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Want your garden to survive Texas freezes, floods, heat, droughts? What to plant and when

Michael Barnes Deborah Sengupta Stith
Austin American-Statesman

After the freeze of 2021, some Central Texans lost entire gardens. Green thumbs with better luck still got a reminder to add extended freezes to the list of Texas weather monsters that can endanger one's well-planted garden.

Floods, heat and droughts are more common, but even the following winter brought back freezing temperatures that singed palms, bamboo and soft vines.

Many gardeners start replanting in March, but it's not too late to hit the neighborhood nursery and select, with expert help, some hardy plantings.

Note to newcomers: It's best to start well before the equatorial heat of late April or early May. In many ways, summer is a winter, just as threatening to tender green matter as snow, ice and hail in other parts of the country.

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From left, a mountain laurel tree stands next to a possumhaw in the Keller-Barnes garden on March 16, 2021. The trees easily survived the devastating freeze of 2021 and bloomed spectacularly in 2022.

American-Statesman reporters Deborah Sengupta Stith and Michael Barnes do not claim to be experts. They admit to being gardening enthusiasts.

Barnes and his husband, Kip Keller, started gardening on, naturally, Garden Street in East Austin, where the soil seemed to grow anything, including bales of spinach. For the past 25 years, they have tilled the rockier soil of South Austin, planting trees, shrubs, vines, flowers, herbs and the occasional veggie.

Inspired by her British mother who keeps a Texas version of an English country garden, Sengupta Stith has been gradually transforming a compact lot in East Austin into an eclectic urban oasis since 2009. 

Sengupta Stith and Barnes are ready to share what they have learned through trial and error, as well as what they have recently gleaned from actual garden aces.

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Deborah Sengupta Stith works in her backyard in late August 2020. The majority of the plants in this section of her garden were propagated from cuttings from her front yard.

What plants easily made it through Texas freezes and droughts?

Barnes: Our mountain laurels win the championship crown. The four of them shrugged off the drought of 2011 and the freeze of 2021. They burst into spectacular bloom this spring. 

Some mature plants that look like they had died, such as our kitchen bay trees, came back beautifully. We even planted another one on the sunnier west side of the front garden. If you ever need any bay leaves for cooking, you know where to find them.

Our cherry laurels were somewhat stunted by the 2011 drought, but they survived the freezes. One of them, however, looks like a victim of some sort of pest. It did not bloom this spring.

We hold out hope for our loquats. They are still struggling but green. Almost everything else came back reasonably well. Nothing kills our irises.

Sengupta Stith: We were sure that our loquat died in the freeze, but it actually recovered nicely over the summer last year. No fruit this year, but it's coming back strong. 

Honestly, I was shocked at how much of my garden made it through the 2021 freeze. Things that I didn't expect to come back, like a flapjack succulent and a monstera deliciosa (both planted in the ground), died back to the roots and reemerged by late spring. 

The perennial stars of my garden are the pride of Barbados and esperanza plants that I have in one of my few sunny spots. They die back every winter, but come back to put on a dazzling floral show that lasts from late spring until right around Halloween. The best part is they are super drought tolerant once established, and I barely water them at all, even in the lethal late summer heat.  

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Bright pops of color can be tempting but remember to find plants that can withstand Austin's temperature extremes. Tillery Street Plant Company in East Austin boasts a wide variety of plants including plenty of Texas natives and succulents.

What will you never plant again in Austin?

Sengupta Stith: I have a rule: If you love something, but you kill it, don't give up. Do some research. Try to identify what you did wrong and give it another shot in a different location, with different lighting. If you kill it twice, it's time to pour out a little rainwater for your dead homie and move on.

The one plant I might break this rule for is rosemary, a culinary herb I desperately want in my yard. It is allegedly easy to grow, but I keep killing it. 

This year, as a gorgeous array of spring/summer annuals beckons seductively from the front of every garden store, I will resist the stunning blue spikes of delphinium and the cheerful zinnias. I have never managed to make these beauties survive in my yard. (I've been told they are easier to grow when established from seed.) 

Barnes: We didn't plant them, but the pittosporum that were already in place on our land suffered in both drought and extreme cold. No reason to replant them.

Two marvelous Japanese blueberry trees, gifts from a new neighbor, died to the roots during the 2021 freeze. Never again.

We don't understand the folks that plant and replant palms, bamboo and other tropical species. I guess if you can afford it, but it seems short-sighted.

A succulent arrangement at Tillery Street Plant Company shows how container gardening can add impact to your garden. Facing ongoing periods of prolonged drought, Michael Barnes has swapped most of his porch plants with succulents. With more hot and dry weather looming, Deborah Sengupta Stith plans to convert many of her containers to succulents this year.

It appears that we are heading into a dry cycle. Has that changed your planting strategy?

Stith: I'm a big container gardener. I love having whimsical collections of pots scattered around my yard, but last year's beastly hot and dry stretch has me rethinking how to fill them. By mid-summer, I resented my thirsty Persian shields, dipladenias and even some of my beloved begonias.   

This year, I'm leaning into succulents, trying to find my seasonal pops of color in interesting echeverias, kalanchoes and sedums. 

Barnes: Except for some hardy foxtail fern, we have replaced almost all our porch plants with succulents. We had trouble with squirrels that would not only bury pecans in the potting soil, but would chew on the succulents for the moisture.

We solved that problem by lining the top of the soil with terra cotta shards from pots we broke with a hammer. The shards not only ward off the squirrels, they help keep the soil moist.

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Ice plants, portulaca and purslane, like these ones we found at Tillery Street Plant Company, are easy drought tolerant flowering plants.

What are the particular challenges of your garden?

Barnes: We started out with really rocky soil here in South Austin. I mean pick-axe rocky. Bedrock rocky.

Also, our old pecan trees cast a lot of shade. Even the cedar elm, possumhaw holly, eastern red cedar, big-tooth maple and rangy live oaks that we planted can overwhelm the lower beds and ground cover.

That leaves us with only a few really sunny spots, which we fill with Mediterranean kitchen herbs and some hot peppers. A full vegetable garden is almost unthinkable.

Sengupta Stith: My yard is also under almost full canopy shade from pecan trees for most of the day. To make things extra interesting, I get a nuclear blast of late afternoon sun from about 4 to 7 p.m. that cuts through a large stretch of my garden. 

Also, I have been engaged in the Great Snail War of East Austin for years. There is no clear winner at this point. 

Geraniums and gerbera daisies are some of the annuals available at Tillery Street Plant Company. When selecting annuals, pay attention to their blooming season. Many plants go dormant or die off during the heat of a Texas summer.

How do you get around those challenges?

Barnes: Years of compost and mulch enriched the soil. Let's hope the next owners don't scrape the land, which has taken decades to nurture and turn into living, critter-filled earth. From the evidence of all the construction around us, few builders will comply.

As for the shade, we make it work. Plus, we fork out the bucks for tree trimmers every few years. This has eliminated some sickly specimens, chopped back the invasive species, and trimmed the old pecans, whose canopy can droop nearly to the ground. 

Sengupta Stith: A helpful employee at Tillery Street Plant Company once called my scorching late afternoon light situation "Texas full sun."

I've learned that I can't put shade plants in that strip even though it's shaded for most of the day. Full sun plants sometimes do OK, but they have to be very drought tolerant and sturdy to survive. Sometimes a few hours of hard sun just doesn't add up to the six hours or more that a true full sun plant needs. Having said that, my rose of Sharon blooms way more than it should for the amount of sun it gets. 

As for the snails, I introduced a predatory snail to my yard a few years back. It has given me a valuable ally in the fight. I also sprinkle diatomaceous earth around areas of my garden where plants are suffering from obvious snail attacks. 

A hardscape feature over a water feature, like this one at Tillery Street Plant Company, can add long lasting visual interest to your garden.

What plants would you avoid altogether and why?

Sengupta Stith: I overheard someone in a garden store talking about how to seed Bermuda grass, and I wanted to stop and say, "What are you doing?" It's invasive, it's unappealing and it wants to choke out all other plants. I get the appeal of having a lawn, but I gave up on grass a while back and have no regrets. 

Barnes: We've never planted invasive imports such as ligustrum, but we still must battle with armies of them advancing from nearby properties. Other plants, such as Carolina jessamine, nandina and Asian jasmine, are hardy but hard to tame. The only one we are keeping is the Asian jasmine, which can make spectacular ground cover in fairly deep shade if guided and at the same time trimmed from trees and structures.

Are you planting anything fun this year?

Barnes: My husband, Kip, wants to extend our lavender beds along our curbside. We finally expunged all the grasses and have found that, given enough sun, lavender makes a gorgeous and resilient substitute.

According to neighborhood elders, our lot used to be a gully with a spring. That means we are always planting fun things to fight erosion. The folks at the Great Outdoors have helped by recommending pretty, well-rooted plants such as African iris.

Sengupta Stith: Curcumas, aka ornamental gingers, are my new favorite plants. They love the heat, so they bloom in mid-to-late summer when a large part of your garden is looking rough. I bought a couple last year and kept them in containers through the summer. When they went dormant in the winter, I transferred them to a flower bed in the front of my yard. Crossing my fingers for a showy July (which is also when they should start showing up in stores). 

This desert rose or adenium obesum is a permanent resident at Tillery Street Plant Company. Store employees estimate that is is about 40 years old.

What is your proudest gardening achievement of late?

Sengupta Stith: Like Michael, I don't have the light for a veggie garden in my yard, but a kind neighbor lets me use his raised garden next door. After years of being quite competent at flowers but terrible at food, I had an incredible tomato harvest last year. I made marinara sauce and salsa and tikka masala. I gave away dozens to friends and family. I've heard people say tomatoes are the gateway drug to veggie gardening. I'm not sure that is true, but I was certainly excited to plant more tomatoes this spring. 

Barnes: First and foremost, our compost. We seeded it 25 years ago with organic matter transported from a shared compost heap in a collective garden filled with the much more fertile East Austin alluvial soil. That and regular mulching and selective watering have created deep, protective soil through much of our rockier land in South Austin.

Still much work to be done.

We didn't exactly plan it, but the two dozen trees that we planted during the first two decades in South Austin have produced a shady canopy that cools our back garden year round. This little oasis — stone ledges, Adirondack chairs, a fire bowl, bird feeders, bird baths — helped save our sanity during the worst of the pandemic. We could entertain back there at almost any dusk, even in the summer.

Bonus: We've counted 50 separate bird species in or above our gardens.

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Experts agree ...

We talked to two employees at the Great Outdoors nursery on South Congress Avenue about plants that can survive Texas freezes, floods, heat and droughts.

Vivian Loftin is a retired licensed landscape architect who works at the nursery "three days a week for fun." Kelley Carter, who grew up in North Carolina, has worked at Great Outdoors for "going on six years."

"Start with the sun shrubs and Texas natives," Loftin says, pointing to the Texas betony, woolly stemodia and Texas rock rose. "One of the best is Gregg's mistflower. Although with everything, we've had big supply issues this year."

She says a lot of people choose coreopsis.

"It's a native that grows all the way up to Kansas City," Loftin says. "It's very cold hardy. and has a lot of different flowers."

Texas sage is usually a good choice, "although a lot did freeze back last winter."

Red yucca is cold hardy and attracts hummingbirds. The freeze of 2021 was particularly hard on some desert plants, like barrel cactus, that Central Texans had planted because they are drought tolerant.

"Agaves croaked," Loftin says. "Although if you want one, the artichoke agaves can survive. A lot of people were: 'I'm going ahead and planting tropicals because that freeze is never going to happen again.'"

Then Austin spent several days below freezing in 2022 with similar results.

"Even plant people said: 'I lost a special baby I had,'" Carter says. "It changed the whole aesthetic fast. You have to ask: Do they come back?"

One of the hardiest plants that spreads quickly is the non-native white yarrow.

"Two things: Everyone should mulch. A lot," Carter says. "And everybody should use liquid seaweed. You mix it with water and fold it into the soil. It reduces stress for plants and helps them get established."