my list as one of my favorite gardens in Texas. I can’t wait to go back and see it in the other seasons.