Cosmos sulphureus
2009-12-05. Cosmos sulphureus frozen after last night’s hard freeze in Austin.

December 5th, 2009
Hard Freeze

Dateline: 2009

2009-12-05. Per the Weather Underground: Bouldin station. Hard freeze (28°F or below) from 2AM-8:30AM. Freeze 9:30PM-9:15AM

I felt giddy and full of energy today because of (rather than despite) the hard freeze last night which laid to rest half my garden for the year. The garden was full of fresh greenery and bursting with flowers from this year’s weekly fall rains. My regret at seeing so much die back or die outright lasted only while I took my inventory. What I felt instead was freedom and a sense of new possibilities.

Zanthan Gardens didn’t get a hard freeze at all last year. Back in 2006, I was ready to start the year afresh and wishing that last year’s annuals would Just Die Already. The worst kind of winter we can have in Austin is mild in December and January followed by a big winter storm in February or even March. By then, you’ve spent countless hours covering and uncovering plants and bringing pots in and taking them out again. You’ve babied the garden and pulled it through a few light frost or short freezes and then, wham! an ice storm.

So if Austin is going to have a hard freeze at all this winter, I’m glad it was the first winter storm and not the last one of the season. As @AnnieinAustin remarked, “better swallowed by whale than nibbled to death by minnows!”

Now I can really look forward to my spring garden. It helps that the pecan and persimmon trees dropped all their leaves in a matter of hours. (Quite a few Austinites tweeted about this phenomenon this morning.) The front yard is back to being in full sun and I can transplant my larkspur seedlings. The Port St. Johns creeper which smothered the back fence, the grape, a ‘New Dawn’ rose, and a stand of yucca can be pulled out.

I’m still assessing the damage so I’ll be updating this list. Sometimes, it takes several days for freeze damage to become apparent.

basil, cosmos, datura, tomato

Damage on some growth
aloe vera, amaryllis, jalapeño, Meyer lemon (covered), Salvia madrensis (covered),
Meyer lemon
2009-12-05. Although frost tolerant to 22°F, the Meyer lemon showed damaged to new, tender growth even though it was covered.

Died back
fig, banana trees, coral vine, cypress vine, duranta, elephant ears, kalanchoe, Port St. Johns creeper, purple Wandering Jew, turks cap,

Not affected
asparagus fern, cilantro, larkspur, lavender, love-in-a-mist, oregano, parsley, roses, sage (culinary and Jerusalem), sweet alyssum, snapdragons,
Read the rest of this entry »

new buds on rose Ducher
Buds and tender new growth (red) on the ‘Ducher’ rose.

November 20th, 2009
Freeze Warning

We Austin gardeners are living in heady times. The last two winters have been very mild. Last year I didn’t even get a killing freeze in my garden (although I know others in who Austin did). As a result, plants that usually die back to the ground–like the duranta and the Port St. Johns creeper–kept growing and flowering year around. Tender perennials that we treat as annuals–such a jalapeno pepper–demonstrated that they are indeed perennials. My aloe vera that I planted outside has survived three winters and grown and flowered. It produces so many pups and is so heat and drought tolerant that I keep planting it all over the garden. And worse, I’ve started collecting its cousins. There are 400 species of aloe and dozens of different ones are available in Austin nurseries. Some are reputed to be hardy but aloe vera is not. So far the aloe vera has reacted to the cold by turning slightly red but recovered quickly.

Aloe barbadensis
Aloe vera. I planted these in 2006. Since then they’ve doubled in size, multiplied, and flowered.

The aloe vera was only the beginning. Last winter I got tired of lugging plants I could barely carry into the house when a freeze threatened only to lug them back out again a couple of days later when temperatures returned to the 70s. So, I planted them out in the garden, too. If Austin gets several hard freezes this year will it be the end of my lemon tree, my cut leaf philodendron, two different kinds of asparagus fern, and my kalanchoe?

Kalanchoe dagriemontiana
The kalanchoe is forming new buds. These will turn to mush in a freeze.

Why do I keep buying new frost-sensitive plants like the allspice bush and the Natal plum?

As I continue planting (Austinites do most of our planting in the autumn so that our plants can have a chance to establish themselves before our deadly summer), I keep wondering if we aren’t headed for a reversal of fortune. We’ve been riding a non-freeze plant survival wave, living recklessly based on short-term memories. The forecast for this El Niño winter is colder than normal.

Established plants have responded to Austin’s recent rains after our two year drought as if it were spring. Several normally spring-blooming plants are flowering now and everything is putting out new growth. Even in normal years, many of our plants don’t go dormant and our ground never freezes. I often have roses in bloom at Christmas. Although on average Austin has a dozen nights of freezing temperatures, these nights are interspersed with days in the 60s, 70s, and even 80s. (If you delight in statistics, see the freeze dates at Camp Mabry between 1997 and 2006.)

Earlier this week, November 17th, the National Weather Service issued its first freeze warning for parts of our county. This should not have surprised us. The average is first freeze is December 2nd and as recently as 2005, our first freeze was also November 17th.

If the garden is unprepared and vulnerable, I think Austin gardeners are even more so. On Twitter, our responses fell into one of three camps: those who hurriedly covered plants and brought them inside, those who decided their plants were just going to have to tough it out, and those who gambled that while a freeze might hit other parts of Travis County, our micro-climate was probably safe. I was in the latter group and I won my bet with the weather. This time.

I need to get prepared. When it comes to Austin weather, anything can happen. In 1980, on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, it snowed.

Visualizing the heat.

July 7th, 2009
Austin’s 100-Degree Days

Every season has its symbols and traditions. Bluebonnets mean spring. Oxblood lilies, fall. And when I begin a fist-shaking litany of complaint about the heat, the drought, and how I want to move into a high-rise downtown and never garden again, my husband knows it’s summer.

“This is different.” I say. “Summer wasn’t always like this.”

My husband rolls his eyes.

Despite your visions of Texas as a tumbleweed filled barren desert, central Texas is not anything like the landscape from a John Wayne movie. (This is the Monument Valley in the Painted Desert of Arizona…a true desert.)
This is not central Texas.
This is not central Texas.

I know it’s pointless to keep acting as if nothing is different–to plan and plant and use water as if nothing has changed. By any measure, there is nothing normal about this heat: not the number of days, the time of year we’re having them, or the high temperatures that Austin has experienced the last two years in this critical-stage drought.

I come from the group of people who think that if they can only explain something well, then everyone will understand the obvious. Thus, I’m compelled to quantify my pain.

So I charted all the 100 degree and hotter days Austin has had from 2000 to 2009. I used the official temperatures from Camp Mabry (not ABIA or my neighborhood weather station). I wanted to put them all on one bar graph but there are so many I ended breaking them up by year. The graphs are wide (you have to scroll) which is why they are on a separate page and not embedded into this post.

How hot is it supposed to get?

I started the chart with 2000 for a couple of reasons. First, as I understand how the “average” temperature is calculated, the weather service takes an average over 30 years of the 3 previous decades. So the average we’re working with now is from 1971-2000. This is a cooler, wetter period than Austin in the 1950s or in the current decade. This decade is resetting what’s “normal” for Austin.

Austin's all time high of 112 degrees
But the year 2000 was also the September that broke all previous high temperature records in one horrible week. So I felt compelled to start with the trendsetter for this decade.

  • 8/31: 107°F. Record high for the date. 33 days 100 or above.
  • 9/01. 107°F. Hottest September temperature in history.
  • 9/02. 107°F.
  • 9/03. 108°F. New hottest September temperature in history.
  • 9/04. 110°F. Hottest temperature in Austin history.
  • 9/05. 112°F. New hottest temperature in Austin history. Hottest week in Austin history.

Altogether, the year 2000 had 42 days 100° or hotter over the summer. At that time, it was in third place. 2008 has already knocked it out of the record books, taking third place with 50 days. [2009 broke the record for third place again on August 10, with 51 days…and counting.]

When is it supposed to get hot? When is it supposed to stop?

In the 1990s, I’d start worrying about rain around Father’s Day. But I didn’t start moping about the heat until after the Fourth of July. Back-to-school rains would bring relief and temperatures would cool down to the 90s in September.

The statistics bear me out. While we might have the odd 100° day in June or even the last couple of days of May, generally the heat doesn’t arrive in Austin until July and it’s most prevalent in August.

Even in record-breaking 2000, the first 100° day wasn’t until July 12th. Contrast that with 2008 when the first 100° day was May 20th…almost two months earlier! July 12, 2008 was the twenty-fourth day of 100° heat last year. This year we started a little later than 2008 (June 13th) but the daily temperatures have been much higher. As of July 5th, 2009 Austin has had twenty 100° or hotter days. To put it another way, on this date (July 7th) the year 2000 had forty-two more days of 100° heat to come. What do you think is in store for 2009?

Austin's hottest September 2005
On average, the heat ends in August. But the year 2005 was also a record-breaker. The 100° days didn’t start until June 30th. Then there was a break from mid-July to mid-August. It looked like a normal September until the last week when Hurricane Rita slammed into Texas and Louisiana. No rain reached Austin but it had a crazy effect on our temperatures.

  • 9/25. 107°F. Previous record 97°.
  • 9/26. 107°F.
  • 9/27. 103°F.
  • 9/28. 106°F.

September 2005 is now the hottest September on record. And Austin shows the potential for 100° days from May 20th to September 28th: more than four months.

How many days is it supposed to be hot?

The average number of 100° days in Austin is 11. So, 2009 has already almost doubled the average.

This decade has had some cool years. After 2001 broke the record of 100 degree days or more in a row (19 in 1925; 21 in 2001) a record-breaking rainfall at the end of August ended the heat’s hold for 3 years. Over the 3-year period of 2002, 2003, and 2004 the combined, the total was only 9 days. After the devastating August of 2006, we had a gloriously abnormally, cool and wet year of 2007: only three 100° days that year, in August with a max temperature of exactly 100°. Ah, those were the days.

Then came 2008–pushing its way into the record books with the third most 100° or hotter days on record: 50 (breaking the third place record set in 2000 of 42).

With a record-breaking week of June temperatures and twenty 100° days already under our belt, 2009 looks grim.

Update: July 10, 2009

This just in from Jim Spencer at KXAN.

“[Austin] topped 100 degrees for the 23rd time this summer–eclipsing the number of 100 degree days one year ago today, at which point we were about halfway through what equalled the hottest summer on record in Austin…It’s not out of the question that we reach 100 degrees or hotter every day for the rest of July! If that happens, it will be become the longest stretch of consecutive triple digit days on record.”

Update: July 14, 2009

Lake Travis Shrinks to a 25 Year Low. The lake is dropping 1.5 feet a week. The current lake level is just above 640 feet; this is the fourth lowest level on record. The lowest level ever is August 1951 when it sank to 614.18.

Update: August 10, 2009

Today we break last year’s record of 50 triple digit days. Today is day 51 and we are now in third place behind 1925’s 69 days and 1923’s 66 days. Per KXAN’s Jim Spencer,

“As it stands today, this summer is by far the hottest ever recorded, with an average temperature of 88.3 degrees since June 1st. That is more than 1 full degree higher than the previous record set last year!”

Update: August 13, 2009

The “trigger point” has been reached for Stage 2 Drought Restrictions which will go into effect on August 24, 2009. The combined storage of lakes Buchanan and Travis has dropped to 900,000 acre-feet.

Update: September 3, 2009

We hit our 68th and final triple-digit temperature of 2009. We come within one day of tying the all time record (69 in 1925). Glad it’s over but it seems unfair to suffer so much and not get the record.

“From a vegetative standpoint, I think we’re going to be seeing the impacts of this drought for many years to come, many of our old native trees around this area are severely stressed during this drought.” — Bob Rose, LCRA meteorologist

Austin weather

July 12th, 2008
Forecast? Bleah!

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

tomatoes in December
2006-12-06. When I uncovered the tomato plant after last week’s freeze, I was surprised to see that it, too, was in denial.

December 8th, 2006
Just Die Already

“For me the gardening year begins in October…Number one on my late-October agenda is to clear out the two twenty-foot-long borders of all the summer flowers, most of which are still giving us a fine show. The minute I look the situation over, I begin to feel guilty and wasteful. They look so lovely, but I have allotted this morning to this project, and my gardener, Junior Robinson, is by my side. We both know that in a day or two frost will descend and have these lush beauties looking unhappy and faded. So I firm up my resolve, turn toward Junior, who’s looking undecided, and tell him that we are going forward with this project now. I ask him if he wants a Classic Coke to strengthen him and he says, “Yes, I’m going to need it.” –Emily Whaley “Mrs. Whaley and Her Charleston Garden”

Temperatures have been hovering over the freeze line, some nights dipping just below, just enough to damage the more tender plants and yet not enough to do them in. The ones that are not entirely done in–some cosmos, some bananas, and some four o’clocks just look sickly and sad.

On Wednesday, it warms up to 73F and I spend all day in the garden. First I have to move all the potted plants outside for some water and sun. Then I have to uncover all the plants I’ve covered so that they don’t swelter in this one day of heat. I give them a good watering which should help to keep temperatures a bit more stable. I spend most of the day raking leaves which fell all at once last week. Now for two months, maybe three, my yard is in full sun. One rose, ‘Blush Noisette’, is taking advantage of it and all the others that managed to survive the summer are looking healthy even if they aren’t blooming. As I rake, I also cut back the four o’clocks. Just like Mrs. Whaley, I feel relief to be done with them, to clear the garden down to the bones. Still I don’t manage her firm resolve, nor does my garden have strong bones. Right now, covered in pecan leaves scavenged from the neighbors raking their lawns, the bones of the garden are more difficult than ever to see. Nope, I’m not quite able to follow through–against Mrs. Whaley’s advice I still “waver and quaver” over each decision. Maybe when I turn 85, I’ll attain her admirable ruthlessnes.

We have one day of warmth before the cold funnels down from the north again. Potted plants back inside. Tender perennials covered up. And now that the pecan leaves are raked up, the oak leaves have started falling. I see buds on the narcissus. Spring will begin before fall is even finished. Winter just interjects itself in short, icy spurts.

If you were trying to access this site Thursday night or Friday morning, you discovered our server was down. Violent storms ripped through central Texas late Thursday night, knocking out power

May 6th, 2006
When it Rains it Pours

This year it looks like May is vying to take back its title of one of Austin’s rainiest months. After a disappointing showing in 2005, May 2006 has started out with a bang–the bang of thunder, the boom of transformers blowing out during a power surge, and the crash of trees felling power lines.

Tuesday (5/2) afternoon, I got caught in thunderstorm as I headed home from the gym in rush hour traffic. That was a comparitively pleasant prelude to Thursday (5/4) night. Around 10PM, 70mph winds begin whipping through the trees and almost immediately our power surge protectors squealed and we lost power. According to Austin Energy, Thursday’s storm resulted in the biggest power outage in Austin since 2000.

And then it poured–not just for 10 minutes or so as it often does, but for what seemed like more than an hour. I was glad to see my terraces keeping the water from running off into the street. My drainage area held four inches of standing water at one point. And for once the garage didn’t flood.

We were luckier than many. Our yard was littered in ball moss and dead branches, but only a few smaller, live limbs were torn off trees by the high winds. Just around the corner a live oak tree had split in half and fallen across power lines. Neighborly residents hung socks along the downed lines to alert motorists.

Friday night was a repeat performance, though less windy and with less rain over a longer time. Thursday night we got over three inches of rain; Friday, maybe 2 inches.

Does this mean that Austin’s drought is broken? Or is this the last rain we’ll see until September. Stay tuned.

photo: Cercis canadensis 2004-02-20

February 20th, 2004
Week 07: Spring is Sprung

Dateline: February 20, 2004

Valentine’s Day is usually when I mark the beginning of spring in Austin. The redbuds start blooming and spring takes off from there. But this year it snowed on Valentine’s Day. No matter. A couple of days later, the highs were in the 70s. With all the rain we’ve had recently, the flowers could hardly wait to strut their stuff.

photo: Crocus tomasinianus 2004-02-20
Garden Spot in Houston reported her first Tommie crocus on February 16th. My first one opened today, on the 20th, as did the ‘Ice Follies’ daffodils, which is one of the most reliable daffodils for Austin.
photo: Narcissus Ice Follies 2004-02-20

Summer snowflakes and the Mexican plum started blooming yesterday.
photo: Prunus mexicana 2004-02-20

And the yellow-flowered Sedum palmeri that Valerie shared with me have been blooming for a couple of weeks now. It’s just been too cold and rainy to snap a photo.
photo: Sedum palmeri 2004-02-20

photo: sleet-covered daffodils

2003-02-25. ‘Quail’ daffodils covered in sleet. Austin, TX (zone 8).

February 25th, 2003
Week 08: Late Freeze

Sunday was clear and sunny and almost hot. The temperatures reached the high 70s and the men rowing and jogging along Town Lake had doffed their shirts. The car was so hot inside that we turned on the air conditioning.

This weekend I was busy noting numerous first flowers: the redbud, the viola (from seed), the ‘Trevithian’ daffodils, and the grape hyacinths. Several bluebonnets were flowering. The ‘Ice Follies’ and ‘Quail’ narcissus and the summer snowflakes were in full flower. The smaller Mexican plums were just beginning to bloom. And the Bridal Wreath spiraea and the Lady Banksia rose were covered in small buds.

Then Monday dawned drizzly and cold, as most of February has been. Around 5PM, AJM called me from North Austin to say it was sleeting. I went outside and it was sleeting here too. I moved the potted plants back inside, but there wasn’t much else I could do. I was completely unprepared for what followed.

The Big Freeze (a photo gallery).

photo: Zanthan Gardens July 15, 2002
2002-07-15. The meadow.

July 15th, 2002
It’s a Jungle Out There

In a typical summer, the six weeks following Independence Day is season special to the south that I call “the Dead of Summer”. Until autumn rains sweep up from the Gulf (beginning the last week of August when we’re lucky) our gardens are at their bleakest. Temperatures top 100 degrees. Rain is nil. Although the 100 degree days average ten a summer, in 1991 we had 40. And rains never came. Ditto 1990.
Read the rest of this entry »

Pleasure of an unexpected rain.

May 28th, 2002
Wow! Rain!

In Austin, it’s just not a Memorial Day weekend without some severe weather. Having been cheated out of the last two predicted chances for rain, I didn’t even look at the forecast. Then at 1:11 AM, I was awakened by pouring rain and thunder. It rained for a good twenty minutes, resulting in more than an inch of rain. I got up, just to go outside and smell it.

This morning, the rain barrel is full and the entire yard looks fresh again. The rain sifts through the sand of the new paths and makes them even and clean. All the mulch I spread yesterday is also evenly sifted over the beds. The smell of the damp earth is intoxicating. Best of all, there is a chance for more rain this afternoon.