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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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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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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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.

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?

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.

LA lily
Apparently it’s a tradition that I take a photo of this lily in Week 20–at least every time I get a new camera.

May 21st, 2008
Week 20: 5/14 – 5/20

Dateline: 2008


The week began promisingly, with a little rain. I was feeling on top of my gardening chores. I’d gotten most of the spring annuals pulled out and seeds harvested. I was sifting compost, top-dressing and mulching plants, and just about to finish off one compost pile and turn the other so I could start a new one. I was further along in tidying up than I’ve ever been this time of year and feeling quite satisfied with my labors. So it was no surprise to me, really, that the malicious Loki-spirit of my garden decided this was an auspicious time to slam hard and wipe that smug look off my face.

After hail, wind, and falling limbs (and ball moss!) my neatly mulched garden looked liked Christmas morning at my parents’ house after 15 grandchildren have shredded their Christmas present wrappings. Although we had a couple of clear dry days for the cleanup, we ended the week with August-like temperatures: two record-breakers, 98F/36C (5/19); 101F/38C (5/20). (Normal temps for this time of year are mid-80s.)

One of the three bushes of Duranta erecta is in full flower–the other two, nothing. The oleander is also flowering profusely, unfazed by the heat.

First flower: Echinacea purpurea (5/14); Malvaviscus arboreus (5/15); LA hybrid lily (5/19); Ipomoea quamoclit (5/19); Antigonon leptopus (5/19); Lagerstroemia indica ‘Catawba’ (5/19); Vitus agnus-castus (5/20).

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Zanthan Gardens  meadow
2008-05-08. The meadow just before it’s put to bed for the summer.

May 13th, 2008
Week 19: 5/07-5/13

Dateline: 2008
As usual summer arrives in Austin with a vengeance in week 19. Last Friday temperatures hit a muggy 97F (5/9), cooling of to a mere 95F on Saturday. We received a wonderful reprieve on Mother’s Day and yesterday the high was only 78. I spent all day in the garden, tearing out larkspur and cilantro and mulching the perennials.

Even without the larkspur and cilantro, the meadow is looking pretty good. I did better job this year of balancing the early and late bloomers so that there is still a lot of color from Engelmann daisy, pink evening primrose, and poppies.

The coral bean is in full bloom and the root-hardy perennials that had been smothered under the exuberance of the wildflowers are starting to grow: the purple coneflower, the butterfly bush, the black-eyed susan. These are blooming in other people’s gardens (probably because weren’t hidden from the sun all spring) while mine are just getting started. And unlike last year, my red yucca is blooming very well this year. It has two stalks.

First flower: Plumbago auriculata (5/8); Rudbeckia hirta (5/8); Acanthus mollis (5/11); Ruellia (5/11) the passalong; Magnolia grandiflora ‘Little Gem’ (5/12); Zexmenia (5/12).

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