Texas Drought Map
2011-05-31. 2011 Texas Drought.

June 3rd, 2011
Week 22: 5/28 – 6/3

Dateline: 2011

According to the National Weather Service, “The warm spring from March to May was the 10th driest ever at Camp Mabry and the warmest since 1854.” Worse than the heat, the drought is now exceptional. Most of May felt like August. We did get one lovely heavy rain two weeks ago but my rain barrels are already empty and the pond is quickly evaporating.

Speaking of the pond, Monday (5/30) AJM noticed a heron stalking around. The fish are in hiding. Or eaten. We can’t tell yet how many fish have been taken. We didn’t see any for a few days. Then a couple peeked out. We’ve put the netting up again until they have a chance to recover and the pond water clears up again. When critters chase the fish, they stir up the water and the pond gets all mucky.

First flowers: Asclepias curassavica (6/1); water lily ‘Helvola” (6/1).

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Zanthan Gardens
2011-03-24. Pink evening primroses insist it’s spring despite a poor showing of bluebonnets.

March 25th, 2011
Week 12: 3/19 – 3/25

Suddenly, the yard is plunged into shade. The morning sun stops shining through my bedroom window and plants that have grown all winter in the full sun, plants about to flower, are now in the shade. The cedar elms have leafed out and transformed the landscape. I’m not as fond as cedar elms as I once was, as they are the trees that tend to fall in high winds. But this week, they are gorgeous. They leaf out a chartreuse green that deepens to a bright green. The red oaks and live oaks are leafing out too. Only the pecans are still bare.

Dateline: 2011
Spring will not be ignored. It rushes into the garden whether or not I’m there, just not in the way I would have planned it. The pink evening primroses smother the path while the areas I consider my meadow are bare. I’m not blind to the lesson.

This is the week that something new opens every day. All of spring’s bounty comes just as the yard is plunged into shade. The weather continues dry and hot. The toads and mosquitoes have returned. Temperatures rise into the 80s and the larkspur, just sending up its flower stalks, droop. The Tulipa clusiana and the Muscari racemosum have also faded quickly in the heat. A whole year of anticipation…and then they whither as they open.

If you don’t look too closely the garden is filled with swathes of Easter basket colors: yellows (Engelmann daisy and Jerusalem sage and some snapdragons that have finally recovered from the freezes); pinks (pink evening primroses, pink bluebonnets, Indian hawthorn, ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’, ‘New Dawn’, ‘Blush Noisette’); white (bridal wreath spirea, cilantro); blues (bluebonnets, baby blue eyes, starch hyacinths) and purples (false dayflowers, Nierembergia gracilis, tradescantia, prairie verbena). There is also one jarring red, the St. Joseph’s lily.

So much needs to be done which will be left undone. Right now the garden is blooming on the strength of previous years. It really is a garden wild.

Dateline: 2008
This is the week I both look forward to and dread. On the one hand the garden finally looks like a garden. I take pleasure just walking around in it and frequently forget to do anything but just stare. On the other hand, the shade has descended which means the sun-loving flowers will soon turn sulky and I’ll soon be counting the days until fall.
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moss
2010-02-18. Here’s something you don’t see often in our drought-stricken land: a mossy bank. We are on heavy clay which is now saturated with rain.

February 19th, 2010
Week 07: 2/12-2/18

Dateline: 2010

Austin’s unusually cold and wet winter/spring seems even more so in contrast with the last two drought years. Both the garden and I have been under the weather all February. The sun came out for a couple of days this week but I didn’t get much done. I lacked the stamina to deal with the cold and wind. Although I’m way behind in my chores (this is normally my busiest season), I feel that this drizzly weather has given me permission to take a break. A season of rest and reflection is something I often envy. So rather than fret about what isn’t getting done in the garden, I’m cultivating other pleasures.

This has been a slow spring. The big freeze of January 2010 killed the buds or flowering stalks of the various paperwhite and tazetta narcissus which would normally be in flower. It killed off the already flowering false dayflowers and snapdragons. And what I thought would be very early flowering cilantro and larkspur also froze (not the whole plants, just the bloom stalks). The mahonia didn’t flower this year at all; I think bud formation fell victim to the drought. The only flowers happily on schedule are the common selfsown: henbit, chickweed, dandelions, and sow thistles.

To compare, this week in 2009 I had roses and narcissus blooming at the same time. The arugula was bolting and the English peas about to give into the heat. The Jerusalem sage was flowering and the the duranta was still flowering from 2008.

The Mexican plums which have bloomed as early as January 29th, finally opened one flower (2/18). That tied the date for 2004 and missed the all time record for the latest first flower (2/19) made in 2002. I haven’t seen any sign of my most reliable harbinger of spring, the redbuds. I always look for them on Valentine’s Day.

I’m still cleaning up freeze-dried plants. I cut back the duranta which flowered throughout last winter and had reached a height of about 8 feet. They are dead to the ground now. Whether they will resprout from their roots is yet to be seen. The leaves on the oleanders are completely dead but the branches feel flexible and springy. This is a good opportunity to cut them back to size which I find hard to do when they are green and covered with buds. I also cut back the leafless vitex last month. I still need to prune back the crape myrtles, the rose of Sharon, and the Texas persimmon (which has never lost all its leaves before).

The roses, especially ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’ and ‘New Dawn’ are covered with new leaf buds. They love this extra moisture; unfortunately so does black spot. I stripped last year’s leaves off the roses and cut back old canes.

In the vegetable garden the first English pea flowered. Last year at this time, they were producing well and by the end of February I had to pull them out because temperatures hit the 80s. I just got around to ordering my tomato seeds this week. This is much too late and I’ll probably have to buy tomato starts, too. Now that Gardens has closed, I’ve lost my favorite source of unusual varieties.

First flower: Pisum sativum ‘Progress #9″ (2/16); Prunus mexicana (2/18).

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photo: unidentified paperwhite narcissus

2006-01-04. Unidentified paperwhites and spider. These paperwhites are short, but pleasantly sweet-smelling, not like some modern ones.

January 7th, 2010
Week 01: 1/1 – 1/7

Dateline 2010
The first week of the new year has been blackened by the ominous forecast of the coldest weather since the big ice storm of the first week of February 1996 (when AJM and I were marooned together). Not only will this freeze plunge Austin temperatures to the teens, it will be cold for several days: too long and too cold for plant covers to help much. While the first freeze of the season cleared the garden of overgrown annuals this one threatens to kill long cherished tender perennials. Cue much moaning and gnashing of teeth in the Austin garden blogosphere/Twitter.

I spent Wednesday (1/6) ahead of the front digging up what tender perennials I could: the amaryllis (all but the butterfly amaryllis had died down anyway in lighter freezes), scores of aloe vera, and the largest banana. All these plants needed dividing or moving to a sunnier spot. Nothing like the threat of disaster to focus and motivate.

Some losses will really hurt. I’m going to hate to lose plants I’ve grown over many years from very small plants especially the lemon tree, asparagus fern, and the philodendron–all which I planted out last year after they became too big for pots. I will be sad to lose my rosemary which I was training into a weeping tree form. I lost my first big rosemary in a similar freeze years ago.

Other plants I’m not going to be sorry if they get cut down to size because they’ve been unruly, overcrowding and shading the neighbors: the variegated Agave americana, the three Duranta erecta, the Port St. Johns Creeper (which had already frozen to the roots in earlier freezes). I’m very bad at pulling out something that survives because so little does. So I’ve let these run wild even though they’ve overstayed their welcome.

This hard freeze is particularly frustrating because so many plants put on a lot of growth since September during the rainy period Austin’s had after our 2-year drought. The cilantro and some larkspur are already sending up flower stalks and have buds–two months before normal. The Acanthus mollis has early summer growth already, its new leaves a fresh bright green and glossy. Worst, the fall vegetables were just starting to get growing in the last month after the pecans and oaks finally shed their leaves. We’ve harvested one cutting of Mesclun and that’s it. Goodbye English peas, swiss chard, and various other greens. Luckily these are easily replanted. Also agonizing will be the loss of many plants that I’ve struck from cuttings.

First flower: Narcissus italicus, (1/1). Only one flower. It’s been a very disappointing year for N. italicus and not a single paperwhite bloomed this year.
Blooming (very little after a couple of hard freezes): Lobularia maritima, Lonicera fragrantissima , Oxalis triangularis (white), Narcissus italicus.

Related

If you’re preparing for the oncoming winter storm, read Frost and Freezes from the Travis County Extension Agent.

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rose Souvenir de la Malmaison
2009-03-15. Rose ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’ is in full bloom this year as she was in 2008. But in 2007, she didn’t start blooming until March 17th.

March 15th, 2009
GBBD 200903: Mar 2009

Carol at May Dreams Gardens invites us to tell her what’s blooming in our gardens on the 15th of each month.

March 15, 2009

I wrote a great deal about March (Zanthan Gardens most floriferous month) in my GBBD post for March 2008. Rather than repeat myself, I find it more interesting to look at the differences between this year and previous years. I began participating in GBBD in its second month, March 2007. So this is the third March, I have GBBD records for.

Austin is now in its 18th month of drought. The week before this GBBD, we had a week of temperatures in the 80s (15 degrees above normal–more like late May than mid-March). Then earlier this week (3/11), temperatures fell 40 degrees and stayed in the 40s for 5 days. And it rained–cumulatively about 3 inches of rain which is more than we’ve had in single storm system since 2007.

I’m encouraged by how many flowers are dependable in March despite Austin’s crazy extremes of weather, especially this time of year.

Lupinus texensis
2009-03-15. Bluebonnet, Lupinus texensis
Some bluebonnets always manage to bloom. Austin has far fewer of our beloved state flower this year and the plants are much smaller. Some of the bluebonnets in my yard are but a single small stem right now. Pill bugs (or something) mow them down. And the stressed and weakened plants have been attacked by spider mites. But this year I’ve had some unusual variations: 2 pink bluebonnets and 3 white ones.

bridal wreath spiraea
2009-03-15. Bridal wreath spiraea
The bridal wreath spiraea struggled for a few years but finally seems to be making a comeback–probably because I started pruning, feeding, and watering it after I almost lost it. Some plants just demand attention.

Aloe barbadensis
2009-03-15. Aloe barbadensis

Aloe barbadensis
2009-03-15. Aloe barbadensis
This is the second year the aloe vera bloomed. For years I kept it in pots which I moved indoors during the winter. A contractor broke a pot and I decided to put the largest plants in the ground. They’ve survived two winters now (although the leaves get some cold damage) and surprised me by flowering.

Meyer lemon
2009-03-15. Citrus x meyeri, Meyer lemon
The lemon tree finally got to big for its pot, too and was looking unhappy. The current pot was almost too big for us to manage bringing it in so I decided to plant it in a protected spot. It began putting out an abundant quantity of new leaves and flowers almost immediately.

Consolida ambigua
2009-03-15. Larkspur, Consolida ambigua

Quite a few flowers (that are blooming this year that weren’t blooming this time last year) overwintered. Typically, many perennials freeze to the ground in Austin but are root hardy. This year these flowers never froze back: asclepias, datura, duranta, ruellia, podranea.

Blooming in 2008 but faded during 2009’s week of 80 degree days: Cercis canadensis, Leucojum aestivum.

Blooming in 2008 but not started blooming yet in 2009: California poppy ‘Mikado’.

Complete List for March

The list of all plants flowering today, March 15th 2009, at Zanthan Gardens. I’ve also noted if the plant was blooming on GBBD March 15th, 2007 or 2008.

  • Aloe barbadensis
  • Asclepias curassavica (overwintered)
  • Bridal wreath spiraea (2008)
  • Citrus x meyeri (2008)
  • Commelinantia anomala (2007, 2008)
  • Consolida ambigua (2007, 2008)
  • Coriander sativum (2007, 2008)
  • Datura (from Diana which overwintered)
  • Duranta erecta (overwintered)
  • henbit (2007, 2008)
  • iris albicans (2007)
  • jalapeno
  • Kalanchoe daigremontiana (Mother of Thousands)
  • Lantana montevidensis (2007, 2008)
  • Lathyrus odoratus ‘Knee-Hi Mix’ (2007)
  • Lavandula heterophylla ‘Goodwin Creek’ (2008)
  • Lobularia maritima (2008)
  • Lupinus texensis (blue, pink, and white) (2007, 2008)
  • Muscari neglectum/racemosum (2007, 2008)
  • Narcissus triandrus ‘Trevithian’ (2007)
  • Nemophila insignis (2008)
  • Oxalis crassipis (hot pink) (2007, 2008)
  • Oxalis pes-caprae ‘Scotty’s Surprise’ (2008)
  • Oxalis triangularis (both purple and white) (2007, 2008)
  • Phlomis lanata
  • Prunus caroliniana (cherry laurel) (2007, 2008)
  • Rhaphiolepis indica (2007, 2008)
  • rose ‘Blush Noisette’ (2008)
  • rose ‘Ducher’ (full bloom) (2007, 2008)
  • rose white Lady Banksia (my neighbor’s but droops over the fence)
  • rose ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’ (full bloom) (2008)
  • rosemary (very few flowers) (2007, 2008)
  • ruellia (overwintered)
  • Solanum jasminoides (potato vine) (2007,2008)
  • Sophora secundiflora (far fewer flowers than 2008) (2007, 2008)
  • tomatillo
  • tomato ‘Cherokee Purple’
  • Tulip ‘Angelique’
  • Tradescantia (spiderwort) (2007, 2008)
  • Ungnadia speciosa, Mexican buckeye
  • Viola cornuta ‘Sorbet Coconut Duet’ (2007, 2008)
  • Vitia sativa (common vetch, a pretty weed) (2007, 2008)

hole
2009-02-27. The frame is 3’x5′. The hole itself is 2’x4′ and about 20″ deep. Less than 2 feet! If you expected me to dig my own grave before you killed me, we would be here for several years.

March 4th, 2009
Digging Holes for Raspberries

The north boundary of my back yard was one of those areas I used to ignore. A waist-high chain link fence divided me from my neighbors and the previous owners had planted a nandina hedge. I left it because it provided a nice green backdrop with no effort and it blocked the view of my neighbor’s back yard. When someone new moved in he immediately erected a 6-foot tall privacy fence and completely changed my garden.

Now the north bed is protected from cold fronts moving in from the north. The low winter sun shines against the fence all day creating a warm micro-climate. Last year I had a chinaberry and hackberry cut down and planted two roses and made a little herb garden here. This winter I decided to tackle another section.

hole
2009-02-06. The requisite “before” photo.

First I had to remove the nandina. You can cut it to the ground and nandina will come back because it has thick fibrous roots. While I was doing this, I happened across some raspberries at The Great Outdoors. Now raspberries are our favorite fruit. When we visit AJM’s parents in England, I go out every morning and graze at the raspberry patch. But raspberries don’t grow in central Texas. Central Texas is too hot in the winter, too hot in the summer, doesn’t get enough rain, and the soil is limestone clay. Raspberries prefer a sandy, well-drained, slightly acidic soil with plenty of humus.

Are you laughing yet at my folly? Or are also you one of those gardeners who can’t resist a challenge? The nurseryman assured me that these ‘Dorman’ red raspberries could stand our southern heat. If that’s true, then I’d do my part to provide them with the kind the soil they like.

So to digging.
hole
Roots, limestone and flint, and a vein of red clay.

Actually, you can’t really call it digging because that implies putting a shovel into the ground and scooping dirt out. What I did was break up clods of clay with my post hole digger (Vertie, can explain why this is preferable to a pick-ax), and then use my pruners to cut away roots. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

This took almost two weeks, working a few hours a day until I collapsed from the back pain. Thank science for ibuprofen. After the first week, I thought the hole was pretty well dug. I put some water in to check the drainage. It didn’t drain. The water sat there for an hour over solid clay. By the next day it had seeped and the clay was softened enough that I was able to dig it out.

hole
I pile a wheelbarrow load of red clay by the driveway.

Job 2: Fill in the hole. It’s a little more than a cubic yard (see photo at top). With some planning I suppose I could have had some garden soil delivered. Maybe next time. I line the hole with weed-blocking cloth. I have poured tons of manure and bought soil into my yard and learned that without weed-blocking cloth the tree roots quickly invade and suck all the life out of the garden soil. If I didn’t use weed-blocking cloth, the hole would revert to the root-infested muck it was before I spent two weeks digging it out.

A neighbor of mine with a goat has given me a wheelbarrow load of goat pellets mixed with straw and juniper needles. I pour that into the bottom of the hole.

Unfortunately, the compost from the compost tumbler is not quite ready yet. But I can turn the open compost pile and sift out the good stuff from the bottom. I use the plastic trays from the nurseries to sift compost.

hole

I mix the homemade compost with free coffee grounds from Starbucks. I also sift the rocks, roots, and clods out of some of the better black soil that came out of the first five or six inches of digging.

hole

As the hole fills in I begin to mix in some premium store-bought compost: Lady Bug Hill Country Garden Soil and Lady Bug Farm Style Compost (cow manure from grass-fed cows). Fancy schmancy, I thought until I compared it with the cheaper cow manure from the big box store. The latter was filled with clay and rocks and did not have the light fluffy texture that the Lady Bug brand has.

I moistened the planting mixture every few inches soil that everything in the hole would be evenly moist (like a damp sponge). Since I did this over several day it also helped it to settle a bit. I place the still-pottedplants where they’re going to go and fill in around them.

hole

AJM built the raised bed from pieces of the failed garden house.

Finally planting takes all of two minutes to pull the pot out of the hole, slip the plant out of the pot, and put it right back in the hole. (They are very young plants and not pot-bound so the roots didn’t need spreading out.)

hole
The “after” picture. I sifted some of the red clay to put around the outside. It almost has the consistency of decomposed granite–which it might be given that I pulled out quite a few red rocks.

The raspberry planting project is not quite finished. AJM is going to build some supports. I still have to add a layer of mulch. I don’t know if raspberries will grow in Austin but I’ve given it my all. If it doesn’t work out, this will be a great bed for potatoes or other root crops.

Project Cost

$29.97: plants: 3 raspberry canes @ $9.99 each
$ 5.99: 1 cubic foot of Lady Bug Hill Country Garden Soil
$ 6.99: 1.5 cubic feet of Lady Bug Farm Style Compost
$ 4.96: 2 pack 4″ mending plates @ 2.48 each (building the raised bed)
_____
$47.91

Note: We already had the lumber and the weed block cloth.

Zanthan Gardens Week 6 Narcissus Grand Primo
2000-02-11. Narcissus tazetta ‘Grand Primo’.

February 12th, 2009
Week 06: 2/5 – 2/11

Dateline: 2009

I associate the first redbud blossom (my private official marker of spring) with Valentine’s Day but this year I saw my first redbud on Monday (2/9), almost a week early. Spring’s in Austin and there’s no holding it back.

As my son retorted, “Does this mean we’re going to have a month of 70-degree days and then a hard freeze during Spring Break?” Probably. Austin’s average last freeze is now February 26th (it used to be in March) so the period between Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day is always a bit chancy for tender new plants. He’s probably remembering when he was a boy and I took him camping at Enchanted Rock for his birthday. The temperature surprised us by dropping to 14 degrees that night. That was the same year as the latest freeze on record, April 3, 1987. As the Austin Climate Summary shows, Austin can be in the 90s or higher ANY month of the year; it can also freeze anytime between October and April.

Flowers were opening all over the garden. This is the most excitement we’ve had at Zanthan Gardens in about eight months.

First flowers: Prunus mexican (2/5); paperwhite Narcissus ‘Grandiflora’ (2/6); rose ‘Ducher’ (2/6); Mahonia bealei (2/6); Narcissus tazetta ‘Grand Primo’ (2/8); Leucojum asestivum (2/9); Cercis canadensis (2/9); Lantana montevidensis (2/9).

We had a bit of relief from the drought this week, too: about half an inch of rain in a slow, soaking drizzle on Monday (2/9) and then a bit less late in a 10-minute downpour (accompanied by high winds and hail) late Tuesday evening (2/10). The rain penetrated the first 4 to 6 inches of soil (depending on where it is in my yard–heavy clay or well-composted). Below that, the dirt is dust dry. It’s frightening to dig into it. I expect the spring weeds to kick into high gear now. Our weather has been so dry that even the chickweed was languishing. Some henbit has been blooming. I never weed it all out because the butterflies like it when nothing else is blooming.

I have been digging out nandina to make a bed for three raspberry plants I bought at The Great Outdoors. I didn’t think that raspberries would grow in Austin but they assure me that this variety, ‘Dorman’, will produce in a couple of years. We harvested an actual serving for two of the English peas and have been eating lots of salad trying to get the most out of the arugula before it bolts.

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photo: Christmas rose
2008-12-25. Roses blooming on Christmas Day in Austin, TX. ‘New Dawn’

December 25th, 2008
Week 52: Christmas Day Roses

Dateline: 2008
Two out of three of my ‘New Dawn’ roses have been flowering all December. The flower above is from a bud I didn’t see and pick before our last hard freeze. It survived and opened but you can see from the brown spots that it is frost damaged.

After the droughts of 2006 and 2008, I don’t have very many roses left in my garden. The David Austin ‘Heritage’ rose which was blooming on Christmas Day 2007 died. However, ‘Blush Noisette’ is still going strong, blooming in what passes for cold in central Texas but also doing well in Austin’s summer heat. This Christmas Day her flowers are either bud or blown.
photo: Christmas rose
‘Blush Noisette’

I’m bending the rules this year to show you my newest amaryllis, ‘Amoretta’. It opened about a week ago and has had to be protected from two hard freezes and then be immediately uncovered as temperatures soared into the 70s. As such it is a bit battered. I notice with roses that cold weather tends to intensify colors and I wonder if this is true with this amaryllis or whether this is its true color.
photo: Christmas amaryllis
Amaryllis ‘Amoretta’

Dateline: 2007
photo: Christmas roses
2007-12-25. Roses blooming on Christmas Day in Austin, TX. ‘Blush Noisette’
This has been a very good year for December roses throughout Austin. Two light freezes, last weekend and this, haven’t damaged the roses much especially those growing in a protected area along walls or privacy fences. The white flowered China rose, ‘Ducher’, is my only rose that is covered with flowers. Looking over my history below, I see that ‘Ducher’ and ‘Blush Noisette’ are my most reliable Christmas roses. Around town ‘Mutabilis’ also seems to do very well in this cooler weather.

photo: Christmas roses
2007-12-25. ‘Ducher’ is the only rose in full bloom; the snowy white against the red of the nandina berries is about as close to Christmas colors as we get in Austin.

The freezing night temperatures intensify the colors of ‘Heritage’. The flowers also opens more slowly last longer than in spring or summer.

photo: Christmas roses
2007-12-25. Another flower opened on ‘Heritage’; this one is a little smaller and more ragged than the one that opened for GBBD.

The downside to winter roses is that the buds are vulnerable.
photo: Christmas roses
2007-12-25. Freeze-dried buds on ‘Blush Noisette’.

The ‘New Dawn’ rose that I started from a cutting has a bud.

photo: Christmas roses
2007-12-25. A cane of ‘New Dawn’ has sprawled across the pinks; this bud didn’t quite make it open for Christmas Day…but we have 12 days left of Christmas.

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Antigonon leptopus
Bees love coral vine, Antigonon leptopus.

October 25th, 2008
Lurid Fall Pinks

Antigonon leptopus
None of my specially selected four o’clocks come back. But there’s no getting rid of this common one. It seeds prolifically and forms huge tuberous roots as well.

Aren’t those two colors just scary together?

lurid: very vivid in color, esp. so as to create an unpleasantly harsh or unnatural effect

I’m not, nor have I ever been, a fan of pink. Apart from a very pale ice pink of some roses—like my beloved ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison)—I don’t choose pinks on purpose. (And I’d love SdlM just as well if she were pale apricot–because what really I love about her is the quartered form of her flowers, not the color.)

I can admire the warming pinks of late spring and early summer. The colors of the meadow evolve with the season from the cool bluebonnet blues of March, to the larkspur purples of April, to finally the various warm May Day Pinks. Pink seems very seasonal–for Spring.

But Fall’s colors should be fiery.

Instead my garden is currently drenched in gaudy, garish pinks. And yes, these pinks have been blooming at the same time as the oxblood lilies, the turk’s cap, and the red spider lilies against a background of indifferent purple heart. The result is a garden colorist’s nightmare. Add in some orange cosmos and butterfly weed to complete the chaos.

Pandorea ricasoliana
Podranea ricasoliana is called desert trumpet/willow vine in Austin because the flowers look strikingly similar to the desert willow’s.

And what am I doing to resolve this problem? Nothing. Because these plants survive. They survived the entire summer without any attention at all. Not one drop of supplemental water. Although the coral vine did not climb 30 feet into a tree this year as it did in the rainy summer of 2007, it has covered my entire driveway fence (while trying to eat my husband’s car). And the bees love it. It drooped in the heat but never succumbed. Coral vine is just one of those plants I associate with old Austin. I’d as soon cut it out as move to the suburbs.

The four o’clock plants died all the way down to the ground during the summer but at the first hint of rain they shot up a couple of feet in a couple of weeks and have been flowering ever since. I like the scent and the plants get big only after most of the spring wildflowers are finished. So we have a truce.

Not so with the P. ricasoliana. I spend hours hacking back the Port St. Johns creeper (aka desert trumpet vine). The vines are voracious, swallowing up a large stand of yucca, taking over the entire north border by self-layering. They also form huge tuberous roots. There seems no way to get rid of them. I started out with three plants in 4-inch pots and they have swallowed up the north side of my yard, even though frost cuts them to the ground every year. Apparently they only get enough sun in my yard to flower about three weeks of the year, in late October. I think I could like them if they were less vigorous and flowered in spring. As it is, I regret I ever introduced them.

cactus and succulent garden
Jeff and Ray’s garden is below street level made of terraces built into steep hillside.

August 12th, 2008
Can a Prickly Garden Be Inviting?

I grew up in two extreme climates: the desert of the American southwest and the tropics of the Philippines (and semi-tropics of Okinawa). On the various Air Force bases on which I lived, we had no gardens. The aesthetic (quite similar to modern American suburban) was what I call “parade ground aesthetics”; it consisted of large expanses of short mown grass (for parades) ringed by white painted rocks.

My idea of a garden came solely from books. I’m a woodland sprite at heart and in my mind a garden is enclosed by tall mossy stone walls, draped in green ivy and ferns, filled with white heavily-scented flowers, with some small water feature and a place to read or write or meet one’s lover by moonlight.

The reality of my garden in Austin is none of those things. We must garden where we are. Still I’ve always pushed the limits (and paid the price) in my plant choices. I’m too much a lover of the exotic to ever be a dedicated locavore. I grow plants because I find them interesting and not because I’m sensible. Austin has a split-personality climate-wise. If we plant bananas, cannas, and elephant ears in a wet year like 2007, they’ll sear in a dry hot year like 2008. If we plant Mediterranean-style plants, like rosemary and lavender, they get mildewy or rot in really wet years. On a really hot, dry year, desert plants look more and more like an interesting alternative.

Too bad I’ve never been fond of cactus and succulents. Looking out at my prickly pear cactus just depresses me. I detest my yuccas and am fond of only a few agaves. And yet, I’ve visited two gardens this year that have made me look at cactus and succulents with a more forgiving eye. The first was my visit to the Spring Preserve, which I wrote about here and here.

cactus and succulent garden

The second was on the 2008 Austin Pond Society Pond Tour. The garden of Jeff and Ray was my favorite on the tour and not because of the pond. Jeff is the current president of the Austin Cactus and Succulent Society. Not only does he have an amazing collection of plants but he has that ability to arrange them in pleasing ways (a knack I lack and covet).

Look at that top photo again. I love the curves, the balance of forms, shapes, textures and colors of the plants. I think that the problem with most cactus and succulent gardens is that the plant materials require a really strong underlying design. The plants themselves are so architectural and spare. They need an expert designer to arrange the pieces in a pleasing way. I have absolutely zero design sense but with my floppy, cottage garden I get away with a lot because the exuberance of the plants hide the lack of design (when they’re in bloom, anyway).

I’m actually drawn more to the geometry of this garden than I am to the careless approach of my own. I would like to live in this garden but I can’t imagine making it.

cactus and succulent garden

The terrace with disappearing fountain is a very pleasant spot to read a book over morning coffee.

cactus and succulent garden

The entire garden is below street level. It is surprising shady for a cactus garden. I’m guessing that the huge terraces provide the appropriate drainage. Descending the driveway is one of pleasantest approaches to an Austin house I’ve ever seen. To answer my own question, some prickly gardens are inviting indeed.

cactus and succulent garden