September 3rd, 2009
Week 35: 8/27 – 9/2

Austin rain
2009-08-27. We get some rain. The “bog” garden on the right of the patio, fills up with water as designed.

Dateline: 2009
A garden pulls me into it because it is always changing. The light, the colors, the shapes, the scent are always shifting. That’s the reason I enjoy observing the garden and writing about my observations. And the reason I’ve hardly written at all this summer. It comes as no surprise that the last week I updated my week-by-week in the garden posts was 18 weeks ago, before our summer of 100° days began. As @gettinggrounded describes it, Austin has had three months of August. The relentless searing sun. The oppressive heat radiating from every surface like the inside of a brick oven. The dried and roasted plants. The cracked black clay ground.

But this week, change. Last Thursday (8/27) it rained. Zanthan Gardens received an inch of rain over several hours of scattered showers. We were much luckier than many in Austin who received less or none at all. In the days that followed, temperatures dropped temporarily out of the hundreds. And flowers burst forth. The garden awakened from its summer slumber.

The rain brought out the first oxblood lily (8/31) and the usual rainlilies. The pale pavonia and the Port St. John’s creeper began blooming again. The crape myrtles perked up. An odd black-eyed susan, growing in the fig’s pot, opened some flowers. The datura unfurled. The tough standbys (ruellia, duranta, devil’s claw, rose of Sharon, oleander, plumbago) seemed to lift up their leafy branches as if they could finally stretch and shake out their flowers unbowed by the heat.

And even AJM remarked (as I do every fall), how strangely cool 94° feels at the end of summer compared with the beginning of summer when we groan and complain how unbearably hot 94° feels.

I think it’s sad and not a little frightening reading my old notes and realizing how quickly 2009 broke all the records of the horrible summer of 2006. For 50 years the hottest August on record was 1951 with an average temperature of 87.6°. This record was broken in 1999 (88.3°), then 2006 (88.5°), and now 2009, (89.1°). Even Austin’s native trees are dying, unable to adapt quickly enough to this changing weather pattern.

In 2006, we lifted our heads and pressed on, thinking we had survived the worst. Have we? Or will the worst just keep getting worse?

Dateline: 2006
Let’s sum up August so that we can be through with it. August 2006 in Austin was the hottest on record: the average daily temperature was 88.5F and the average high temperature was 100.7. Unlike 2000 (see below), we didn’t receive a lot of record breaking high temperatures. Instead it was hot every day; 24 days reached 100 degrees or higher.

Luckily, this week we got our first taste of fall. On Tuesday (8/29) morning rush hour started with rain. (Bewildered motorists crashed left and right.) In my garden it was barely enough to soak in 1/32 of an inch, but it did fill the rain buckets. I opened all the windows to smell it. Nighttime temperatures which had been in the high 70s all month dropped to a chilly 67 on Thursday (8/31). However, the high that day climbed back to 102.

With Tuesday’s temperature barely reaching 90, I was in the garden all afternoon. I dug up the daylilies, which hadn’t flowered this year. The leaves had withered and I worried that they might be rotting under the mulch. They weren’t. They were withered. I think I can revive the daylilies; it’s the dirt that’s dead.

blackland prairie clay
2006: The garden has died–not just the plants, but the soil. This is the bed that I dug the daylilies out of.

When I planted these daylilies four years ago, I amended the soil with peat moss, bought compost, and compost sifted from my mulch pile. This bed has always been mulched. All the organic material has since been sucked dry. All that’s left is dry lumps of baked blackland prairie clay. There’s no earthworms–probably no micro-organisms. The soil is as dead as a rock. If this is the condition of the rest of the yard (and there is every reason to think that it is), I can see why even drought-resistant native plants are giving up the ghost this year.

My problems with my little patch of Texas are minuscule compared with those people around the state who farm and ranch for a living.

Billions of dollars have evaporated, even more than the $2.1 billion lost during a 1998 drought, Texas Cooperative Extension economists reported in August. Crop losses have been estimated at $2.5 billion, and losses from livestock, underfed and rushed to market, are pegged at $1.6 billion. Wheat yields per acre in Texas have been the lowest since the 1920s.

Although it is the nature of gardeners to complain about the weather, Henry Mitchell said that what sets gardeners apart is defiance. So now that August is over, I’m gritting my teeth and donning my gloves. If I’m doomed to start completely over after 13 years, so be it.

First flower: Rhodophiala bifida (8/30).

Dateline: 2004
It’s official. August 2004 was the fourth coolest on record; the coolest since 1973. That makes it the coolest ever for me. I moved to Austin in 1974.

Tonight we opened up the house and turned on the whole house fan to cool it. It’s actually cooler outside than in (82F now at 8:30 at night).

Dateline: 2001
Second wettest August on record with 9.48 inches precip (7.43 inches above normal).

Monday August 27, 2001
Dark and cooler, barely reaching the 90. Very muggy however. When it does begin to rain again in the afternoon, I open up all the window and get in bed with a glass of wine and a Nancy Drew mystery. Such indulgence. (Camp Mabry gets 1.72 inches of rain–a record for this day.)

Wednesday August 29, 2001
Temperatures fantastically cool: the high temperature is 76 in town and 75 at the airport, the all time record low temperature for this date.

Friday August 31, 2001
Sixth day of rain in a row. The rain lilies and oxblood lilies sprang up after last Sunday’s heavy rain. The rain lilies lay prostrate, their flowers littering the meadow like wet, pink tissue paper.

Dateline: 2000
Saturday September 2, 2000
This is the third day of record-breaking high of 107 degrees. Not only did we break the record high Thursday, Friday and today, but it is highest temperature ever recorded in Austin in September. [Note: The all time record high is broken every day until September 5 when it reaches 112 degrees.)
8/31, 107; 9/1, 107; 9/2, 107; 9/3, 108; 9/4, 110; 9/5, 112

Dateline: 1999
Hottest August on record: average daily temperature 88.3 degrees.

Dateline: 1996
Saturday August 31, 1996
Some sunlight finally after a week of rain. The forecast had called only for rain last Thursday and Friday, but I think the only day it didn’t rain was Monday.

It rains heavily again about 9:30PM when AJM, JQS and I are watching Withnail and I. There is a lot of thunder and lightening, the electricity goes out momentarily, but no wind.

Monday September 2, 1996
Many spring plants have sprouted: spiderworts, false dayflowers, and best of all the bluebonnets that I planted last year. Ryegrass is also coming up.
I see oxblood lilies in a couple of other neighborhood yards.

Dateline: 1995
Tuesday August 29, 1995
A real rain at last–keeping with the tradition of raining the last week of August. There have been sprinkles in the last week. But tonight at 6:30 it began sprinkling. By 6:45 it began to rain properly and by 6:50 it was pouring. It rained hard for at least half an hour.

by M Sinclair Stevens

15 Responses to post “Week 35: 8/27 – 9/2”

  1. From bill (north Texas):

    We’ve had rain 5 of the last 8 days now. Not big rains but at least enough to wet the ground and cool things off. Today it’s cloudy again. I’ve been running soaker hoses to add to it..

    A lot of the vegetation had burned up already though. We are even starting to lose trees.

  2. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    I’m sorry about your garden. That gumbo clay does look dreadful during a drought, but maybe it’ll prove less dead than you fear.

    Even with the extra water I was forced to give my usually drought-tolerant garden this summer, I lost some plants too, including a few daylilies but also, surprisingly, some damianitas and a coral honeysuckle. Several other plants are struggling.

    I hope the end is near though and the rains will soon return. At least the weather has turned a little cooler.

    I noticed the leaves on the cedar elms turning buttery yellow today. Fall is here and I’m hyped. — mss

  3. From Don (Iowa):

    Is that possible… the AVERAGE temperature for August was 88.5 degrees? Wow! I feel so badly for you; here in eastern Iowa we had a monumental drought last summer, but even that was mild compared to what you’ve experienced… but I’d never seen WEEDS die before, which some did here. I looked at your extended forecast, and it looks cooler and slightly rainier. Fall is coming… it’s almost chilly here, and has been raining off and on all day… your weather will change.

    Yep. Average daily: 88.5. Average high: 100.7. Last month it was rare if the nighttime low went below 76. Unlike the desert we don’t have a marked drop in nighttime temperatures to provide any relief. — mss

  4. From Joe (Arizona):

    You have my sympathy and respect for your drought issues. I live in the mountains of northern Arizona. (yes I live in the desert, but still, you have to garden. Little water, years of drought, seem to be a way of life here. What really bothers me though is the death of the trees. They will be fine prob. next year, but the year after that watch out. Diseases and bugs will get them. There defences are week. Doesn’t matter how much rain you get next year either, the year after that… they will croak. Pretty depressing I know, but hey we are gardeners in the southwest…we are a little nuts.

    Pinon Pine trees are very tough, but they are dying in great swaths around here. I have some 200 plus year old trees in my yard that have survived who knows how many major droughts, dying this year. Oh well, know any good fast growing weed trees that can grow in rock???

    My mother’s family has lived in northern New Mexico for five generations and I grew up in the deserts of New Mexico, southern California, and Nevada. One of the reasons I stayed in Austin when my family returned home is that I fell in love with Austin’s lakes, trees, and grass. I fell in love with green. (Sure miss mountains, though.) I’ve heard about the plight of the pinons, Regional Vegetation Die-Off in Response to Drought. I notice that like in Texas, comparisons are being made to the 17 year drought in the 1950s. It might be hotter and, worse, their many, many more people sharing the same water resources. The only weedy tree I can think of is the hackberry…it’s done amazingly well this summer. — mss

  5. From Trey (California):

    Your comment about “my little patch of Texas are miniscule compared with those people around the state who farm and ranch for a living” is right on. It’s one thing to see your garden of pleasure dry up, but a whole different thing when your livelihood is involved. You have to have a whole lot of what Henry Mitchell called “defiance”, as well as eternal optimism. It’s a rare trait and one reason we should be glad that people still exists that have these qualities.

    On the one hand, I’m easily discouraged; on the other, I have the tenacity of a bulldog. The combination (not easy to live with) results in a dogged determination to see something through while bitching and moaning the whole way. Sometimes I have to look around at other people’s problems so that I can get some perspective and not make so much of mine. — mss

  6. From Annie in Austin:

    Oh, M, that garden will need help to recover. With a chance to redo beds and plan anew, are there parts of the garden that you were unhappy with anyway? After 13 years you’re not the same person as the one who started planting. You can have some of my liriope, pink rain lilies, City of Portland Cannas, Salvia guaranitica, White flags, purple iris, etc., if you want!

    Unlike you, R Sorrell and Pam, I’ve watered my borders and containers enough to keep almost everything alive, but have pretty much ignored the lawn. We moved to Austin at the end of July, 1999, just in time to catch August 1999’s record-breaking heat. I’ve always thought of Austin as a place that exists solely because of dams and irrigation, in no way a natural location. I never had a philosophical objection to watering, I guess.

  7. From Franki. in Burnet:

    I recently discovered your site by accident during a Google search and have really enjoyed reading your garden log. This has been a horrible summer, but thankfully the rains have come at last as well as cooler weather. I did supplemental watering this summer, but still lost all or part of 3 large wax myrtles (which were in partial shade), a coral honeysuckle and several perennials as well as most annuals. What a summer! It almost convinced me to move.

    Great to hear from another Central Texas gardener. I think we’ve survived another summer. Now the real gardening can begin again. — mss

  8. From Linda Lehmusvirta Austin, TX:

    I’m so happy for your rain and the plants bursting forth! I sure hope I get some tomorrow, because things are rapidly on the decline. But first oxblood opened this morning!

  9. From Bonnie:

    Just a hard summer all around here in Austin. And so hard to stay upbeat, with so many days that were above 100. Even my yoga teacher said she found it hard to teach classes this summer because her students just felt like they had the energy sucked right out of them by the weather.

  10. From Carol, May Dreams Gardens:

    Your description of how your garden began to flower after the rain reminded me of a documentary I saw on a desert blooming after the annual rainfall. They used time lapse photography and it was very remarkable.

    Here’s to September, and perhaps, hopefully, new beginnings for Austin gardeners.

  11. From Annie in Austin:

    Glad you got some rain last time, MSS, and hope you’re getting more this evening. Our 1/4 inch a few days ago and the 1/10th” tonight barely got the surface wet.

    I don’t know how to feel about being here or about gardening here anymore. Your comment from 2006 really gets me, “Now the real gardening can begin again”. I’m from the Midwest where there is actual soil and genuine crops. Do we ever in truth do real gardening here? Or are we just making botanical dioramas inside our lot lines?

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    Unfortunately we didn’t get any rain out of this second round of storms. I find it incredibly depressing to read my notes from 2006–to have felt so discouraged and then make the effort to whip up my enthusiasm to start again. I wrote a series of posts at the time analyzing what I had done wrong and how what I wanted to do differently. Looking back I feel that I had the confidence of the blissfully ignorant. It was hard to start over but at least 2007 was a cool rainy year. By August 2007, my expensive garden house project had failed and the drought we’re still in began. I always thought that garden diaries were a wonderful way to view progress. But when there is no progress, when a diary serves only as a reminder of failed schemes and disappointments, it makes me think that maybe I shouldn’t write anymore. — mss

  12. From Diana Austin:

    MSS — I love reading your dateline posts. They are fascinating and you do so much work to fill them with the details we are all going to want to remember next year or 10 years from now. I should do more of that with my blog, but for now, you’re my official weather historian. It’s so fascinating, isn’t it? SURELY we will get some real rain soon. We didn’t get any of the rain you got last week, so I am hoping we get some next time.

  13. From Dawn in Austin:

    Hi MSS,

    I love the photo of the rain hitting your patio and pool. I can almost hear the pitter-pat. 🙂

    Between living in an oven, as we all have here in Austin, and waiting to see whether my son’s disability assistant would show up for school this fall (she didn’t), it’s been a pretty tense and tedious summer. Our garden received just enough rain here on Friday to tease us, but not enough to do much good. We’re conserving water as best we can. I’ve become very fond of purslane & sedum and am content with crispy grass. Now if it would rain — and the school would hire a new (good) assistant for my son — the world would seem a kinder place.

    Dreaming of a Full Lake & Aquifer,

  14. From RedRaddish, UK:

    I am sitting here surrounded by my lovely autmn garden, and we are enjoying such a lovely indian summer….I just came upon your blog (recommended by a famous gardener on TV here!) and marvel and am full of respect of all you have to overcome to have your garden…. But then I speak as one who can only stand such high temps from the shade and a deckchair!

    ps..your worm may well ocme back once it gets damp..they are quite hardy and may have further underground!

    But of ocurse you must carry on!

  15. From Ivan Austin:

    Wrong information on the weather data. You can check the temperature records on and you will see that only a single day was the hottest on record. Maybe you meant to say that it was the warmest month in 2006 – which is correct? This is how global warming is created…