January 2nd, 2007
Cold Season Gardening

Could it be that I’m really a cold climate gardener–or more precisely, a cold season gardener? I consider giving up gardening in summer.

The New Year dawned cold but sunny. I discover that I do like the sun! but only when the temperatures are below 70F. Reading over my garden journal I see how every fall and winter I plan and plant anew. The amount of plants I’ve killed over the years is sobering. And reading about my excitement and hopes and how my many plans came to nothing puts a damper on plans for this new year. For the first time I see the downside of keeping a journal.

Yet it’s difficult not to throw oneself into gardening when the days are so fine. Add the fact that we had a bit of our usual December rain and you’ll understand why it’s said that hope springs eternal. The success of my first winter vegetable garden encourages me to make new plans.

I spend a lot of time writing about the reversal of seasons down south. Lately I’ve been thinking that if summer is really our dead season, why shouldn’t I treat it as such. Why not help the garden go completely dormant, cover it up with mulch, and wait out the worst of summer. As long as this drought continues (the one in the 1950s lasted seven years), our summers are getting hotter and we have more and more days over 100F degrees.

Kathy Purdy at Cold Climate Gardening posted recently about the USDA hardiness zone maps and I replied that in Austin I’m more concerned with the data in the relatively new AHS Heat Zone Map. Some plants suffer heat damage in temperatures as low as 86F degrees. In Austin, temperatures top 86F degrees 50 to 65 percent of the days in the year. Finding the right heat-loving plants is part of the fun of gardening, a challenge tempered with failure. We plant native plants but I, for one, want something more than plants that merely survive. If we try Mediterranean or desert plants in our dry years, we risk losing them to humidity in our wet years. If we plant tropicals, we worry about that one hard freeze a year wiping them out.

The number of days in a row where temperatures are above freezing but below 86F is hard to calculate but generally speaking Austin has two short prime growing seasons from mid-September to mid-November and mid-February to mid-May. Here at Zanthan Gardens plants receive more sunlight in December after the leaves of our large deciduous trees have fallen than in July. And, on the average, more rain.

As I spend my days tending my cool-weather vegetables and planting out my cottage annuals (which don’t require a struggle to dig deep holes in the clay and endless roots of bindweed), I wonder why not just stop here? Enjoy the spring flush of flowers and pack it in for the summer. Forget the short-lived perennials and roses which never receive enough light in the summer and yet demand water, feeding, and attention. Sling a hammock in the deep shade and forget about gardening in summer. Become a cold season gardener.

Is it possible?

by M Sinclair Stevens

8 Responses to post “Cold Season Gardening”

  1. From Kathy (New York):

    It makes sense to me. In your neighborhood it doesn’t sound like you have to keep up appearances so much. Still you might want to have something attractive lining the path from the air-conditioned car to the air-conditioned house.

    An erratic, inconsistent climate (hot or cold) is surely the greatest challenge. I haven’t struggled with such great heat, but when we’ve had dry years I think about planting more drought-hardy plants. But they would rot in our more typical moist summers, especially in my clay soil. What to do? All I can think of is plant all kinds of plants to hedge your bets.

  2. From Annie in Austin:

    It sounds nuts, but in some ways I find it easier to work here in summer than it was in Illinois…I sort of follow the dappled shade around the garden, wear my big hat, and don’t stay out too long at a stretch. I think part of the reason is that I know I can go inside to a cool dark place whenever I want it. We had rudimentary air conditioning in Illinois, so I would work in say – the middle/high eighties – getting all hot and sweaty, then would find middle/high eighties inside – blechh! That didn’t work! In fact, I probably raised the interior of our house by a few degrees! The guarantee of a refuge allows me to garden in summer.

    I gave up an awful lot in order to relocate to Austin in 1999 – and year-round gardening was one of the only reasons I said yes.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    Well, I don’t run the AC much in the day time at my house and this last summer (when we didn’t have a floor or walls) I didn’t run it at all. But it was so dry, it was bearable. Had it been one of our humid summers I don’t know what I would have done. Anyway, it’s not me but the plants that seem to mind the summer. I’m tired of plants that are growing in survival mode. If I keep doing the same thing, why should I be surprised at the same failures? I want to do something different this year. I’ll have to come visit your garden in the summer so that I can learn some tricks from you. — mss

  3. From Jenn:

    “The amount of plants I’ve killed over the years is sobering.”

    I’m glad it’s not just me.

  4. From firefly:

    Lately I’ve been thinking that if summer is really our dead season, why shouldn’t I treat it as such. Why not help the garden go completely dormant, cover it up with mulch, and wait out the worst of summer.

    Ah, I love “upside-down” turns in thinking like this! I’ve never been to Austin, but after reading Austin garden blogs last summer, I was really struck by how everyone digs in to endure the hottest segment of summer and just waits for things to come to life with cooler temperatures and rain in the autumn.

    It’s really just following Nature, but we as humans seem to love going against the grain.

    I hope you will try it (maybe one section of the garden at a time?) and tell us how it turns out.

  5. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    Yes, it’s a relief at this time of year, isn’t it, that the sun has stopped trying to kill us? Plus, with no mosquitoes trying to suck us dry, one can even enjoy just sitting in the sun in the garden.

    It’s an interesting idea to let the garden go fully dormant in the summer. I’ll be interested to know what comes back in the fall if you do it. I don’t think I could do that though. Plenty of the xeric plants will bloom in my garden all summer with minimal water (Turk’s cap, coneflowers, Mexican oregano, salvias, guara, hymenoxys, bulbine, yellow bells), though they do look stressed by August. I enjoy seeing their greenery and flowers from inside my air-conditioned cocoon.

    My turk’s cap will do all right–I never water it and it doesn’t mind some shade. But my yellow bells never flower until September because of shade. Ditto my three kinds of salvia, the rosemary, the lavender, the desert willow, and the lantana. Sigh. I’ve always wanted a guara but I bet it wants sunlight, too, to flower and stay bushy. Maybe I’ll plant more crape myrtle and rose of sharon. — mss

  6. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    Don’t crape myrtle and rose of Sharon like sun too? For your dry shade, have you tried zexmenia, bamboo muhly, inland sea oats, Texas betony, or heartleaf skullcap? Those do very well for me with minimal attention. Of all those, the betony needs a little extra: a little more sun and a little more water. I’ve got tons of heartleaf skullcap seedlings if you want to try it. Be warned, though—it will try to take over if you ignore it.

    The crape myrtles and rose of sharon that I have bloom well enough if they have supplemental water. Maybe they are in better spots than the yellow bells. The desert willow is between the two crape myrtles, though, and doesn’t bloom at all. So I don’t know. I am planning on gulf muhly for the woods. And, sure, I’d love to have some skullcap seedlings. — mss

  7. From willie:

    Just moved here. Do I need to condition the soil with anything before I plant? Are the plants mentioned by pam/digging, like the cone flower, only good in shade or are they good in sun also?

    Welcome to Austin. If you live east of the MoPac you will be gardening on heavy black clay; west, on limestone with a thin covering of soil. Either way you should amend your soil with plenty of humus. An excellent source of information about soil amendments is The Natural Gardener. Follow that link to their website and then make sure to visit them in person. To get more information from Pam visit her website Digging. — mss

  8. From Helen:

    This is the third year for my yellow bells. It took a bad hit with a hail storm last Oct. and then thru the winter it froze clear back to the ground. It came up from the ground and looks beautiful but it has not had one flower all summer. Can you tell me why?