Thursday, September 07, 2006

Survival of the fittest

In her post on Digging, Pam wondered how my garden survived not only the record heat of August but also the neglect imposed by our recent construction project (not to mention the insult of the construction itself). My first thought was good karma, some kindness from the gardening gods. But the real answer I think is more related to survival of the fittest (with a little luck thrown in for good measure; we had a wonderful architect and contractor — a design/build firm — and subs who were more careful with the garden than I ever could have imagined).

Some background (skip ahead to the end if you'd rather avoid the long-winded details):

The heart of the garden is a long L-shaped bed in the upstairs part of our back yard (our lot is on two levels with a four-foot-tall stone retaining wall separating the two levels. The original house is on the lower level and the new addition is on the upper level). When we moved in 12 years ago the only thing living in the upstairs yard was a large yucca and a straggly rose bush. We had several dead trees removed and I pondered the emptiness for six months. The next spring I hired someone to dig the L-shaped bed; the long leg — about 30 feet — is on the south side of a stockade fence, while the short leg — about 12 feet — runs along the top of the stone wall. Both parts face south and west, with almost no shade. The new beds were amended with quite a lot of compost and in at least some parts (behind the retaining wall) the soil is quite deep. Elsewhere it's maybe 8-12 inches over limestone.

I had done some gardening on a small scale at our previous house (someone gave me Wasowski and Ryan's Gardening with Native Texas Plants for a wedding present 20 years ago) and I knew I wanted native or at least drought-tolerant plants. So the original planting had clumps of red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora), lantana "Irene," purple coneflower, coreopsis, salvia leucantha, fall obedient plant and calylophus. The ends were anchored by large clumps of salvia "Indigo Spires" and pink salvia greggii.

All that remains after 12 years is one clump of the red yucca (oh and that original yucca; we tried to dig it up once but it refused to give up the ghost and made a comeback from roots the next spring; it lives on). Some things reached the end of their natural life, some I sent to an early grave either through miscalculations regarding care or because I got tired of them for one reason or another.

I tremble to think of the plants that have poured through that bed (not to mention other smaller beds I've added since) in the last 12 years. In looking back through my sporadically kept garden notebook I can see one trend: If I had to water a plant to keep it alive it was history. I've moved more and more in that direction over the years. I'm willing to water plants in pots but (at least until recently) the upstairs garden only got water irregularly, maybe once or twice a month. (I usually add Back to Nature cotton burr compost from Barton Springs Nursery as mulch in the spring but I didn't get to do that this year.)

I've lost (or given up on) a lot of plants but those that remain are tough. I don't think there's a single plant in the upper back yard that really needs to be watered to live (to thrive and bloom is another story). The beds up there haven't changed since last year (my usual spring plant-buying frenzy was thwarted this year) and last summer — admittedly nothing to match this summer — everything survived.

This summer our experience of the upstairs garden changed dramatically. We moved into a new addition to our house in July that opens directly onto that garden. Both our new sitting room and bedroom, as well as our offices (my husband and I work from home), have views to the garden. So I have a newly vested interest in keeping that part looking good. Starting in mid-July I watered each section deeply once a week or so with my favorite small sprinkler (I've always meant to put soaker hoses in but every spring I wait too long and it gets so overgrown I can't push the hose through).

The yellow bells, Pride of Barbados, Turk's cap, hamelia, and zexmenia probably wouldn't be covered in blooms if I hadn't watered but I'm fairly sure they would have survived. I know the salvia greggii wouldn't be blooming again yet without the extra water but the salvia leucantha would have survived and bloomed anyway, I think, water or no water. The roses are the one thing I'm not sure of (I'm new to roses but I have three: Old Blush, Climbing Pinkie, and Maggie. One interesting thing is that all three did better than ever this spring and early summer with no supplemental watering, no fertilizer, nothing. Is there a lesson there?)

Other parts of the garden don't look so good right now (I haven't put up any pictures of those parts!). Some of the problems are a result of the construction and some a result of neglect. But not much, if anything, has died outright. I think the key was that everything that might have died has been gradually culled out (if I'd had a chance to add things this spring no doubt some of them would have died). As I said: survival of the fittest.

(The picture at the top is some of the toughest stuff in the garden, although it's in a newer bed, at the far back of the upstairs yard. From the top left: red hamelia/fire bush, tecoma stans/yellow bells, purple heart, and a silver-leafed, reddish salmon-flowered mallow I got at Big Red Sun a few years ago.)


Sonia said...

Hurray Susan ! I'm finally able to post. I am Susan's mother in law and I live in Beaumont, Texas (zone 9). I dream of finding someone around here to talk with. No one I know does the kind of gardening all of you are doing. With the heat, the lack of rain and the tepid winters I am in the process of planting appropriate plants for this area (zone 9)so any help from you would be appreciated.

Susan said...

Sonia — I'm glad it worked. Click on the link in the post you commented on to go to the Digging blog and then check out some of her links. You might find someone blogging in southeast Texas, or at least Houston (I know there's a couple of Houston blogs; I'll see if I can find them again and I'll send the links to you). Maybe you need a blog of your own!

Annie in Austin said...

Hello Susan & Sonia,

This following link isn't for a blog, but for a cool website about gardening along the Texas coast, with lots of pages and plants to click on Higher Ground.

I know gardening people who came from Beaumont, but not anyone that lives there right now. Have you looked at There is one forum just for Texas, with many posts from Houston.

Susan, it will be fun to read your stories - and the idea of a two-level garden is very intriguing!


Sonia said...

Thanks Annie. Clicking on Higher Ground makes my day! I'll have plenty of plants to ponder.

Sonia said...

One more thing. I have been a faithful reader of The Garden Web for many years now. Those folks have lots of stories to tell and most of them are a great source for information about first hand experience with all things around the home and garden.