August 7th, 2009
Even the Cactus Is Withering

prickly pear cactus
When a cactus wilts the pads curl inwards and shrivel so that you can see the veins.

There are no green thumbs or black thumbs. There are only gardeners and non-gardeners. Gardeners are the ones who ruin after ruin get on with the high defiance of nature herself, creating, in the very face of her chaos and tornado, the bower of roses and the pride of irises. It sounds very well to garden a ‘natural way’. You may see the natural way in any desert, any swamp, any leech-filled laurel hell. Defiance, on the other hand, is what makes gardeners. — Henry Mitchell

I’ve quoted this passage from Henry Mitchell before but I don’t know if I believe it anymore. It’s nicely phrased. Well, sometimes words have their way with writers. We exaggerate or expound because the words flow together. They seem to write themselves. They reveal unarticulated truths to us. We feel our muse has spoken, believe our own arguments, talk ourselves into a position.

I don’t believe that any one trait makes a gardener. Gardeners are gardeners simply because we can’t help ourselves.

We Austin gardeners are having a tough time these days. Today, the National Weather Service confirmed we are in the hottest summer ever recorded in Austin. We are in a drought so severe and ongoing that they’ve had to come up with a new classification to describe it. It’s like we’re in Spinal Tap with the volume set to 11.

As garden bloggers we feel the need to cheer each other on, to raise our fists defiantly together, to commiserate and console each other in our losses. I wonder, though, am I the only one whose cheerful front is wearing thin? Am I the only one who doesn’t want hear another word about planting xeriscape or native plants or adding still another layer of mulch? Am I the first one to crack under the heat as I run screaming from the room, “EVEN THE DAMN CACTUS IS WITHERING!”

Is Henry Mitchell really going to drum me out of the corp of gardeners because I think in times like these it’s foolish to be defiant? In some situations isn’t it better to bend gracefully like the bamboo than break like the oak?

drought-stressed cedar elm
The top of this drought-stressed cedar elm just fell over last week.

If there is anyone else out there who feels less of a gardener for not living up to some standard of defiance or cheerfulness in the face of this calamity, I want to reassure you. It’s all right to hate your garden right now. It’s all right to feel joyless as you water your potted plants twice a day. It’s all right to feel sullen as you drag your hose around before the sun comes up. It’s all right to feel sad, anger, disgust, and despair. I won’t try to cheer you up. I’ll start looking for silver linings after I see some dark, rain-filled clouds.

We are cautioned not to envy others with a trite, “The grass is always greener elsewhere.” I say, it would pretty much have to be.


by M Sinclair Stevens

20 Responses to post “Even the Cactus Is Withering”

  1. From bill / prairie point:

    we got a couple inches of rain last week and it really woke up the plants. I still don’t understand how it is that i can water a plant day after day and it barely stays alive. then we get a couple inches of rain in a week and all of a sudden it has flowers! eventually it will happen in your garden too.

    but i understand what you are saying. for the past year or more i have felt like that old king who tried to sweep back the sea.

  2. From Steve Mudge(Fort Worth):

    So sorry for the drought down there. I just got back from three weeks in Baja on a remote Pacific point where the morning temp was 66 degs and the midday temp was 74 degs…now I feel like your withering cactus back here in Tejas…

  3. From Jenny Austin:

    It is so sad to see your cactus so stressed( I think they will fill up again if it rains) Remember I took 3 pads from there last fall. They rooted well over the winter and I planted them in the spring in the granite area at the front. I hope they aren’t in the same state. I will be almost afraid to pull into the driveway for fear of total devastation of my garden. After all the lush greenery I have seen over the last 3 months it will be a shock to see drought ravaged Austin.

    I’m sure the cactus will recover with rain. And if it doesn’t, I don’t care. I don’t like cactus and this one has become an invasive monster. Your garden is so well designed, with so much variety, I’m sure it’s fine. And you have an irrigation system, don’t you? — mss

  4. From Linda Lehmusvirta Austin Texas:

    Beautifully written! And I’m so sorry about the tree. All I can say now is that every day we’re closer to the one that it will rain again.

    And then the Austin gardeners will revive like weeds. — mss

  5. From Carol, May Dreams Gardens:

    I’m a bit in shock seeing that cactus wilting like that. I agree, it is alright to not be all “Susie Sunshine” trying to keep your gardens alive through that drought.

  6. From Robin at Getting Grounded:

    Excellent post, MSS. The first time I moved to Austin, after 5 years I said “I can’t take the heat anymore, I’m moving”, so I ran to the Colorado mountains for the next five years (awesome weather there year round, by the way.)However, I was homesick for the quirky attitude and hometown feel of the Austin people and lifestyle and came back.

    I’ve been back for a decade now, and once again, I’m ready to leave. I love the people, but I just think that life is too short to have to stay indoors so much. And these past two years of Summer of Hell I and II have only exacerbated my need to run away. As much as I love Austin, it’s driving me away again.

    Linda at CTG wrote a lovely post about trying to be optimistic, and usually I’m the Pollyanna of optimism. Not now, not in this unrelenting and unbearable weather that seems to be picking only on us Central Texans. Did somebody not pay their karmic dues?

    Actually, it was partially Linda’s post that pushed me into writing this one. It’s a wonderful post on examing our relationship to our garden. It made me think how difficult it must be for professional garden writers to always remain professional and encouraging in times like these. When Linda speaks of plant relationships and how we are here “for better or worse”. I couldn’t help but quip, that since the other marriage vow is “until death do we part, I’m about to become a garden widow”. I felt such relief in a little humorous rant that I thought others might, too. As for running away, that’s all I’ve dreamed of doing these last four months. Coming up next, I think, I will run away mentally to some scenes from last year’s visit to England. — mss

  7. From Annie in Austin:

    That’s still a favorite quote from ol’ Henry but it’s getting harder to be defiant…or cheerful. What’s stressing me, M, is the uncertainty of relief arriving while there’s still something to save.

    My guess is that as long as a prisoner can scratch the remaining days of his term off the wall of his cell, watching the number go down, he can hang on to hope. But right now we’re under an indefinite sentence, with weather reporters gleefully reminding us that the drought in the fifties went on for years and years.

    Is business up at Austin movie theaters and liquor stores?

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    Wow! You are exactly right. In late spring, as we headed into a continuation of last summer, I was really depressed because I kept remembering the 7-year drought of the 1950s and wondering if it wasn’t better to cut my losses early. Even darker thoughts–what if this wasn’t just a cyclical change? What if this was the new normal? Then a few weeks ago, when the promise of El Niño appeared on the horizon, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. I knew it wouldn’t come in time to save much, but I felt reassured–when the rains come I’ll start again. I don’t know if the rains will come; it is simply the promise that gives me that necessary whiff of hope. — mss

  8. From Jenn:

    Hotter than usual here, too. And the monsoon is making promises that it just isn’t keeping.

  9. From Pam/Digging:

    I go through ups and downs about the weather. Today I drove around town and saw yellowing leaves on so many trees, as if it were fall. But of course it’s drought stress. What a downer.

    Mostly though I’m still feeling up. Water gardening has helped me. Cacti and a watering system are my friends. And having significant shade for the first time helps my mood more than I realized it would.

    But if misery loves company, I’ll say no more. 😉 I’m glad to hear that Julie and Julia is good. I’m going to see it this evening.

  10. From Laura, south Austin:

    Thank you for being so honest. I am wearing myself out watering by hand two hours every night and four hours a day on the weekends. I’m not watering grass, just plants. I feel worn out, desparate, & depressed. I don’t go out after work anymore. I just water.

    What’d you do last night, Laura? Water.
    What’d you do this weekend, Laura? Water.

    Yes, I know I could install a drip system, but this isn’t as easy in my yard as it might be for others.

    I’ve already mulched heavily, used all the water in my rain water tanks and barrels, used my kitchen sink water, dog bowl water, mop bucket water, and wash water…and then I water from the tap. I carry buckets of water and drag hoses endlessly.–No need for an exercise program or gym membership! Two hours of rigorous watering every night does the trick.

    John Dromgoole (radio garden host) suggested not watering smaller stuff but only the big trees. He said we can replace roses, etc. that die for about $10. but I probably have 500 plants (?$5,000?) put in over a span of 10 years. Even though most are drought tolerant, that doesn’t mean they don’t need water. I had only 1/4″ for July.

    Thanks for allowing me to whine openly. 🙂

    My pleasure! Your routine and your attempts to conserve water and do all the other “right” things sound just like mine. And in “normal” years they work great. This year they’re just not enough. I’m not advocating abandoning our good habits. But I know exactly how you feel about how discouraging it all is. I can’t afford to replace my “small” plants either. Most were bought when they were very small and I’ve nurtured them for years. So, it’s painful. Drought tolerant is one thing: drought loving another. And not all drought tolerant plants can take the heat. Or maybe they like heat but not direct sun. Even the natives are suffering because this is not our native weather. — mss

  11. From Bob Pool:

    You never here those gardening pundits talk about heat tolerate plants, only drought tolerate plants. I can always water but I can’t turn down the heat. I like cactus and succulents but I don’t want just them only.

    Since the 1990s there’s been a USDA heat zone map which tries to play the same role as the more familiar cold-weather plant-hardiness zone map. And there was a book based on this idea but the name escapes me. On another topic, I need to get over to your site and leave some comments. You are doing an amazing rainwater collection system project. Readers. Go take a peek. Bravo, Bob! — mss

  12. From Bruce Tate:

    First poster here.

    Great post. The lake view behind my house is threatening to be a hike and bike view. With the lake drying up, I feel guilty about watering enough to keep the landscape alive.

    By the way, the irises that we got from you through Carol K. are doing nicely. My wife was looking through your blog three weeks ago to find what kind they were, but we didn’t know the irises were yours until dinner with Carol last night!

    We Austin gardeners are having a tough time these days. Today, the National Weather Service confirmed we are in the hottest summer ever recorded in Austin. We are in a drought so severe and ongoing that they’ve had to come up with a new classification to describe it. It’s like we’re in Spinal Tap with the volume set to 11.

  13. From angelina:

    What you’re experiencing is dreadful and I couldn’t bear it at all. I am like the gardens- I wither and dry up and shrivel in horrid heat and drought. Having to nurture my plants through an unusually hot summer has been bad enough, to go through years of that would undoubtedly kill me. So, I have no cheer to offer you either except that perhaps you guys should think of moving to the PNW after all?

  14. From Maggie, Lake Travis area:

    I feel the same way. We just returned from a camping trip to middle Tennessee where all things are lush, green and beautiful. They just have to put a plant in the ground and it will grow! I felt so miserable thinking of my gardening attempt here on our rocky hill top above the lake. What a ridiculous endeavor! Of course, I am thinking this and all the while going ahead with my fall vegetable garden planning…definitely crazy! 🙂

  15. From Jenny Austin:

    Yes, we have a drip irrigation system, but I have my doubts that it will deal with such continuously high temperatures. Plus the front garden has no system at all. That is where your cactus is planted with hopes that it would make it on mother nature’s provision! We’ll see about that.

  16. From Diana Austin:

    Oh – I am soooo with you. And thanks for the permission to be miserable and cranky. I didn’t even go out to water my plants in pots today. They look sad tonight, but they are going to have to wait until tomorrow. I watered the birds and the deer and that’s it. I don’t even want to be outside — it’s so sad. But it will end and maybe we will get that much-needed and promised rain. Great post – and I love the quote from Mitchell – isn’t he awesome?

    Another danger that you’ve revealed is that if you give up the struggle for one day then you chance losing plants you’ve nurtured all summer. Every time morning errands keep me too busy to water my potted plants, or the my mood or the heat makes me put it off until tomorrow, I lose stuff. Henry Mitchell is awesome–one of my favorite garden writers–I think because he has a crotchety no-nonsense style but also because he finds such beauty and pleasure in the garden. — mss

  17. From Linda Wimberley:

    No, you’re not the only one whose cheerful front is wearing thin. This unrelenting heat wears you out, and wears you down.

    We moved to Wimberley last fall. There were established shrubs, but not much more here. I’ve been enlarging beds and building more beds. The plants are all looking very sad.

    Here at our house, we’ve had less than .75 inches of rain since May. I worry so much about the trees.

    Let’s hope the promise of an El Nino winter is right.

    Thanks for letting me know it’s not just me. — mss

  18. From mga, Austin:

    I noticed the other day that the lower oak branches are drooping into the clothes line. This happens when the branches are wet and heavy, but I think they’re drooping now because the poor tree feels limp. It has always had a bit of a lean away from the house but now it’s about 30 degrees off vertical and I don’t think it used to be that bad. Your cedar elm picture has me worried. If it falls, it won’t hit our house but it will take out the back fence and probably the deck, if the roots come up.

  19. From Lori, Austin TX:

    I understand completely. And I agree with Annie, wondering if it’ll get bad to the point where all of our current efforts to save our plants are a waste of time, effort, and resources. Driving up Mopac the other day, I noticed that even the invasive bamboo on both sides of the highway is dried up and looking dead.

    I’m about to go outside while it’s still dark to hand-water the front garden, and then I’m going to buy some plane tickets to northern Wisconsin. I’ve had about as much of this heat as I can handle.

  20. From Bonnie:

    Amen! You may have caught my rant the other day on my blog- I am just about up to here with this heat…and we sat on the deck last night and watched a beautiful storm cell approach us only to have it completely dissipate before it reached Austin. Son of a … next summer I am headed to Colorado!