Friday, September 7, 2012

Better Than They Should Be

 Drought. A condition dreaded by anyone who watches their crops or livestock wither, shrink, or die in the face of it. In South Texas, city dwellers meet drought through the daily postings of the level of the Edwards Aquifer; a figure which dictates sprinkler-based watering schedules. Experienced gardeners are intensely aware of drought’s haunting impact on their plants.
  Interest in drought tolerant plants is increasing as the specter of less reliable, and less abundant rainfall settles in. But the term ‘drought tolerant’, while thrown around a lot, is rarely clear or terribly exact. It is meant to indicate plants that survive through drought conditions, look good despite great heat or extravagant watering. But just how well a given species performs, or how little water you can use to get it through is a voodoo art at best. Identifying the parameters of drought tolerance is an arduous business. Most of us don’t want to leave our plants to their own devices long enough to let them wilt, or nearly die, to find out just how low they can go. Yet that is what it takes to know for sure.
  Instead we rely on experience, both our own and that of others, to provide clues for how often to water them to keep them fit, how long we can go between waterings, or whether they will survive our vacation plans.
  It was this entirely unscientific approach to drought tolerance that pointed out the sturdiness, and yes drought tolerance, of two plants I never would have guessed to be so tough - pittorsporum (Pittorsporum tobira) and Japanese yew (Podocarpus sp.).
  We inherited two pittosporum and one yew here at the South Texas house. Considering their size, they have been here a long time, possibly the life of the house which is just over 50 years. They form a loose row along the western side of house, sheltering bedroom and bathroom windows from the afternoon sun. During the year and half that the house was for sale they, like most of the yard, were not purposefully watered. To make matters even more dire for this trio, it was a record drought year with half of normal rainfall coupled with higher than average temperatures.
  Once we moved in, we continued to neglect them leaving them to meet the weather on their own. From the first we planned to remove them. Why waste the water? we said, we will just leave them there until we find plants we prefer.
  But plants hold surprises for me every day. Although there has more normal rainfall this calendar year, I still never water them. They just sit there all on their own. One day, I looked at them, fully leafed out, vigorous, and recalled their short  history during our time here. It was then that I spent a moment of shame for thinking of them as unworthy of a garden on the dry side. These are highly adapted, drought tolerant plants right under my nose. It is just that I didn’t consider them that way.
  In my mind, these two species fell into the category of water thirsty plants through what I call the theory of association. When I lived in Phoenix, the plant that defined this attitude was oleander (Nerium oleander). It grew everywhere but particularly in the old flood irrigated neighborhoods. Therefore, it was widely, and loudly reviled, as a terribly thirsty plant. But the truth is that it is one of most drought tolerant plants on the earth, right up there with creosote. It was identified with its neighborhood, not with its own performance. Its association with vast swaths of lawn created the illusion of a water-needy species.
  Here I was falling into the same trap with these two Asian species. Sure I can read in California publications that they tolerate heat, maybe even drought, but I learned a long time ago that what my dear friends in California west of the Coachella Valley call heat is only a faint shadow of the real thing. Both have been in horticulture a long time, well over 100 years. Both come from Asia (although there are Podocarpus species in Africa) and have been hideously overused in medians, commercial plantings and countless home gardens.
I simply dismissed them as denizens of gardens that relied on lawns and other water-thirsty plants. I was wrong, on all counts about these two.
  Opinions based on prejudice or half-truths are always flawed and these two species have provided me with a valuable lesson in not taking too much for granted where plants are concerned. So my new pledge is that the next time I come across a plant that doesn’t fit into my garden plan, is just too common for words, or appears not to have the level of drought tolerance I want, I will take the time to find out more. Then, even if I cannot love it and won’t have it in my garden, I will be casting it aside for a clear reason, not simple ignorance.
  Waiting patiently for the saw, demanding nothing, taking very little, it seems a shame to consider getting rid of such great performers. But I just can’t love them. I cannot see how they fit into the vague but emerging plans we have for the back garden. So the day will come when plans are more settled and they have to go. I can’t say that I will miss them, but they have certainly impressed me with their stamina and vigor.
  So if these two dense, evergreen shrubs fit the look and style of your garden, they will indeed need only the most minimal care and watering. They are clearly able to live on the rainfall regimen of South Texas, no matter where they come from or how long they have been associated with much more water intensive plantings.

Friday, July 27, 2012


 It is always good to see old friends. The same delight I feel in the company of the people who share part of our history, holds true for plants that have been part of our garden, present and past.
    When we moved from New Orleans to Arizona, oh so many years ago, we were astonished to find old favorites growing there. We natively considered Phoenix so different from New Orleans that we expected to see only new, as-yet unknown, plants. It wasn’t as true as we thought.
    This time around we resettled from Arizona to South Texas where we expected the opposite; here we knew we would find plenty of plants in common between the two gardens. After all, some of the most reliable ornamentals in the desert, Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora), Texas rangers (Leucophyllum spp.), and red hesperaloe (Hesperaloe parviflora) just to name a few, are Texas natives. But it was an old favorite, firebush (Hamelia patens), living happily along the long garage wall that thrilled me.
    I have been enamored of this shrub since I first sold it in Phoenix many years ago. It didn’t catch on all that well there. It had the reputation of being cold intolerant which certainly was the case when it was young, in a container, or in a growing yard on the outer reaches of town. But once it grew up and settled in it was spectacular. I had one in our Arizona garden for many years until it finally died from the after effects of the wicked freeze of 2007 and a constricted space for its roots.
    Cold tolerance is a multi-faceted issue in plants. Although my Arizona firebush declined and ultimately died in the devastation of that record freeze, I find large plants all over South Texas, place that often gets much colder than Phoenix.
    The difference may be in the overall growing conditions. Here subtropical species such as firebush, grow quickly in the hot, humid summer. With regular summer rainfall or watering, they grow to be large shrubs quickly. Therefore, when a hard freeze does occur, they have the hefty root system and large stems to withstand it, and rely on their rapid summer growth to restore the plant completely.
    The line of firebush in our new garden looked atrocious when we got here. They had been living more or less on natural rainfall, which was scarce that year, and it showed. There were nine of them; some were stick dead, some were more dead than alive, and a few showed signs of recovery once we watered them thoroughly. Eventually, Gary took out all but three and began to water them regularly.
    Now, two months later, they are in full bloom with sprays of spiky orange flowers. The hummingbirds of the neighborhood are delighted.
    We consider these plants to be the first stab at the creation of a colorful, lush perennial planting in this side yard. The exposure calls for rugged, heat and drought tolerant choices and these firebush satisfy that criteria as well as look inviting from the street.
    Just like those beloved friends who know so much of your past, this delightful reminder of another time and another garden, is right on the spot to help us establish our new garden life.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Bringing em home

Moving is never easy. When we coupled the upheaval, the sad goodbyes, and the complete destruction of daily life with the relocation of over 600 plants, I am reminded of that scoundrel Sisyphus’ punishment to roll a boulder up a hill only to have it fall down each time he almost reached the top.
    Shifting our plants from their tidy little shadehouse in Arizona, to their crooked but larger shadehouse in Shelby County, Texas began last October. In a fit of kindness, which we shall never be able to repay, eight extraordinary friends showed up to haul them out of the yard and load them into a massive Penske truck. The next day, we took off to our new life in a caravan; Gary drove the gargantuan yellow truck while I followed like a lamprey in the little grey car.

 The trip was remarkably uneventful, despite El Paso traffic and a small load shift. The unloading went well. The gang of plants have been in East Texas for about 8 months and we are getting ready to load them all up again, and bring them here to their new permanent home. And now you can go ahead and say it - WHY?
  Its like this; they are simply the touchstones of our lives. We miss them dreadfully in our new home. The new South Texas garden is virtually blank, which has its own rewards. Yet it feels barren, desolate, and unhealthy when we look out and there is no array of plants, potted and otherwise, to look at, worry over, make plans for.
    Frankly, we need them, they give grace and focus to our lives.  They are the string that holds the remembrances of when or where we got them, of who handed them over or pointed us toward them. They are the ticket to the memories of our life together. They are an eternal reminder of a slew of great friends and colleagues, living and dead. And now they are the unfocused beacon pointing into the wilderness of our new life.

Most of them are scheduled for long overdue planting. We have pledged that all the palms and yuccas are going in the ground. They will be much happier and planting them marks the first glimmer of a plan to shape of this garden into one that reflects our interests. These refugees will be the first installment of gardening on the dry side with a South Texas twist.
    So, despite the agony of another truck loading and unloading (just us chickens this time around), with a drive that is mercifully two days shorter than the last, we are going to do it all over again.

And we are thrilled.