Fall Reds: Oxblood Lilies

“Autumn is a second spring where every leaf is a flower. — Albert Camus” I saw this quote the other day on Brocante Home Chronicles and thought…not in Austin. Central Texas isn’t blessed with the brilliant fall foliage of the American northeast or Japan. It is, in fact, our flowers that suddenly burst into bloom, released from the oppressive heat and searing sun of summer.

At Zanthan Gardens it is oxblood lilies that reign supreme announcing fall is here. They begin to nose up in late August, regardless of the amount of rain or the temperatures. They require only water to bring them into bloom. Three jumped the gun and bloomed while I was in the UK as the result of the rain Austin got in mid-August (when I was gone). I decided to force other groups into bloom one at a time by watering them by hand.

oxblood lilies

Oxblood lilies are at their most impressive when hurricane rains bring the whole lot into bloom at once. (Another of their common names is hurricane lily.) Hurricane Ike is headed our way and should arrive this weekend. I always feel guilty wishing on a hurricane that is bringing death and misery to so many. Maybe in all that destruction a drop of beauty is bitter compensation. But I can’t help but hope for rain.

oxblood lilies

I often tempted into the mistake of taking too many close-ups of oxblood lilies. Their real impact is in how they provide a mass of color. For central Texans, they are like northerner’s daffodils of spring. I find it fascinating how they tend to point in the same direction like little soldiers in red coats standing at attention.

Our Summer Dilemma

When I asked Austin gardeners to commiserate about our miserable summer, I got an earful. Despite AJM rolling his eyes and sighing that he’s heard it all before, 2008 has been no ordinary Austin summer. We do not normally have 45 100°+ days in a year. We do not usually start our 100° temperatures in May. We do not always head into summer on the heels of a winter/spring drought. And, despite rumors to the contrary, we do not spend all summer complaining. Complaining is mostly limited to a few weeks in mid-August.

I had already planned to revive my tradition of August water bill comparison. But several comments urged me to do it now rather than later.

Bonnie @ Kiss of Sun wondered: “when you have a choice of paying to water and keep plants alive or cutting back on water and having to replace all of your landscaping because it dies, which road do you take?”

Carol @ Lost Valley Gardens made her choice, at quite a cost. “In order to keep my plants and trees alive this summer, I am averaging about 5000 gal usage per week. That means my water bill for a month is about $1000.”

Lori @ The Gardener of Good and Evil and I think a lot alike. It’s not just the money, it’s the time spent trying to pull the plants through, knowing that we have at least another month, the hottest month, to go. Lori says, “I’m so friggin’ sick of watering, and it would be so much less time-consuming if I just could focus on the big trees and roses and screw all the filler. Everything else still looks like crap anyway. I’d love to compare water bills with other Austin gardeners to see where I fall on the scale. I was just under $100 last month, which I thought was a lot, but apparently not.”

After a pleasant introduction to gardening in the 1990s, I struggled through 2000 and 2006. Determined not to let summer beat me down this year, I started off quite strong applying the lessons I learned after letting my garden succumb to the drought of 2006. In May, I watered early and often. I stuck with it through the hottest June in history. By July 4th (when it normally begins to get hot), my garden already looked like it had been through August.

At that point, I realized that plants which wilt if I’m out over a weekend, would never survive my absence for a week in August. So, like Lori, I decided to “screw all the filler”. I stopped watering everything except the largest perennials I had which had already survived 2006 and showed their worthiness.

Perhaps, because I’m desert born and bred, I’ve always been extremely conservative with my water. When we remodeled our kitchen a couple of years ago, we bought a water saving dishwasher (which uses about 1/4 of the water we used when we washed dishes by hand) and a water saving washing machine. Despite the pond (which requires topping up frequently as it is broad and shallow) and not letting the back lawn die completely, my latest water bill was low, I think–but not much different than other summers. I actually use more water in a dry winter because that’s when I’m growing my annuals, both in the meadow and in the vegetable garden.

So, the envelope please…

From June 17 – July 18 (daily temps in the 100s), we two adults consumed 5,500 gallons of water at a cost of $15.72.

Yep, that’s it. Less than the price of a rose bush. So, to answer Bonnie’s question, I take the path of conserving water at the expense of the landscape. I’ve just been down this dusty summer road once too many times. I’m not going to keep pouring water on plants that can’t survive our summers nor am I going to keep replacing them. Something is going to change.

I’m not willing to pay $1000 a month for water like Carol, or even $100 a month like Lori. And it’s not just about money. I’m not willing to consume huge amounts of water at the expense of my neighbors who rely on wells for theirs. We are draining our lakes and aquifer at an alarming rate. (And I don’t mean just us gardeners because lawn-bound surbanites and people with swimming pools share the responsibility.)

But Bob @ Draco Gardens, spoke to my heart about the seriousness of our dilemma. “I feel your pain, especially about the water. I just spent $3740 to replace the pump in my well because the water table had dropped 240′.” Read Bob’s story, Yikes! No water.

Your Turn
How much did you consume and what did it cost you? I’m also interested in knowing how much supplemental water gardens require in those parts of the country (and world) where temperatures are more pleasant. So, if you could include where you live and what the average high temperature was for the period of usage, I’d be very interested.

Losing My Passion

Have you wondered why I don’t write much about gardening anymore? No I haven’t been away. And I haven’t run out of things to say. (I have 50 posts in draft.) I’m simply cranky from the heat and don’t have the energy, or the desire to put a happy face on this miserable summer. AJM just rolls his eyes and says, “Oh, it’s just your usual summer SAD.” “No. It is NOT.” I reply testily. “Every summer you want to throw in the trowel and move to a condo.” I glare. “This is not your usual summer.”

This summer just tied the third-place record set in 2000 for the most 100 degree days. After Tropical Storm Edouard moves through and brings (we hope) a little relief, we will break that record. That would make 2008 worse than 2000. And 2000, all Austinites should remember, was the year we set the all-time high temperature ever recorded in Austin. In SEPTEMBER. 112 degrees. In 2000, the heatwave didn’t break until September 24th.

I’m not looking for encouragement or sympathy. I don’t need uplifting speeches from people who live in more temperate summer climes. You have horrible winters to even the score (Although your plants go dormant in your dead season. Ours don’t. They just die.) Yes, I know that someday fall will come and the oxblood lilies will bloom again. Nor am I looking for strategies to garden in this heat. There are many gardeners in Austin who are more successful than I am. Good for you. I admire you. I do.

If, on the other hand, you want to tell me how miserable you are, please join in. Misery does love company. I took a little walk around my neighborhood to see how other people were coping, or not. And it cheered me up.

Some of my more whimsical neighbors have responded by eschewing plants altogether. This old bicycle has a bed made especially for it. A perfect water wise solution to our drought.
Austin heatwave 2008

Even professional garden designers who don’t live in South Austin are not above the impulse to border and mulch an area and call it a garden. I like how Tom Spencer recycled fallen limbs to make this bold statement about gardening in Austin.
Austin heatwave 2008

Why are Austinites into extreme gardening? Well, between heat and drought, the leaves are falling off the trees…
Austin heatwave 2008

…even attractive plantings of Texas natives look peaked and sunburned…
Austin heatwave 2008

…ornamental grasses are suffering…
Austin heatwave 2008

and people new to the neighborhood have learned why Austinites don’t plant trees and bushes in the spring.
Austin heatwave 2008

That little patch of bright green is an affront to nature, isn’t it? Nature is on the left side of the photo. It wins.

Hot Tomato

On June 25th, Carol over at May Dreams Gardens in Indiana is rejoicing that her tomatoes are finally big enough to start tying up. In contrast, here in Austin, Lancashire rose is pulling hers out by June 21st. This is a fine illustration of what Austin gardeners face. While most of the world’s attention concerning tomato season is focused on first and last frost, worrying about setting plants out too early or being disappointed by an early freeze, we southern gardeners face another threat: heat.

If you measure the growing season as the time between first and last frost, then Austin has an incredibly long one. Our last frost is officially mid-March, although many Austin gardeners can’t resist a little gamble and start setting out plants a by Valentine’s Day. Austin’s first freeze often snarls Thanksgiving traffic. But yes, our freezes are short-lived. Our plants don’t go dormant. Our ground doesn’t freeze. So we can have flowers every month of the year.

However, it’s my experience that Austin doesn’t have a marvelously long growing season but two short ones, interrupted by that disaster known as summer. For example, tomatoes set fruit best if the day time highs are below 90F and the night time highs below 70F. Some research shows that “night temperature is the critical factor in setting tomato fruit, the optimal range being 59-68°F”.

In 2008, April was an ideal month for tomato fruit set. The high didn’t get out of the 80s and the lows ranged from 41-72. Within less than a month, the highs were in the 90s and 100s and the lows mostly in the 70s. If you didn’t have your tomatoes in and flowering by April, you missed out. Last year it was October before the temperatures fell into the correct temperature range for tomato set. That leaves a pretty small window before Austin’s first freeze.

I know from reading other Austin garden bloggers that there are a lot of successful tomato growers in this town. Will you share the secret of your success? Do you plant short-season tomatoes? Do you have some favorite heat-tolerant varieties (tomatoes that set fruit in temperatures higher than the average tomato can handle)? When do you put your plants in? And, do you pull them out over summer and start over in the fall? or do you try to nurse them through the heat?

Putting the Garden to Bed for the Summer

The official beginning of summer arrived on the heels of a cold front breaking our 32-day heatwave. Rain skirted Austin but none fell in the city. Still the temperatures felt cool, with a high of mere 91F degrees.

The dead of summer–that’s what I call it–the summer of our discontent when I’m counting the days to fall’s reviving rains and cooler temperatures. And playing with that theme, I put the garden to bed for summer. Where my analogy breaks down is that we don’t really get to put the garden completely to bed. Although plant growth slows and lawns don’t need much mowing, the remaining plants aren’t dormant. They need water and more water and cutting back.

I pull out the spring annuals that have gone to seed and mulch, mulch, mulch. Still I don’t mulch as much as I should. I’d have to buy a couple of yards of mulch to do it right and I haven’t done that since we sold our pick-up. I was lucky this year to get a free truckload of chips for the asking after our big windstorm of May 15th from one of the clean-up crews. I laid them on the paths and in the mini-woods and it’s done a lot to making the garden look tidier.

I thought I was on top of things this year, ahead of schedule. But summer was ahead of schedule too. It hit us this year like an early frost, two months early, with triple-digit highs reducing many plants to brown crisps of their former selves. Despite water and mulch, the plants droop every day when the sun shines directly on them. Every morning I perform a little triage to see if there are any plants in immediate need of attention, any plants that didn’t recover from sunstroke overnight.

I pay for breaking one of the basic rules of garden design. My plants are tucked here and there all over the yard rather than in just one bed that I could water easily with a soaker hose. In addition to the two meadow-type beds pictured here, there are two 12×12 beds in the front, some foundation plants, and beds around the perimeters of the yard. A lot of these spaces are still being replanted after the 2006 drought. I just don’t have the resources (mental, financial, or physical) to replant and maintain all these spaces in one go.

This year I’m moving a lot of smaller plants into pots where I can nurse them over the summer more easily. That’s my plan anyway. I’m known death to potted plants so it’s a gamble either way.

Zanthan Gardens meadow
Looking the other direction–much work left to do. Usually summer annuals like cosmos and sunflowers fill in. I need to completely rearrange the perennials that anchor the annuals. I could try for some more variety, too, I suppose. Don’t the Chinese chives look pathetic?

Mr. Peeps Does Spring Fling

I returned from my recent visit to Las Vegas with a newfound love for cactus and succulents. I couldn’t resist bringing home a golden barrel cactus but the only one I could find that would fit into my carry-on luggage was this novelty plant from the discount plant table at Lowe’s. Although I originally intended to remove the plastic eyes that had been glued on to create “My Peeps, Cactus Buddies”, many people wanted to see a photo of it. So I decided to make Mr. Peeps (as I’ve named him) my Spring Fling mascot.

Mr. Peeps loved the first stop on our Spring Fling tour: the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. There he found all sorts of cactus and succulent cousins to hang out with. It also gave him a glimmer of hope that he might be able to survive in Austin’s humidity.

golden barrel cactus

However, when the Garden Bloggers visited the private gardens of James David and Gary Peese I was forced to leave Mr. Peeps in the car. I told him that the tropical climate of the garden wouldn’t suit him but the truth is that these gardens are just too upmarket for a lowly plant from the Lowe’s discount table.
James David Garden

During the cocktail hour given by Pam/Digging, Mr. Peeps may have had a few too many Mexican martinis. The next thing I knew he was cavorting in Pam’s stock tank pond swooning to the mariachi band.
golden barrel cactus

I know some of you other Garden Bloggers made friends with Mr. Peeps. If you decide to post any photos of him during Spring Fling, leave me a comment and a link.


Friday dawned with a heavy downpour. So much for the promise of fine Texas weather that we used to lure all the northerners and midwesterners down for Spring Fling. Pam/Digging had arranged for the four of us to visit the beautiful gardens of Jenny Stocker. Go see her photos. They’re amazing. As was the garden. As was Jenny.

The official start of Spring Fling, our dinner party at Matt’s El Rancho, felt like a giant family reunion, even though this was the first time most of us garden bloggers had ever met. And yet we knew each other. For years we’ve shared the daily joys and sometime tribulations of our gardens. Talk immediately turned to weather, soil, seeds started, plants failed, and plans realized. Although we spoke the same gardening language, we often did so with different accents. Some say to-may-to; others to-mah-to. (Lirope? Basil? Crinum? Cercis?) Carol spoke botanical Latin while Annie held firm to the ecclesiastical pronunciation of her youth. And let’s not even mention my inability to pronounce the name of any rose I grow; they’re all French.

Being bloggers as well as gardeners, most of our conversations included references to each other’s posts, all that accumulated detail that made us feel like old friends–old friends who in many cases had never seen the other’s face, or knew the other’s real name, or occupation.

Gardening has always had a tradition of friendship through correspondence. One of the most famous, between Elizabeth Lawrence and Katherine White almost did not survive their meeting in person. Among the garden bloggers, however, I sense an immediate comraderie. This experience is so beyond what any of us envisioned when Pam tossed the idea out at us last December.

I’m running on pure adrenaline right now. Must dash off for the real beginning of Spring Fling.

Natural Gardener

We’ve watched the weather reports all week long as it threatened possible sleet for the weekend. The forecasted temperatures kept getting revised upward but predictions of severe thunderstorms, high winds, hail and even tornadoes amended our usual prayers for rain to something like, “Please let it rain (on my garden), but spare us the tornado.” By Friday it was muggy and warm, the air heavy with pre-storm moisture, and the clouds gray and roiling.

I’ve been working so hard these last few weeks with the chore side of gardening that I decided I needed a little treat before the bad weather set in. So I took myself to the Natural Gardener purposefully to buy some organic fertilizer but also just to see what I could fall in love with this year.

Natural Gardener

Most of the display gardens have been cut back and cleaned up. Some are being remade and it looks like there are some new ones in the works. Everything should be beautiful for our Spring Fling. The herb garden looks quite nice pared down to its bones, nicer than it did when MM and I visited last October. One of the things I notice about these boney geometric gardens–they are built on a flat surface. The other is that any trees are well beyond the perimeter. If I wanted a garden like this, I’d have to cut down all our trees and bulldoze my yard. Even if I had the money to do that, I’d be reticent. I’m trying to compromise with little terraces.

The garden I am really inspired by at the Natural Gardener is the winter vegetable garden (see photo at top). Look at the size of those cabbages! The hoops are for row covers during Austin’s occasional freezes. I do better with winter vegetables than summer ones because I have a lot more sunlight in the winter and because the temperatures are more temperate. A lot of vegetables, even heat-loving tomatoes, don’t like it when nighttime lows are consistently above 70F/21C. Also the winter vegetables don’t contend so much with insect and viral pests.

The Natural Gardener has a lot of new perennials in. I keep saying that I need to plant some shrubbery and I was very taken with a white viburnum. Still, I walked away. I couldn’t imagine it in my garden–it seemed more suited for a Deep South or east coast garden. It seemed like it would stand out unnaturally. I’m going to have to read up on them first.

Of course, I walked around the rose section three times visiting all my old friends. I’m clearing space where I cut down the chinaberry tree last fall for some new roses. I haven’t decided what to get yet although I’m leaning heavily toward replacements for ‘Sombreuil’ and ‘Gruss an Aachen’.

This trip I was most impressed with the seed section. The Natural Gardener carries seeds from quite a variety of suppliers near and far: Renee’s Gardens, Botanical Interests, Territorial Seed Company, Seeds of Change, Lonestar Seed Company, Thompson & Morgan, and Baviccchi (I think). As usual, I’ve been too busy to send of a seed order and now it’s so late. I was hoping I’d find some of the things I circled in the catalogs. I’ll have to bring my list and make another trip next week.

I didn’t walk away without making a purchase of course.

Natural Gardener

I spent $36.08 as follows.: $11.95 on organic fertilizer (this is mainly for the potted plants); $9.99 on a fancy new oxalis, Oxalis pre-caprae, ‘Scotty’s Surprise’ (rumored to be discovered by and named after Scott Ogden); $6.99 on blood dock, Rumex sanguineus, because I fell in love with the foliage and need plants for my future bog garden; $1.59 on a packet of borage seed; and $1.62 and $1.19 on some of last year’s sunflowers seeds marked down 40%.

I got home in time to plant the borage and the oxalis. At 4:11 p.m. the wind shifted to the north, relieving our muggy 77.4F/25.2C high with a blast of cold air. About 20 minutes later it began to rain. Between 3:57 and 4:57 temperatures dropped 12F/6.7C degrees.

Now I can enjoy this nice rainy weekend catching up on some inside work…like reading more blogs.

Stripping Roses

In Austin winters are sometimes so mild that we can have roses blooming all year long. December is often a very good month for roses. January less so. By February the roses are gearing up for a big spring show. I always try to have my roses pruned, fed and mulched before Valentine’s day, especially during a particularly mild winter as this one has been.

The problem in Austin is that it doesn’t get cold enough for many of the roses to drop their leaves and go dormant.
Souvenir de la Malmaison leaves
Last year’s leaves are ratty and prone to disease.
Souvenir de la Malmaison leaves
The new buds are forming but the old leaves haven’t fallen off.

Therefore, I follow a process suggested by rosarian Ray Reddell (I can’t find the link online anymore). I strip last year’s leaves off the roses, wait a couple of weeks to see where the new buds are forming, and then prune accordingly.

Souvenir de la Malmaison new growth
Stripping off the old leaves forces growth on the new leaves into overdrive.

As usual, I’m behind. For example, ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’ is already putting out new buds. I spent part of this weekend stripping off the old leaves, pruning, and to re-tying the new canes to the trellis. I also did ‘Madame Alfred Carriere’, and ‘Heritage’. The ‘New Dawn’ and ‘Red Cascade’ roses lost their leaves naturally but still require pruning. ‘Ducher’ is always bushy and full this time of year and doesn’t need stripping.

Of course, the biggest gamble is timing. A hard freeze is still possible for another month in Austin. Is winter really over for 2008 or is worse yet to come? And will it come just as the roses are putting out their tender new growth? Although I’m sure we’ll have a few more freezes, I’m betting that the we’ve seen the worst of winter this year.


I gave up seriousness for Lent. Or so I’d like to say. Actually lolweedz is the brainchild of AJM who has been tapped for undergardener duties this weekend because the weather is so nice and there is so much to do in the garden. He screened off the vent that the raccoons were using to slip under the house after ravaging the pond. He built some more mini-planters for the Tulipa clusiana. And he helped me reposition the rain barrel so that it is high enough to drain properly. This left me free all day to weed.

Which of us has not felt, at one time, that the weeds are laughing at us. Laughing maniacally. With temperatures in the 80s in Austin for most of this week, the weeds have burst on the scene: chickweed, henbit, wild onions, and sow thistle. Sometimes I save a little henbit for the butterflies but this year I’m trying to stay on top of the weeds and pulling everything out as soon as I see it.