September 5th, 2006
1. Mistakes Were Made

What went wrong?

Fall has fallen. I woke up this morning and the entire front yard (and my car) were covered in the buttery yellow leaves of the cedar elms. A light rain was almost falling–just enough rain to drip off the roof but not enough to get me or the ground wet as I spent all day playing in the dirt. (Camp Mabry measured almost 1/2 an inch but we were closer to ABIA’s 1/10th of an inch.) And the temperature, wow! On September 5, 2000 Austin hit it’s all time high of 112 degrees. Today the high was 81. 81! Eighty-one.

Pam/Digging and Annie of Austin have asked me some thoughtful questions. Credit the cooler weather but my mind has been going 100 miles a minute analyzing and theorizing. I began writing a response but it grew so long, I’ve decided to break it up into more digestible pieces.

I think the best way to figure out where to go from here is to determine where I’ve been. Pam gardens nearby and although her garden suffered in Austin’s drought, it does not appear to be as devastated as mine. So where did I go wrong?

1. I Bit Off More Than I Could Chew
My yard is pretty large for its location. The house was built on two lots totalling 15,000 square feet. Almost 90% of that is yard. In 1993, when I moved in, the landscape was well-established; it was already 50 years old. I’ve never really started a garden from scratch–I simply carve out a space or a place for a plant that I’ve fallen in love with.

Although I try to put plants with like requirements together, that doesn’t always happen. So plants requiring special care are scattered all over the yard. And though I began the garden with native and drought-tolerant plants, over the years I’ve expanded my interests. My idea, which has worked for many years, is that the natives take care of themselves leaving me time to take care of the special needs plants.

I do all the work myself but, in the garden, I’m not a very focused worker. (This is leisure, dammit!) Nope. I’m one of those gardeners that’s easily distracted by tasks as I walk from a bed I’m weeding to the mulch pile. Sometimes I spend an inordinate amount of time just smelling the dirt or watching clouds drift by or taking photographs. I can spend all weekend in the garden without anyone being able to see what exactly it was I accomplished.

And over the years I gave up three of my most useful tools. 1. A chipper/grinder. 2. My mulching mower. 3. AJM’s pickup truck. I miss the truck the most. Every birthday and holiday I used to get a cubic yard or two of mulch (AJM does know the secret workings of my heart). Do you know how many bags of mulch you can fit into a Miata? (Three.)

The bottom line is that over the years I’ve expanded the number of beds, the realm of the garden, with the expectation that the established beds would require less attention. That expectation has been disappointed.

2. I Forgot That Trees Grow
I always hate comparing garden design to interior design. Can you imagine a finding the perfect coffee table to complement your sofa only to have it grow disproportionately large and crowd out the sofa so that one side turns brown and withers? I’ve always thought it ridiculous to treat a landscape as something that can be installed as if it were furniture. Furniture is static. Plants change. Being aware of this, I’m rather surprised that the trees were able to sneak up on me.

When I moved here in 1993, my lot was covered in large trees: cedar elms, a couple of pecans, two weedy chinaberries and a sickly young live oak. That June the largest cedar elm split in half. On September 7 1995 Austin experienced 70 mile an hour winds and every tree in my yard lost major limbs. And I was one of the lucky ones. My neighbor had a huge live oak completely uprooted. Another neighbor’s tree had the top sheared off.

I was just beginning to garden then, and the tree disaster had a silver lining. For the first time there was sunlight in my garden. We could see the sky. I planted crepe myrtles, esperanza, salvias, and plumbago. Over the years, the shade has crept back in, slowly taking over beds planned for full sun.

My real problem, however, is with tree roots. I try as much as possible to make raised beds. Even when I can’t, I conscientiously amend the soil with compost before planting. However, when I later dig up plants to divide them, the tree roots have invaded. If I don’t redo a bed every couple of years or so, the tree roots suck all the moisture and tilth from the soil. When I look at the garden I think the hardest hit spots are beds that I haven’t dug up in more than three years.

I’d hoped that once I got those beds established I’d be able to move on to new beds. I don’t have the time, energy, or money to rework every bed every couple of years. I’m thinking of using horticultural cloth to keep out the tree roots but I don’t think it will work with the kind of planting I do. Which is more labor intensive? Which is more expensive?

3. I Was Complacent
I moved to Austin over 30 years ago. Austinites expect summer to be miserable and are happily surprised the few years it isn’t. Grousing about the heat is a city-wide sport. Every summer around the fourth of July I brace myself for two months of misery.

This was just another summer right? Wrong. Although the daily high temperatures were not as high as in other summers, they were consistently high for almost seven weeks. The real problem was that my plants were already stressed going into summer; the ground already parched.

Ever since last September when Hurricane Rita swerved east of Austin, we’ve had unusually dry conditions. Last fall, noticeably few self-sown overwintering annuals sprouted. Some, like love-in-a-mist, didn’t come up at all–for the first time in all the years I’ve had it.

I spent some time every weekend providing supplemental water but last spring I was in school and beginning the kitchen remodel so I put the garden on the back burner. (And you know what happens when you forget a saucepan of milk on the stove.)

4. I Ignored Early Warning Signs
Several bulbs (gladiolus, daylilies, sprekelia, irises) began withering and going dormant much earlier in the summer than usual. I should have dug them up right away but I just didn’t feel like being in the garden during our 100 degree days. I put in my couple of hours in the early morning watering but that was it.

Plants that rarely have problems with a dry spell turned brown (nandina, yaupon holly, English ivy, monkey grass). Except for the yaupon holly, I consider these plants friendly weeds; that is, I let them grow and fill in the gaps without any care from me until I can get around to planting that section of the yard.

I guess my biggest mistake was thinking that this summer was like other summers–that established drought-resistant native plants would pull through on their own. I believed that because the history of my garden told me so. And as we all know from watching politics, belief often clouds our eyes to the evidence in front of us.

by M Sinclair Stevens

4 Responses to post “1. Mistakes Were Made”

  1. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    M., that’s a very thoughtful analysis. You know, I’d bet that all four of your self-described mistakes are also the most common ones for all gardeners. Yours just happened to coincide with a major drought, creating a “perfect storm” for your garden. (Sorry, couldn’t help using that tired analogy.)

    You said elsewhere that you do not give up easily. So I’m sure you will be back out there with your gloves on and sleeves rolled up. In that case, have you decided what you will do differently this time?

  2. From Annie in Austin:

    My husband showed me weather statistics on the NOAA record site – maybe the perceptions that Austin was better in the hippie days are true. Terribly hot years ruled the 1920’s and the 1950’s, with a definite dip in summer heat during the Stevie Ray and Old Armadillo years. The Austin you chose as home and the Austin that recruited Philo in 1999 had different weather.

    As to belief, I deluded myself that we had an underground spring in a spot where the lawn stayed green. The adjacent border nearly died before my eyes unclouded. The ‘spring’ had been my neighbors’ once-leaking, now-disconnected hot tub.

    Ah, for those good ol’ 70s when we all had a hot tub. — mss

  3. From M2 (Austin):

    I deeply enjoyed this post. I know it’s about death and loss, in a way, but it’s also about regrouping and rallying.

    It’s also let me see the “thinking” and “feeling” side of gardening at a completely different level than I ever had before!

    Thanks. I’m not sure what you mean exactly–I wish you’d expand. Being introduced to your garden gave me a lot of insights into my own garden processes. Specifically, like “love” I parse “garden” primarily as a verb, not a noun. — mss

  4. From Craig:

    You are being too hard on yourself; they are not mistakes but learning opportunities. Every calamitous thing that happens in a garden has two sides. There is the sense of loss, futility, blame, second-guessing, and disappointment. It also a golden moment for learning. When I have lost a plant, bed, or garden I grieve a little, get mad at myself a lot, and try to use it as a lesson for moving forward, to take something positive from it. Like most gardeners, you were building on your past experiences and expecting the future to continue the same. This hopefully extraordinary event has stimulated you to focus on what your future gardens will be. I do not believe you can get there if you did not have this devastating experience. Yes, it sucks, but the knowledge gained will be with you for a lifetime.