di•lem•ma a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, esp. equally undesirable ones

August 9th, 2008
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.

APS Tour 2008Cactus and water mix elegantly in Ray and Jeff’s garden. Jeff is the current president of the Austin Cactus and Succulent Society.

July 19th, 2008
Austin Pond Society Tour 2008, 1

Just a preview post to say that I thoroughly enjoyed Day 1 of the Austin Pond Society’s 2008 pond tour. Central Texans, if you didn’t have a chance to check out ponds today, don’t despair. Wristbands are only $15 and there are 15 more ponds on the tour tomorrow, Sunday July 20th.

If possible, download the map before going because guide booklets were scarce today. The map comes in “groovy” and “uncool” versions. Sunday’s ponds are in north Austin, Cedar Park, Pflugerville, and Round Rock.

I didn’t get a chance to take a lot of photos today. I spent the afternoon under a huge shade tree at Frank’s garden in Sunset Valley, ticking off visitors as they came in and chatting with C., the daughter of the pond owners next door who were also on the tour. In addition to running into Annie and Philo from The Transplantable Rose, Bob from Gardening at Draco stopped by and introduced himself.

One of my favorite gardens contained “his and her” ponds. Thenell explained that his wife, Deborah, is a plant person. He’s a fish person. Their first pond got so crowded with plants he complained that he couldn’t see the fish. He suggested she remove some plants. She suggested he get his own pond. And that’s how they ended up with two stunning ponds in their back yard. This is “his”–it’s above ground and had many lovely fish. Lots, of plants, too, though, I see.
APS Tour 2008

Austin weather

July 12th, 2008
Forecast? Bleah!

So much for my resolve to write riveting thought-provoking posts.

tomato
This ‘Green Pineapple’ tomato set only one fruit before the heat set in because I planted it much too late.

July 5th, 2008
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?

A public service announcement. Austin gardeners can help make the 2008 Pond Tour a success.

July 3rd, 2008
Austin Pond Society Needs You

An announcement to my Austin readers: the Austin Pond Society needs volunteers to help with this year’s pond tour. The tour is July 19th and 20th.

You do not need to be a member of APS to volunteer. As the volunteer contact, Beth Zapata put it, “Volunteer duties are light and mainly involve greeting visitors and marking the visitor tally sheet, checking for wristbands and directing visitors to the pond. Everything you need will be waiting for you when you arrive at your volunteer station. A smile is all we ask you to bring. Volunteer shifts are either 8:30am-1:00pm or 12:30pm-5:00pm and are available for either Saturday, July 19th (our south day) or Sunday, July 20th (north).”

In return for your smile you receive free admission to the rest of the pond tour, a T-shirt, and invitation to the private Splash party on July 13th.

I enjoyed my first pond tour so much last year that I immediately joined the Austin Pond Society and am volunteering to help this year. As of today the APS needs ten more people. If you’re one of them, contact Beth Zapata at bzapata1 at sbcglobal dot net.

Zanthan Gardens meadow
The upper meadow bed is now clean and tidy for summer–and mostly brown. The overcast day creates an illusion of serenity. Usually the plants are drooping under a burning sun–the contrast between sun and shade too intense to photograph well.

June 21st, 2008
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?

Nigella damascena
Devil in the bush, Nigella damascena seedpod. Brown summer has arrived.

June 15th, 2008
GBBD 200806: June 2008

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

June 15, 2008

Brown summer came early to Zanthan Gardens this year. With temperatures hovering around 100F degrees for the last four weeks, I decide to focus all my resources on the plants (like roses and fruit trees) that I want to keep. So out go any marginally attractive plants or plants that will never make it through the summer anyway.

We aren’t burnt entirely to a crisp yet. Here and there are some bright spots.

Nerium oleander Shari D

One plant continues to defy the heat and put out extravagant flower pom-poms that are beautiful both in daylight and moonlight; that is the oleander ‘Shari D.’ It overflows on the path, crowds out the duranta and flowers without a care.

The plumbago also always looks cool and crisp like a sophisticated woman in a linen dress. I’ve always loved its sky blue flowers. The leaves are a bright glossy green that don’t look droopy, wilted, or sunburnt.

Plumbago

New for June

Only four plants that began flowering since last GBBD and are still flowering today, June 15th.

Antigonon leptopus (Coral Vine)
Antigonon leptopus

The coral vine was here when I bought the house. Every year it freezes back to the ground. Every summer it shoots up through the nandina and starts smothering the fence. Last year, when it was so rainy, it climbed to the top of a 30 foot cedar elm. This year, the flowers are small but its blooming and growing. I never water it. I never feed it. I’ve learned to love the electric pink because at times like these, we have to learn to appreciate what we’re given and not pine after what we aren’t (like lilacs and peonies).

Canna ‘Bangkok Yellow’
Canna Bangkok Yellow

I reader told me that ‘Bangkok Yellow’ did well in a pond and when I finally got a pond it was one of the first things I planted in it. The canna in the pond are much happier than the ones in the ground at the moment. Unfortunately, they are tangled in the temporary netting we use to keep the raccoons out of the pond.

Lagerstroemia indica ‘Catawba’ (Crape Myrtle)
Antigonon leptopus

Summer in Austin means crape myrtles. I’m not a fan of a lot of crape myrtle colors but I liked this plummy red. They were looking better a couple of weeks ago but now the flowers are dry and shriveled. I’m going to cut them back and hope for another round.

Finally the desert willow, Chilopsis linearis, has a few flowers at the very top that I couldn’t get a photograph of. I didn’t even notice them until I went hunting for GBBD flowers. (One of the reasons I love GBBD is that it makes me really look into the nooks and crannies of the garden.) Desert willow is one of those small trees, like vitex, which bloom like crazy all over Austin except in my garden. Too much shade? Not enough water? Or just bad gardening?

Late Breaking Update

Two more plants flowered this afternoon. The waterlily that Pam/Digging gave me.
waterlily
And a white butterfly gaura that I just repotted.
gaura

Between GBBDs

Several flower bloomed and faded in my garden between GBBDs and so didn’t show up in the inventory for either May or June.

  • LA lily
  • Ipomoea quamoclit, cypress vine
  • Lindheimer senna
  • Opuntia ficus-indica, spineless prickly pear cactus
  • nasturtium
  • pomegranite
  • Vitex agnus-castus, chaste tree

Complete List for June

The list of all plants flowering today, June 15th 2008, at Zanthan Gardens.

  • Acanthus mollis
  • Antigonon leptopus
  • Canna ‘Bangkok Yellow’
  • Chilopsis linearis, desert willow
  • Commelina (common dayflower)
  • Cosmos sulphureus
  • Dianthus chinensis (1)
  • Duranta erecta
  • Echinacea purpurea
  • Engelmannia peristenia/pinnatifida
  • Erythrina herbacea (coral bean) rebloom
  • Eschscholzia californica ‘Mikado’ (on this year’s plants)
  • Gaura lindheimeri
  • Hesperaloe parviflora
  • Hibiscus syriacus
  • Lagerstroemia indica ‘Catawba’
  • Lavandula heterophylla ‘Goodwin Creek’ (a few tiny flowers)
  • Malvaviscus arboreus
  • Mirabilis jalapa (magenta only)
  • Nerium oleander ‘Turner’s Shari D.’ (full bloom)
  • Polanisia dodecandra
  • Phlomis lanata
  • Plumbago auriculata
  • rose ‘Blush Noisette’
  • rose ‘Mermaid’ (a few flowers)
  • rose ‘New Dawn’
  • Rudbeckia hirta
  • Ruellia
  • waterlily ‘Helvola’ (first flower ever)

Acanthus mollis
Why Acanthus mollis isn’t invasive in my garden.

June 10th, 2008
Week 23: 6/4 – 6/10

Dateline: 2008

Every year there come a time when I must make Sophie’s choice, deciding which plants will live and which will die. I yanked out the last of the borage and the cornflowers this week. In the case of the unkillable Acathus mollis, I’m not letting it die, just go dormant until fall. It’s so pitifully sunburned and bug-eaten that I consider this a mercy killing. It doesn’t like the heat or the searing sunlight. (For the last couple of weeks, it’s been getting about an hour of afternoon sun a day because my neighbor lost some big limbs in the last storm.) In good years, I don’t have to make hard choices until after the 4th of July. Apparently 2008 is not going to be one of the good years.

The weather looks bad everywhere: 100 degree heat on the east coast, floods in the midwest, and late snow in Washington state. This afternoon when it was 101 degrees (tied the 1923 record) rain began falling although the sun was shining. It was so hot that almost none of the rain hit the ground and what did evaporated immediately. Little steamy droplets rose so that it looked like it was raining up at the same time it was raining down. It was one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. Nothing soaked in and the rain didn’t cool us off; we just went from dry heat to humid heat.

The oleander still looks stupendous. The duranta and the crape myrtle looked good at the beginning of the week but are starting to fade by today. We harvested four ‘Juliet’ grape tomatoes and various jalapeno peppers.

First flower: pomegranite (6/8).
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Zanthan Gardens Week 21
2008-05-27. A reason to have a little lawn–90+F degree days. This photo makes the garden look cool and refreshing but it’s actually oppressively muggy and hot.

May 27th, 2008
Week 21: 5/21 – 5/27

Dateline: 2011

Austin (Camp Mabry) records its first 100-degree day of the year, May 25th.

Dateline: 2008

As the temperatures climb, I find it hard to believe that by September I’ll look upon a 92F degree day as cool and fall-like. In the intervening months, summer will get a lot uglier. The days have been sultry. Someday, I’d like to spend this kind of week lying in the hammock sipping iced tea and enjoying the green shade. When it gets this hot, I don’t want any flashy color in the garden, just cool, refreshing green. This is the week that my resentment dissolves and I suddenly love my trees again; I forgive them for shading out the flowers in April.

I’ve been working hard to get everything mulched. I got a truckload of bark chips from a crew that was cleaning up after last week’s storm. That’s kept me busy running back and forth with the wheelbarrow refreshing the paths and putting a nice layer down in the woodland garden.

The nerium oleander and one of the duranta are in full bloom and look fantastic. The larkspur is all cleared out. A few bluebonnets bloom on (they last a long time if deadheaded.) The violas are mere crisps and the Confederate jasmine faded. The rose ‘Ducher’ is still blooming well. And ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’ puts out a single flower or two. The borage is holding up fairly well under the heat.

I ate the last three strawberries, harvested some jalapeno peppers, and started in on the summer squash. Oh, and we ate a pitiful handful of potatoes I dug up Sunday (5/25). They were tasty but we harvested less than we planted.

First flower: canna ‘Bangkok Yellow’ (5/22); Lindheimer senna (5/25).
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Zanthan Gardens meadow
2008-04-08. The meadow in full flower. You can’t see the garden for the flowers.

May 24th, 2008
Meadow Progession

Thanks to my visitors during Spring Fling and the article on garden blogging in the Austin American-Stateman, the image most people have of Zanthan Gardens is the meadow. The meadow defies all rules of garden sense. In a world seeking low-maintenance gardens with year-round interest, the meadow is a high-maintenance garden which has only one good season: from mid-March to mid-May. Although it has some Texas wildflowers in it, it is not primarily a native plant garden. As gardens go, the meadow does not have strong bones. You can barely see the garden for the flowers. There is little ornamentation. And despite photographic evidence to the contrary, there’s no place to sit in it–yet.

As I’ve often said, when it comes to the garden, I’m more of a plant person than a designer. Yet the meadow has both a design and a plan. The design is constrained by shade and one of the reasons I like an garden of annuals is because it’s easy to move the plants around as the light/shade conditions change.

December 18, 2007

Zanthan Gardens meadow

By mid-December I have already been working in the meadow for over a month. First I have to clean out the summer weeds (mostly horseherb) and rake up all the leaves. As self-sown annuals sprout all over the yard, I transplant them in drifts. I make mini-beds in the buffalograss, add sifted compost, and then transplant larkspur, bluebonnets, and cilantro. People might think a wildflower meadow can be made by just broadcasting a few seeds and letting nature take its course but that doesn’t work effectively in a urban space–at least not for me.

I’ve designed the view so that it incorporates, rather than hides, the back yards of my two neighbors. I try to balance the drifts of flowers so that there is a back and forth rhythm–like a series of S-shaped switchbacks, or the flow of a meandering river, or something from Andy Goldsworthy. Trying to get the right balance of color and height blooming together and in succession is the challenge of the meadow garden–what keeps it interesting and fun year after year.

February 4, 2008

Zanthan Gardens meadow

Two months later and I’m still transplanting. The rosettes of the larkspur, bluebonnets, and Engelmann daisies are big enough to mulch around. Because this fall and winter were so dry, I did more mulching of the meadow than I’ve ever done before. I start poppies and cornflowers in seedbeds and then transplant them into the meadow. Cilantro is filling in on its own.

March 5, 2008

Zanthan Gardens meadow

A month later and larkspur is shooting up flower stalks. Bluebonnets are one of the earliest wildflowers to bloom. We had a mild summer in 2007 but a dry, hot fall. Almost all the bluebonnets that made strong plants this year actually sprouted last May and over-summered. The bluebonnets that came up when they’re supposed to in the fall, were small and had few flowers. Usually this time of year, the meadow is a sheet of blue.

Self-sown baby blue eyes and false dayflowers grow up along the back fence with no help from me at all. All I do to help it look more like a garden than a patch of weeds is weed out anything else so that flowers of one type are massed together. Drifts are the key.

April 3, 2008

Zanthan Gardens meadow

All the anticipation is rewarded with a riot of color: blue from the bluebonnets, pink from the pink evening primrose, white from the cilantro, yellow from the Engelmann daisies, maroon from the cornflowers. If I’m lucky, the roses, crinum lilies, and irises are blooming too.

May 12, 2008

Zanthan Gardens meadow

Even in while the garden is in full bloom I’m out “editing” it–pulling out flowers that have gone to seed, dead-heading to prolong the life of others, marking plants I want to save seeds from, and ripping out the ones I don’t so they won’t cross-pollinate. As the season winds up, the yellows take over.

May 15, 2008

Zanthan Gardens meadow

This year, just as I had cleaned out most of the meadow, the top 20 feet of that cedar elm in the middle of these photos fell on the meadow. I’m lucky that it missed the retama (in full bloom with yellow flowers), the sago palm, and the roses and Japanese persimmon (not in this picture). The variegated agave, the Lindheimmer senna (which was just filling out) and the crinum lilies were somewhat crushed but the damage relatively minor.

May 24, 2008

Zanthan Gardens meadow

Cleaning up the fallen tree limb put me a week behind on my tidying and mulching the meadow. A few stray spring flowers continue to bloom. The self-sown cosmos, annual black-eyed Susans, and clammy weed get along without any help from me–which is great because the heat and humidity are oppressive right now.

Extending the Season

I do have strategies for extending the season. I’ve tried planting sunflowers and morning glories but I they get too late a start to bloom well before the heat. I have better luck planting them in the fall.

I’ve had several trees removed so that there is more light in the meadow again. Now I’ll be able to replace several roses I’ve lost. Also I’ve been planting more ornamental grasses, succulents, and perennials (like Lindheimer senna). Pam/Digging has been passing along her sun-loving plants, zexmenia, perennial black-eyed Susans, and purple coneflowers. This year I decided that the hot, sunny meadow might be the best place for some summer vegetables. Peppers are my favorite because the plants are so attractive. But during the suffocating heat of summer, I prefer to keep the planting airy and open; I need room to breathe.