Villa Finale’s grounds: A serene getaway

Front gateOur South Texas weather has been perfect recently for enjoying the outdoors here in San Antonio; so if you happen to find yourself in the South Town area, why not stop by Villa Finale and enjoy our recently opened grounds for a stroll or nice picnic on the vast expanse of the lawn.

Having been renovated this past summer, we wanted the public to be able to come explore and enjoy the gardens of this historic site.  Villa Finale’s property backs into the River Walk so access is available straight from the River or street level.  Once you are here, you can take advantage of our Formal gardenhouse tours available daily.

Grounds are free and open to the public Tuesday, 12:00 – 4:00pm and Wednesday through Saturday 9:30 – 4:00.  A free downloadable self-guided brochure of our grounds is available by clicking the link below or at our website

Grounds self-guided brochure

Villa Finale’s landscape restoration begins!

The landscape restoration project here at Villa Finale is well underway and big changes are already evident throughout the site. At the moment, we are finishing the initial demolition and pre-work phase getting ready for the new plant material and hardscapes to be installed. Let me tell you, it is very exciting to see the work in progress and visualize the difference this renovation project will have on Villa Finale! Just the relatively simple task of removing crowded trees and shrubs along both the north and south edges of our landscape has provided a new opportunity to visualize what the restored landscape will reveal.

The irrigation work will start soon adding the much needed sprinkler system to the landscape, especially since we are already in stage two water restrictions here in San Antonio once again. Water conservation and eliminating water waste is very important to us so we added as much drip irrigation to the new system as possible. This will help us manage our water use and get the water directly to the soil where it is most beneficial to the newly installed plant material. In keeping with our organic landscape practices, we are amending all the planting beds with compost to add nutrients and organic life to our soil; this will greatly aid in the health of the plants and in the soil’s ability to retain water.

The landscape renovation project has been in the works for some time now and we’re all happy to see it fulfilling its anticipated promise! Be sure to stop by Villa Finale to see the work and share in our excitement!

Beating the Texas drought through organic landscape maintenance

For those of you that are not located in South Texas, or anywhere in Texas for that matter, we have had a very challenging year when it comes to keeping a lush landscape. Not only was it very hot, very often, but it was very dry, also. As you drive around San Antonio, yard after yard is burnt to a crisp. We at Villa Finale, are charged with not only being stewards of the objects in Mr. Mathis’s collection and buildings, but also the beautiful landscape that he created. This presented a very challenging problem for us to solve.

Villa Finale's green front lawn: product of organic maintenance.

San Antonio gets all of its potable water from the Edwards Aquifer. So, during times of drought, we are placed under watering restrictions. The watering restrictions are graduated and correlate to the level of water in the Aquifer. For most of this summer we were, and still remain, in Stage 2 watering restrictions. What does that mean for those of us that are required to keep our landscapes alive and healthy? It makes things much more challenging. You may water by hand and use drip irrigation any day, but you can only use sprinklers and soaker hoses on your designated day of the week and only between the hours of 3 AM to 8 AM and 8 PM and 10 PM.

We adhered strictly to these restrictions, but we had an ace in our pocket. We use organic methods to manage our landscape. By simply using what nature gives us in the form of normal yard waste, and a knowledge of how mother nature used to provide everything that it needs to sustain itself for many years prior to our creation of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, we have started to revitalize our landscape at Villa Finale. By using compost and Vermicompost, worm castings, we can create almost everything that we need right here on site to successfully manage the health and vitality of our landscape even in the severe conditions that we have endured this past year.

The proof is in the pudding, as they say. All year I have heard comments from our guests, “You must not be adhering to the watering restrictions.” “Has it been raining more in San Antonio than the rest of Texas?” “Your yard is so green! What is your trick?” No tricks. We just have invested a little bit of money and have taken the time to learn from the lessons that nature used to care for its self long before we came along. I am not trying to say that it has been easy to get the results that we have, but it worked. So, what was the final score? Well, I would not call this game over yet, but I would at least say that we are ahead.

Vermicomposting at Villa Finale

Vermicompost bin.

Here at Villa Finale we have chosen to take the organic or “green” approach when caring for our landscape. One of the things we have taken on to help us accomplishing this goal is creating our own vermicompost bin to process our kitchen waste that in turn gives us nutrient rich vermicopost. To accomplish this task a special worm is needed, the Red worm ‘Eisenia Foetida’. Although they do look similar to the common earth worm you see in your garden this worm naturally thrives above the soil where it can get to all the decaying plant matter that falls to the ground. They feed on this and produce a natural fertilizer that is great for all your plants. These guys are not native to the US, they come from Europe and Asia; this species is the best to use when creating your own vermicoposting bin. One of the reasons these guys are the best is their giant appetite, a pound of worms can eat up to three and a half pounds of food a week! That’s half a pound a day and they can also lay eggs every seven days giving them the ability to multiply quickly.

So how do you go about making a vermicomposting bin? Well, here at Villa Finale, we have made a wooden box with a cover using untreated wood. We placed the box below ground only leaving the top exposed. This allows the temperature to stay relatively stable in this South Texas heat. Worms thrive and do best when their bedding temperature is between 55 – 77 degrees Fahrenheit, anything above 84 degrees can be harmful. When I say bedding this means the material in which the worms live and can move around freely. Bedding can be made up of anything from shredded paper and cardboard to dry leaves and manure. Here we us a mixture of finished sifted compost made on site and decayed shredded leaves. We wet this down pretty good so the material feels moist to the touch but not dripping wet. The worms need a moist environment to survive. We add the bedding about 12-16 inches deep in our worm box, our worms seem to love and thrive in this environment. This is just one of the ways to create your own bin, you can use anything from plastic tubs to store bought worm bins.

Worm castings.

Feeding your worms is an important part of the process, like I said before one pound of worms can go through up to 3.5 pounds of food a week. Yes, the worms do also feed on the decaying leaves, shredded paper or compost you use for bedding but they love to devour your everyday kitchen scraps. Uncooked fruit or vegetables and coffee grounds can all be added to your bin to satisfy their appetite. It’s best if you collect your kitchen scraps and let them naturally start to brown and decay. This helps later when adding them to the bin, if the scraps are fresh and green they can create heat when naturally decomposing in the bin and this heat can harm the worms.

Depending on how small or large of a bin you have, regularly collect the worm castings and replacing the bedding is very important. Too much worm castings in the bin and not enough bedding can be toxic to the worms so judging how often to do this important. Here at Villa Finale we collect the castings about 2-3 times a month, this is one of the advantages to regular composting as vermicomposting can take up to 1/3 of the time traditional composting does. The worm compost or castings you collect should look like dark black coffee grounds. This is where all the nutrients are. Worm compost improves the soils ability to hold water, it increases the beneficial microbial activity in the soil, it helps to aerate your soil and prevent compaction, it decreases the chances of pests and disease attacking your plants and it can have up to 5-11 times the N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) than regular soil. Applying this natural fertilizer to your garden or landscape can be as easy as sprinkling it around your plant or in your pots, mixing it into your soil or like we do here creating a “Compost Tea” and applying it as a soil drench or foliar feed. All these ways are very beneficial to your lawn or landscape and are environmentally friendly.

Composting at Villa Finale

Green house and compost bin behind Villa Finale's Carriage House.

Compost is an essential tool that we at Villa Finale use to care for our landscape.  Compost is essentially an ecosystem in which materials go from raw organic matter to premium soil using the “circle of life.”  We use compost to bring LIFE back into our soils and the plants they sustain.  Healthy soils mean healthy plants, and healthy plants are much more resistant to infection, infestation, and disease.

In order to make compost you need FIVE basic ingredients: Carbon, Nitrogen, Moisture, Air and Heat.  The Carbon comes from items such as brown leaves and wood chips.  The Nitrogen comes from green vegetation such as grass clippings or raw vegetable scraps.  We mix these items together in ratios to produce recipes for certain applications.  We then add appropriate amounts of water or Moisture so that the naturally occurring microorganisms can prosper and do their job in breaking down the organic material.  Air is introduced to the mixture so that the microorganisms can breathe and the process stays aerobic.  We accomplish this in two ways: 1. by designing our compost bin so that the compost is exposed to as much air as possible.  2. By turning the compost.  Bringing together all of the previous four items Heat naturally occurs. 

Orlando Cortinas, Landscape Maintenance Technician, applying compost tea at Villa Finale's front garden.

In the way that we make compost at Villa Finale, there are three distinct phases that the compost goes through: Mesophilic, Thermophilic, and the Maturation Stage.  During the Mesophilic Stage which occurs in the first couple days, temperatures quickly rise to 68-104 degrees.  It is during this stage that the initial breakdown of difficult to digest materials occurs by all of the macro and microorganisms that are present.  During the Thermophilic Stage, temperatures jump to between 135 and 155 degrees.  Now only certain organisms can survive; they not only survive, they thrive.  Complex carbohydrates are broken down and any pathogens are killed off along with seeds.  Finally in the last stage, the Maturation Stage, temperatures drop back down to hover between 104 and 131 degrees.  Now is when the decomposition of highly resistant organic matter like lignin is finished.  This is also when the compost starts to impart that “earthy” smell and develop all of the major soil binding properties.

We use a number of different tools to control these stages and get the final product that we are looking for.  Adding additional brown material, or Carbon, allows us to cool things down.  This will also make the compost have a higher population of fungi since they are the major contributor to breaking down the harder to digest material.  Having a larger ratio of Carbon will also start to impart a more acidic pH to the compost.  Turning the compost and adding water to it will also cool down the temperatures.  If we want to heat up the compost we can add additional green material, or Nitrogen.  This will also result in the compost having a higher bacterial population, as well as start to give the compost a slightly more alkaline pH.

Here at Villa Finale we use compost in almost everything that we do horticulturally.  We use compost in our potting soil and during transplanting.  We use it to enhance our soils and to brew compost tea which we use for everything from an insecticide to foliar feeds.  Compost truly is the foundation of our horticultural management plan.

The Other Way: Organic Horticulture and the Landscape at Villa Finale

For roughly 100 years we have been using synthetic, chemically based products to care for our landscapes, gardens, and farms.  There is another way, the original way, the way that nature intended for these operations to work … The Organic Way.  Since Villa Finale was gifted to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2004 we have decided to adopt this method for the care of the landscape. 

Composting bins at Villa Finale.

You might ask yourself, “Why would they choose such a radical method to care for such an important part of their story?”  The answer: We feel that it is safer for the overall environment and that it works.  I want to give you a brief description of Organic Horticulture, or at least how it affects our yards and landscapes and then give you a little peek at what we are doing here at Villa Finale to become a 100% Organic Landscape and why we have chosen to do so.

Organic gardening provides your plants with all of the nutrients that the synthetics do, but in a much more efficient form that is safer for our environment.  Think of your yard as an ecosystem and there is a food chain to that ecosystem.  Even the smallest guy on the totem pole provides benefits to the one who relies on it for food.  Some of these micro-organisms have created symbiotic relationships with the plants that live in our yards and help them to thrive.  Take the mycorrhizal fungi for instance.  They enter into a relationship with the root systems for most of the plants that live in our gardens.  This is a relationship that is beneficial to both parties involved.  The fungi are provided with food from the exudate of the plant and the plant’s root system is greatly expanded, plus the presence of the fungi increases the plant’s ability to take in necessary nutrients.  The existence of these fungi also increases the soils ability to hold oxygen and water.  This is of great concern to those of us here in Texas that experience drought conditions almost yearly.

Old composting bins at the site.

The list goes on and on.  Not all organisms are good, but they are food for someone else.  The point is if one aspect of the system disappears it affects another and so on down the line like a house of cards.  When we use the synthetic chemicals to treat our yards it starts to take a toll on the ecosystem that makes up a healthy yard.  Eventually, it will significantly reduce, or even kill off, whole sections of the ecosystem.  In essence, even though you may see a fairly instant positive effect from these products, they are causing long-term damage.  It is not irreversible though.  There are proven processes that can reinvigorate even the most desolate landscape. 

Setting up an organic landscape care plan does take an investment, both in time and monetarily, to set up.  In the end though, you will find that over time you are spending less time and money on the care of you landscape, garden, or farm with often improved results.  Please stay tuned to this blog for this is just the first of five in a series posts on Organic Horticulture and Landscaping.  Blog topics still to come will be: Weed Control, Compost, Compost Tea, and Pest Control.  So please stay tuned for the future blogs, previously mentioned, to learn about different aspects of Organic Horticulture and Landscaping and how we at Villa Finale have chosen to use these effective tools.

Chris Roddy

Watching paint dry…

A shutter from the dreaded north side.

We have had the nicest people come through on Villa Finale’s Hard Hat Tours.  They are interested in just about everything, from the kitchen ceiling to the old piece of wallpaper I found upstairs behind the base board in the Green Sitting Room. (yep, wasn’t always green, it was blue and swirly at some point).  The tours are a joint effort between the Manager of Public Programs, Sylvia Hohenshelt, Manager of Buildings and Grounds, Chris Roddy and me, Manager of Curatorial Resources.  We have a great time showing our small groups of visitors through the house under construction. 

Cocooned Meissen Dog Band.

 The tour officially starts at the Villa Finale Visitor Center, but Chris and I don’t see them until they arrive at the gate.  The dialogue is a relay between the three of, Sylvia tells the visitors about the history of the house, as we’re walking from room to room, and Chris and I talk about building restoration and curatorial information, respectively.  Since there isn’t a stick of furniture on view, I must be quite creative, curatorially speaking.  I do explain how we packed up the house, piece by piece, into acid- free temporary housing, show them my finding aid for each box and tell them that, if requested by a researcher, I could unearth the …Meissen Dog Band, for example.  I show them how each delicate little piece is cocooned in polyester fluff and tissue.  We also describe how we’ve swaddled every large thing in unbleached muslin and heavy plastic sheeting. 

Even the smallest grate has a number.

We give a pretty good run-down of the project and all of its detail and subtleties.  Right now, several windows are being restored under the car-port, and they each have their own story.  You can see if panes of glass were replaced, or not, and you can tell if the person who replaced them was lazy or not by how they were replaced and glazed. And every single exterior shutter has been taken off, labeled, and will be straightened out and repaired.   If it’s a nice day, we take the group into the garden and explain what will occur there, the storm drain system, the plant removal and replacement.  And our visitors are still interested!  Storm drains! Wow!

A New Year A New Beginning

The perimeter fence goes up as we prepare for construction.

This new year promises to bring a new beginning to Villa Finale, starting with the commencement of construction at 401 King William in early January.  Updates are to be made to the interior and exterior of this historic house but it won’t stop there.  As the Landscape Technician for the grounds,  I am pleased and excited to say that the landscape will be getting a face lift as well.  Since the landscape is considered historic, we will be preserving it as best we can and attempting to restore the landscape to its original beauty.  Why stop there?  Well, we  won’t.  From the ground up with this landscape project, we will be taking a ‘Green’ approach.  No chemicals or herbicides will be used in the demolition, soil amending will be done with compost and natural materials as opposed to synthetic fertilizers.  As for the new irrigation system to be installed, great care will be taken to efficiently operate it so no water will be wasted or misused.  We will strive to be a self-sustaining and environmentally friendly site. We will not be contributing any yard or kitchen waste to our landfills, we have been and will continue to create our own compost for use in the landscape. In addition, lawn/plant fertilization and weed/pest control will all be done organically so the use of toxic chemicals will not be needed.  We look forward to this new year and eagerly await all the great changes it will bring.  Check back with me, as I will continually keep you posted of things going on with the Villa Finale grounds.

‘Tis Better to Keep than Replace

San Antonio’s Office of Historic Preservation, with support from the San Antonio Conservation Society, offered a three day community symposium and workshop on wood window restoration last week.  For us preservationists, this was a wonderful thing.  To see a building with its wooden windows replaced makes us shudder, and plus, the appearance of the building changes completely, and not in a good way.

The “OHP” brought in experts in historic preservation to discuss sustainability, energy efficiency, and the economics of restoring historic buildings.  The goal of the symposium was to provide citizens with information about the real value and oft overlooked advantages gained by preserving buildings.  Professionals with specific experience in restoration were there to answer any questions regarding problems that may come up during a restoration. 

Villa Finale was very pleased to assist the OHP by providing a venue for lunch, which we set up on the terrace.  Afterward, the group toured the site’s exterior and listened to a presentation about the restoration of Villa Finale’s windows by architect Sue Ann Pemberton,  of  Mainstreet Architects.  Sue Ann and her firm will be performing the restoration on every exterior opening in Villa Finale, from the banal basement grates to the grand floor-to-nearly-ceiling windows.  

For all those readers who may be grimacing, thinking we’re all off our rockers and of the efficiency of replacement windows, think again.  Properly restored, wooden windows cut energy costs, window construction employs local crafts people (most replacement windows are not made locally, or even in the United States),  restoring windows keeps perfectly salvageable materials out of landfills and lastly, wooden windows are just plain beautiful.

group courtyard

The group of over thirty people listen as Sue Ann talks about Villa Finale.

Sue Ann keeps participants in rapt attention by talking windows.

Sue Ann keeps participants in rapt attention by talking windows.

Chris Roddy leads the group along a heavily windowed side of Villa Finale.

Chris Roddy leads the group along a heavily windowed side of Villa Finale.

Sue Ann reminisces about the front window that slammed down on her hand because it didn't have any sash cords.

Sue Ann reminisces about the front window that slammed down on her hand because it didn't have any sash cords.

–Meg Nowack

Villa Finale’s Very Own Owl

Besides the staff, there is wildlife at Villa Finale other than the usual city-dwelling squirrels.  For several months,  mostly in the afternoon, the staff would hear the very distinctive hooting of a large owl, and then the Watership Down-esque shadow of a giant predatory bird flying overhead, causing the most incredible outburst from other smaller and less fortunate birds. 

The owl remained out of sight, and only if you arrived very early could you see it crammed up against a tree trunk.  This author was never so “lucky” to arrive at the crack of dawn.  However, one late afternoon when the staff decided to take a spontaneous inventory of the patio furniture, with liquid libation, we saw it very high in a tree over Sheridan Street. 

It remained elusive until yesterday afternoon when it was having a battle with another raptor  and I was able to capture an image of it on my camera.  I identified it as being a Barred Owl.  Described as a “sit and wait” type owl, I couldn’t help but feel a kinship with this beautiful and intelligent bird.  It is also described as having “liquid brown eyes”, which also endeared it to me.  But, anthropomorphising aside, this owl is pretty fantastic. 



As I mentioned, its hunting method is to literally sit and wait for unsuspecting creatures to pass beneath it.  It will even wade into shallow water to catch crustaceans.  In fact, the belly feathers of the Barred Owl can turn pink from eating crayfish.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website provides a map showing the winter range of these owls, and it doesn’t quite make it to San Antonio, so I think it is safe to say that we have a (sort of) rare bird!  These owls are known to live in forested areas near streams or rivers-how perfect that this bird feels as if King William is the place to be.  If we’re lucky, our owl is a female.  Female Barred Owls go outward to find a mate and bring the winning candidate back to her territory to nest.  We may know in February, when the owl population settles down to start their families.

Barred owls are not welcome everywhere, though.  In the last century they have expanded their territory westward, often displacing rarer owls such as the Spotted Owl-however, the Spotted Owl doesn’t seem to mind that much – there have been reports of owl hanky-panky resulting in Barred/Spotted hybrids. 

I immediately thought the other raptor was a Cooper’s Hawk, but when looking at the photo I took, his chest is streaked, not barred, its overall appearance did not really look like one.  Maybe a juvenile.  Whatever he is, he definitely seems to mind the owl’s invasion.  If you look very closely, you will see the hawk on the far left and the bulky owl down on the right.  But he shouldn’t really get his feathers ruffled.  Unlike the Cooper’s Hawk, Barred Owls do not catch anything on the wing, so all the sweet little song birds that the Cooper’s Hawk likes to eat will go unnoticed by our owl.  

Here are some Barred Owl statistics:  Length: 17 to 20 inches, Wingspan 39 to 43 inches, Weight 16 to 37 ounces.