Recapping the Summer of Hell 2009

This is not a light hearted post. Usually I try to offer some sort of levity or humor with my gardening stories, but central Texas is in serious shape. Even with a recent rain of several inches, we are still in extreme drought conditions. I want to record the events of the past few months, as they are history making. Before I get into the plants that did and didn’t survive the summer, let me begin by stating the facts. The Summer of 2009 in Central Texas was the hottest summer ever recorded here.

We suffered through 68 days over 100+ degrees, with the hottest being 107 F on June 25. The 95+ days began early in May and never let up. And realize that while 68 days were over 100 degrees, the days that weren’t officially that hot were in the upper 90’s and unofficially over 100 F at many gardeners homes.

And all of this heat was happening as, in May 2009, we entered into the 20th month of our severest drought since the dustbowl days of the 1950s. From June to August, the official rainfall total for the entire time was 1.63 inches. YES, I said LESS THAN TWO INCHES TOTAL of rain fell while the Deathstar blazed away in the sky.

Our lake levels reached their lowest points in 30 years, and for a big part of the summer, our primary reservoir (also used as a recreational lake) was – and still is –  inaccessible due to the boat launching ramps all being in dry ground. I can only imagine what the lake restaurants and businesses are doing to stay alive.

We are now 30″ short on rainfall totals since August of 2007; it was more than that until last week’s rainfall finally gave our parched earth a drink.

Austinites are, of course, accustomed to some water rationing for watering lawns and gardens most every summer. This year, the twice weekly limitations of watering soil that had no lingering moisture from any rains over 1″ at a time for two years weren’t enough for plants to flourish, or even survive. We are now limited to once a week watering, stage two drought conditions.  Even experienced Master Gardeners lost favorite plants and babied others in the hopes that next year they will grow.

As for myself, definitely NOT a master gardener, my garden began extensive replanting and renovations at the beginning of this two year drought. Had I had a crystal ball, I certainly wouldn’t have invested so much time and money into new plants, bulbs, mulch, food, compost, labor, blood, sweat and tears into such a thankless task of keeping a new garden alive through extreme conditions.

I began the spring with my usual optimism; surely this summer couldn’t be as bad as the summer of 2008, which broke records with its heat, days over 100 degrees and lack of rain. SURELY this summer would be better! With enthusiasm in March and April, I painted the deck, put up a new gazebo to sit under and gaze at those new plants,  even put in a completely new bed and path with glass mulch.

This will give you a good glimpse of what the summer was like. Here’s the gazebo in April, fresh and clean, with blooming containers and freshly mulched paths and beds:


As the heat soared, my gardening motivation decreased conversely. Beginning in June, I no longer went outside other than to hand water in the morning and at dusk, when temps were often still over 100. There was no sitting in the new gazebo (I’ve had exactly one meal out there since it was purchased), and no blooms to look at.

Here’s the reality of what I didn’t let anyone see in August, when I’d given up caring:

Dead container plants, struggling ginger, and hot hot hot

Dead container plants, struggling ginger, and hot hot hot

Everything was dirty from lack of rain and not cleaning the deck in order to conserve water. The velcro that I had used to hold up the curtains melted in the unrelenting heat. Even the cat stopped lying on his favorite blue chairs and found a cooler place near the waterfall, underneath the deck to hide from the searing sun. I stopped my frequent outdoor grilling of dinner; it was just too damned hot.

I decided to begin to remove dead plants once it cooled off; I guess that counts as now since it was only 95 today. We did have a few days of cooler temps, but unfortunately I was out of town and couldn’t rejoice in the break from the heat.

So far, here’s my list of plants that died:

  • 1 Salvia Greggii
  • 3 Hibiscus (no surprise there)
  • 2 River Ferns (I believe if they weren’t such babies they would have survived)
  • 1 Abelia
  • 1 confederate Jasmine – new transplant
  • several succulents burned up, literally
  • Ice plant in various places
  • Yellow Bulbine, newly transplanted
  • 3 Brugmansia
  • Several daylily bulbs were dug up by foraging squirrels, desperate for food
  • All container plants died except for 3 Ivy Geraniums and 1 Echeveria. I just couldn’t keep up watering twice daily, especially when out of town
  • 3 Viburnum shrubs, large shrubs transplanted last fall as passalongs from Sharing Nature’s Garden
  • several portulaca

Plants that are borderline, meaning they may never recover and might need to be removed:

  • Bleeding Heart Vine
  • Cannas – (I thought Cannas could survive almost anything, but mine grew about 18″ tall and never bloomed or grew any further)
  • Agapanthus – never bloomed this year
  • Double Delight Rose
  • Several bulbs that were planted last fall, including oxblood lilies from Southern Bulb Company, never surfaced

But perhaps the most discouraging to me is that after two years of this new garden, it still looks sparse. Barely surviving through 24 months of record heat and drought, the plants have grown scarcely at all. I can only hope that they have set in roots and perhaps next year they can come alive with the promises of water from El Nino this winter.

I know when the weather finally cools (in December?) I will once again feel motivated to clean out the beds, clear the old, dead mulch, feed and trim everything, and once again hope for blooms and growth. Until then, I leave you with pictures from the wasteland of my back yard. Avert your eyes if you are especially sensitive!

Stunted Cannas never grew, never bloomed

Stunted Cannas never grew, never bloomed; look at the dry mulch

I can't even remember what I had planted here

I can't even remember what I had planted here

Even succulents struggled

Even succulents struggled

River Fern dying as pic was taken, now completely dead

River Fern dying as pic was taken, now completely dead

One Mardi Gras Abelia completely dead; one more struggling

One Mardi Gras Abelia completely dead; one more struggling

Persian Shield was pretty for a while  until it burned up

Persian Shield was pretty for a while until it burned up

the smallest of the 3 viburnums that didn't make it

the smallest of the 3 viburnums that didn't make it


26 thoughts on “Recapping the Summer of Hell 2009

  1. Aw, man. I haven’t had the heart to tally up the death toll in my garden, but I have to confess that I gave in and watered more times than I care to count, considering the drought we’re in. I’ve been seriously considering ripping out a number of my rosebushes and doing a straight-up xeriscape, cactus and sotol and a few other unkillable things, with decorative rock mulch. It was just so exhausting keeping up. Everything that wasn’t stone-cold dead perked back up now after the rain, but I can’t help but think it’s a zombie-like stagger, because who knows how long it’ll be until we get a decent rain again?

    I’m thinking I should design with an eye towards near-zero maintenance in a post-apocalyptic landscape. ;P

    That said, I did have one clear winning plant this summer, and that was bamboo muhly. The row of bamboo muhly I planted in the side yard a year and a half ago hasn’t been watered in at least 10 months, and you can’t even tell. It’s even grown. It’s my miracle plant.

    P.S. If you want more ice plant or sedum cuttings, let me know. Also, I have more blue agave americana pups than I know how to deal with, if you or anyone else would like one.

  2. I can totally understand your pain. New patio, new furniture,new pots and plants (after three years of tslking,planning etc)put in in late April. Used for a couple of weeks, until it was too hot to even sit in the morning for coffee…plants struggled, half died. I felt like I didn’t even get to see the garden this summer…The one positive I do see is the sun seems to have totally decomposed ALL the mulch I put on the beds this spring and the soil seems a little richer.(I had to go out after all the rain we had and yank up the dead plants and weeds that were in the ground.)The Master Gardeners in our area are having a plant sale this weekend and I told my husband I HAVE TO GO…either that or lose my sanity..I’ve been surprised at a couple of new things that did well. Red Porter Weed, profusion zinnias,Tecoma stans (yellow bells.)Bloomed all summer and didn’t miss a beat….

  3. Robin, this is a painful post. It’s been a very trying summer for Austinites, and my cynical side says we may well see similar weather again next summer. With that in mind, I’m planting very xeric plants right now. But as you point out, even those can suffer esp. in extreme heat and drought. All I can say is, don’t give up. Xeric plants, generous mulch, and drip systems–these are our allies. Hang in there!

  4. Lori, I’m not sure if your Double Delight passalong is going to make it, but it was fun while it lasted. I would love to try some more ice plant, but not until I get my beds cleaned up a bit! And, I have to admit, the new bamboo muhly I have seems to be fine – thanks to Pam, I planted some. I’m just going to clean up the beds and be more careful about what I plant – no more borderline tropicals that need water, that’s for sure. I think that we should all bring together a list of plants that survived the drought admirably, so that we can all know what to plant! In fact, I think I’ll do a post on that…

  5. Nancy, I don’t know your blog, what is the link for it? It is certainly frustrating to have planned out a new patio and then not been able to use it, isn’t it? It’s a big expense of time and money, and like you, I didn’t even have morning coffee outside. And some neighbors had the zinnias you mentioned, and I am definitely going to be getting some of them, but my Yellow Bells were stunted, just like my cannas, and never grew and never bloomed. Perhaps, again, because they are young.

  6. Oh Pam, if we have another summer like this, I’m just going to pack up and leave! This isn’t fit for humans or plants! I did want to tell you that the Citrus Splash Rose passalong you gave me was one of the ones that performed admirably. It acted like a knockout rose, and kept blooming all through the summer, though the blooms were sunburned of course. I’m very tired of being indoors, and wary now to plant anything. However, I am the eternal optimist, and I know I’ll find enthusiasm again, just tempered with some hard-won knowledge this time.

  7. I nod my head in agreement as I read your post. This summer was all about what was dying, not what was growing! Don’t give up on the oxblood lilies, they may surface if you get some fall showers. For the first time since I can remember, mine were late, I blame it on the heat and lack of water. When it started raining here, they were up and blooming within 3 days! So keep your fingers crossed; those are hardy old bulbs, they will survive.
    If you’d like some pass along cannas to replace the ones that didn’t make it at your place, let me know. Mine (old fashioned red ones that get 6 or 7′ tall) have thrived, multiplying to the point that I’ll have to thin them out before next spring. After the first killing frost, I’ll be glad to dig several bulbs up and send you a start; email me your address if you’d like some.

  8. Nola, you are too kind to offer. At this point, I’m not going to plant anything that didn’t thrive this year! I’m going to learn from everyone else’s posts about what did and what didn’t make it through the summer, and stick to that. I know you got more rain in east Texas than we did, but that you are still in a drought as well. East Texas is normally so ridiculously lush, I hope the Azaleas all made it alive. I know you did a new outdoor patio area as well and didn’t get to use it – frustrating, isn’t it?

  9. It really does suck. I think I fared a little better than you, but I was out there dragging the hose around allot, trying not to use too much water but just keep most things barely alive. At one point, I vowed to never again plant anything other than rosemary and cenizo! I’m so sad for your gazebo curtains, too. My cenizo is blooming like crazy right now, so maybe we really will get some rain this week, and unless the forecasters are WAY off, we’re definitely getting some sub-90 degree days this week. I’m happy to see you’re still around!

  10. Hi Iris! Yes, I vanished into the air conditioning and apathy about gardening for a while. Thanks for visiting again. But you know, even my Rosemary has dead branches on it! Sub-90 degrees sounds like a cold front these days, doesn’t it?

  11. No worries about the Double Delight. I lost three roses this summer myself.

    And I second the need for a post on plants that actually thrived this summer. I’m gonna be camping out in the comments, taking notes.

  12. Sorry you lost some of your babies. I’ll be posting soon, asking for some comments about what everyone has observed doing well throughout the summer. I’ll bet we’ll see lots of Yellow Bells, grasses and Bulbine!

  13. Robin, I feel for you. We didn’t have it as bad as you Austinites but summer was still hellatious in the greater Houston area. Everywhere I go, I see dead or dying plants. My garden’s done fairly well despite too little rain. It helped that I have a sprinkler system for the front and side areas: that’s as much for the foundation of the house as it is for the plants.

    It’s been raining since 7 a.m. here on my corner of Katy. It’s also a little cooler, which is appropriate for the first day of fall. I hope Austin has gotten some of this, too!

  14. No blog, I just enjoy reading others. And admiring all your pictures..It gives me ideas,hope,a feeling I’m not alone.
    After living in Austin for 20 years we moved to a town where the only local nursery just closed. So I’m left with big box stores or driving 30+ miles. So you guys are my “fix” on going to the nurseries just to walk around to see what’s new. Having nurseries,garden tours etc is such a luxury.That is the one thing I miss most(I don’t miss the traffic)..thank you and keep up the excellent work of keeping us all connected in the world of gardening.

  15. Cindy, we are thankfully get a bit of rain this morning, which has cooled things down to the 70s. It seems the rest of the country, and even north and west Texas, got all of our rain, didn’t it?

  16. Robin, I’ve come back to this post three times…and left twice because I just don’t know what to say. Except that two years isn’t very old in garden years, and your timing meant that those two years were spent in historic drought.

    If you’d started in the worst part of 2006, it would have been like living on another planet when everything grew like crazy in spring 2007 but had slugs and snails and rot! Things still died, but for different reasons.

    You’re probably right that if the babies had time to get established they could bounce back – hope there are still some good surprises to come. Those non-blooming Oxblood lilies may send up foliage to grow and pump up the bulb for next year.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  17. Annie, thanks for the thoughtful and hopeful comments. As a new gardener, I sure picked a bad time to start! (Reminds me of my favorite movie, Airplane: I picked a bad week to give up crack!)…I already despise Austin in the summer, and having a garden just added to that. I left here once before and moved to Colorado just to get out of the heat, but was so homesick for the town, the attitude, and the people, that I came back. Now, after 10 years back, I’m thinking I can’t take the heat anymore. Combine that with lots of personal changes this year in the homefront, and I just had a really bad summer! However, I know I always bounce back with enthusiasm, and even the rain today makes me feel tremendously better. It’s good to know that those expensive bulbs might still be alive down there, for another day…and your Irises seem to be just fine in their new home! I’m looking forward to spring blooms from them. Perhaps next spring/summer will be the magical 3rd year for my garden and all challenges will be forgotten.

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  19. Hi, Robin — You have a wonderful gardening blog! I have a question about the bicolor iris. Mine is getting too large for the area that I planted it and too tall. I’m pretty sure I can divide it up. I’m not sure about the height of the iris. What if it is too tall? Can I cut it back? Thanks for your input…i’m confused about this plant. Amy Emerick

  20. Oh, dear, Amy, I don’t know! I’ve never had to cut mine back on the height, so I’ve never checked into it. Yes, you can divide it at the roots to make it smaller and get more plants, but I’m not sure about cutting the leaves back shorter. I suggest calling the master gardener hotline at zilker – I’m sure someone there will know. Good question!

  21. Drought surviving plants are so wonderful. I always look for them to plant because you never know if it will be “one of those years.” Great blog!

  22. Hi Robin,

    Sorry you lost so many plants. But please don’t pack up and leave, even if we do continue to have more drought conditions next year. Weather ebbs and flows. I’m hoping we’ll get all the rain we need to recover from this drought. If not then we’ll all become xeriscaping experts soon enough. 🙂

    I appreciate the drought-stats you’ve included in your entry. This was an historic year and it all needs to be remembered. I did not recall how many days of 100+ we’d actually experienced. BTW, your “Deathstar” comment made me smile. You have a great sense of humor. Robin.

    Hang in there. Your gazebo is lovely and the weather is just right to use it again.


  23. Hi, Dawn, and thanks for visiting. Yes, I also felt that the facts needed to be recorded in my blog entries, since it was beyond anything I had ever experienced. I need to come get those gold fish!

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