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Lessons Learned from the Summer of 2009 (by Bob Beyer, Travis County Master Gardener)

It’s tough gardening in Central Texas, between severe drought, extreme heat, low humidity, shallow soils with alkaline limestone substructure not conducive to moisture retention, weed seed proliferation, and did I mention hail and severe storms, etc, etc. I’m sure that newcomers to Austin trade one set of gardening problems for another but Central Texas requires plants that can endure all of the above.

Using native and adaptive plants, going to xeriscape landscapes are two widely mentioned and smart approaches. But there is nothing like trial and error to find out which specific plants are tough enough to meet the gardening challenges Central Texas presents.

Native PlantsI have begun a program to eliminate plants that can’t handle it in our gardens, taking into account microclimate areas that might allow a particular plant to grow well in one specific location.  As a transplant from the Houston gulf coast area, I had to relearn and rethink my gardening strategy. So, out with growing Cannas, Gingers, non-earth kind roses and any tropical or non-tropical plant that can’t make it through this trial- by-fire year in good shape.

Being a plant collector by nature, I need to be careful to separate desire for an attractive plant from the reality of being able to grow it well in our challenging environment. If I feel it stands a chance based on research, I will give it a test run and if it doesn’t do well after two years, it’s outta here!

My best advice to fellow gardeners in Central Texas is to plant an “intentional” garden, knowing in advance -- based on research and local experience and advice of other gardeners -- which plants you will place in your garden. Most plant websites and gardening books allow you to search by common name and botanical name so you can make sure you have the right plant. Too many people go to a nursery and let their eyes and emotions govern what they buy, only to be disappointed. Impulse buying can waste money and discourage the gardener.

All plants prefer moderation, not extremes, and I have learned so much during this stressful summer about which plants can take a licking and come back ticking. I have lost a few plants along the way but have found new ones to try during the next year. Fortunately, most nurseries have half price plant sales in late summer and early fall, so this is a great time to regenerate the garden with new plants to try out. If a plant survived this summer in a container at a nursery, it’s got to be tough and worth a try!

Remember on those hot, dry days, the plants in your garden can’t sit in air conditioned comfort like you but must endure the extremes of the Central Texas environment. Plant well and sit back in your air-conditioned home and enjoy seeing a garden that takes care of itself, endures, needs little attention from you to grow well and looks good even in the toughest of conditions.

Rethink, redesign, and redo your garden. Leaning heavily toward xeriscape plantings is the direction I am going. I have finally resigned myself to the fact that this challenge is not a problem but an opportunity to learn about and create a more sustainable garden under the increasingly stressful climate conditions that have become more common place.

Global warming trends are real, well-documented, and are predicted to continue in the future. Water supplies are becoming threatened (Austin is on water restrictions). It’s time to bring out the tough guns for the garden -- Agaves, Yuccas, native grasses and perennials, hardy succulents, cacti, and dry climate proven trees and shrubs. I see my gardens as test beds and don’t hesitate to remove under-achieving or stressed plants as appropriate to make space for new trial plants. Eventually, I will get it right and end up with a year-round sustainable, attractive garden and landscape that laughs at the climate extremes. There is no substitute for successful experience in gardening.

Some good places to see xeriscaping in action are the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Zilker Botanical Garden (Grow Green Demonstration Garden), San Antonio Botanical Gardens, and garden tours that feature xeriscaping.

Use this fall to plan your garden or landscape for next year making the necessary adjustments to cope with changing climate and conditions. Embrace a new garden or landscaping plan that will save you money, time, and effort and allow more time for pure garden enjoyment.

You can see a presentation I do on Dry Climate Landscaping for Texas Hill Country at 

©Zilker Botanical Garden,
Austin Area Garden Council