June 21st, 2008
Putting the Garden to Bed for the Summer

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.

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?

by M Sinclair Stevens

15 Responses to post “Putting the Garden to Bed for the Summer”

  1. From Carol, May Dreams Gardens:

    I see now what you mean about your summer being like our winter. I also pot up plants to try to get them through the winter, just like you do in the summer.

    The big difference is for the most part, I can leave the garden alone most of the time in the winter, whereas you still must water and mulch and try to keep it going.

    I like the paths, the crossroad you have created in your garden. Which way to go?

    Well, whichever path you choose, you end up going in a circle. I didn’t realize I was into metaphorical garden design. — mss

  2. From Cindy, Katy:

    Your gardens look very calm and peaceful. I’m sure you feel anything but after all the hard work to get them put to bed! Here’s hoping July & August will be notable only for their lower than average temperatures.

    Ah, that’s a lovely fantasy. We’ll have a weird wet and cool July and August. Well. It happened in 2007 so it’s not impossible. — mss

  3. From Mr. McGregor's Daughter (Chicagoland):

    Even though I don’t live in Texas, one of my Astrantias & the mophead Hydrangeas always droop when the sunlight hits them. It’s not like they’re in sun all day either. Pathetic. Your plants at least have an excuse. I’d be drooping too if 91F was a break from the heat.

    I often feel like a vampire. I work in the shade and whenever I have to dash across a spot of sunlight I can feel the sun searing into my flesh–even though I’m wearing a hat and sunscreen (SPF 70). — mss

  4. From Jenny Austin:

    Look for a revival. We got 1 1/2 inches of rain this afternoon! Hope you got it over in your neck of the woods. Anyway, we and our garden have to have a rest some time, don’t we?

    We got about 1/4 of an inch on Saturday afternoon. It was nice when it was falling but then the sun came out and the humidity spiked. (That’s not a complaint. I was happy just for the cloud cover! A little rain was a bonus. — mss

  5. From Leslie:

    Wow…and I thought it was difficult here to deal with heat! We at least usually have cool nights and some days we have a break from the heat…and in any case we have a dry heat! (that’s our qualifier…it;s supposed to make us think 102 is not that bad!)

    I grew up in the southwest and, believe me, there IS a difference with dry heat. However, when temperatures hit triple-digits in Austin, it is usually because we are quite dry. Unfortunately, the nighttime temperatures just don’t drop as much. — mss

  6. From Nancy Bond:

    It’s been an almost perfect growing season so far here in NS, and I can’t even imagine your heat. Your summer putting to bed of your plants seems very much like our late fall. I hope you get a break from the heat and some rain. 🙂 Your property is lovely.

    Thanks. Yep. That’s my point. My summer is like your winter. Other Austin gardeners handle it differently and do grow flowers straight through the season. However, the psychological battle is just too exhausting for me. I prefer to pull back a bit in summer so that I can do other projects. — mss

  7. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    Have the cosmos and sunflowers burned up, or did you not plant them this year? I had some cosmos, but it burned to a crisp.

    I’m completely envious of Jenny’s 1 1/2 inches of rain. We got nada. How about you?

    We got about 1/4 of an inch Saturday afternoon. None on Friday. The cosmos have burned up except where they’re next to other plants getting watered. The sunflowers never had a chance to get going because the heat came on so early when they were just two or three inch seedlings. I lost a lot of seedlings the five days I was in San Francisco and it hit 100 degrees almost every day. — mss

  8. From Annie in Austin:

    Oh MSS – you must be tired – that’s a lot of mulching and tucking in! Brown may not be colorful, but it looks comforting, somehow.

    Where the heck does “Jenny Austin” live? We had thunder and enough rain fell to dampen the bottom of the rain gauge, which was exciting but not genuinely useful.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    Jenny lives west of Lost Creek toward the Natural Gardener. If you looked at the Doppler radar, on Friday the hill country got rain but Austin was a big dot of nothing. However, Saturday, we even got some rain downtown. Not much to soak in but enough to get the dust off the plants. — mss

  9. From kate:

    Well, your garden still looks pretty fine to me. I like your paths … would enjoy ambling about them. I can understand the need to take a rest – it would be exhausting in the ways you describe to try and do battle with the heat. It’s hard to see our plants drooping when there’s not much we can do to keep this from happening.

    I’m wishing you luck with keeping your potted plants going.

    I just have to remember not to give up. Now that I’ve gotten most things mulched, I can do all my watering between 6 and 8 in the morning before the sun is shining. Then it seems manageable and not too unpleasant. — mss

  10. From Annie in Austin:

    Thanks, MSS… that was a ‘Doh!’ moment.
    I didn’t know it was “our” Jenny…not seeing a link to her blog fooled me. I need rain to clear the dust from my mind.


  11. From Lisa in CA:

    Okay, I just need to shut up. We had a four-day heat wave of around 106* and I thought I’d die. I cannot, CANNOT, imagine a 32-day heat wave. Ya, I will just shut up. My hats off to you and your poor plants.

    106F degrees sounds pretty terrible to me. Hang in there. — mss

  12. From Steve Mudge(Fort Worth):

    You’ve got a couple of degrees on us but we have had the same heat wave up in Fort Worth…punishing mostly because it took place in May/early June which should have been warm-up months to get ready for summer. Instead summer came a month early on the heels of a rather cool-laced spring which didn’t seem to inspire the plants much either. Sigh. I love it though, the garden and the challenges it creates every season…its the journey that’s important and the garden is an omnipresent reminder of that.

    You pegged the worst part about this heat wave–timing. As you say, May and June are the months we use to get ready for July and August. They are usually wet and the time I put out a bunch seedlings for summer annuals. Maybe July and August will surprise us with being cold and wet. — mss

  13. From Diana - Austin:

    Nice post, and a lovely way to think of the state of your garden right now. All mine is in full swing, being a summer garden, primarily, and it’s sucking me dry with water and care needs. I’m tired. We didn’t get any rain either, but Jeff got a downpour across the river the the heart of downtown — where they don’t need it! I was wishing it my way in the car driving and watching it. We got brisk winds, gray skies and then…nothing.

    There seems to be as many approaches to tackling summer gardening in Austin as there are gardeners. I love comparing notes. I’m always on the lookout for some new tricks and some inspiration. I think, “Hey if Diana/Pam/Annie/Bonnie/Jenny can do it, maybe I can do it.” — mss

  14. From Amy:

    Ugh, I can’t imagine that much heat! It gets hot and dry here in the summer, but always cools off in the evening and early morning. Most people don’t even have air conditioning.

    I’ve lived in Las Vegas, NV and Albuquerque so I miss that dry heat. And mountains. — mss

  15. From Don (Iowa):

    It sounds like your continuing brutal summers are progressively focusing your gardening. If your summer is our winter; here in the upper midwest our winter garden consists basically of a few evergreens… not much. Do you think you’ll ever get to where you basically winter garden, with just a handful of summer plants that can really take it? I always thought if I lived in a dry summer, wet but mild winter area, I’d grow thousands of different hardy bulbs, then take the summer off. (Of course in reality I’d try and grow Japanese maples and meconopsis).

    Theoretically I’d like to grow just desert succulents and not have to deal with the garden at all during the summer. Two problems, though. I’m not that fond of agaves and cacti and you never know what kind of summer Austin’s going to get. We had an UNUSUALLY cool, wet summer in 2007–many people who had gone to xeriscape gardens after the drought of 2006 saw their plants rot away. (Rosemary seemed to be particularly hard hit.) I think the best plan is to keep trying a wide variety of plants–and stay adaptable. — mss