From the Sperry Garden (and beyond)

Photo: Old leaves of Japanese maple persist after new leaves have emerged.

Sometimes I make reference to not having had “a normal Texas winter” for some time now. And, every time that I use that phrase, I realize, there absolutely is no such thing as “an average Texas winter.” They’re all different, and most of them are crazy. This year, the craziness started early.

June 2004 was the wettest June in the history of our area (DFW Metroplex), with somewhere around 20 inches of rain. I’m not looking at records as I say this, but we didn’t get much more than that in the ensuing 18 months. Suddenly it turned really, really dry. And, it stayed that way until almost two weeks ago. That was when a band of Texas was drenched with flooding rains. Other areas did not get that June ’04 rain, and many are still very dry. So, that’s the story on the rainfall, and it’s still unfolding even now.

Since we’ve had comparatively mild winters for the past 7 or 8 years, gardeners all across Texas had gained the courage to use plants that would prove marginally hardy (or not!) when temperatures set record lows in early December. In the DFW area folks had planted sago palms directly into their gardens. Poor souls. Poor plants. Other plants that were damaged or killed in our area included oleanders, aspidistra, Confederate star jasmine, loquats and pittosporums. None of those should have been planted in unprotected parts of North Texas gardens.

Gardeners elsewhere faced similar problems with their own cast of characters. No matter where we live, we’re always going to be tempted to try plants that shouldn’t be grown there. Then we’re surprised when they freeze.

On another front: watch for native Texas trees to lose branches, perhaps die out altogether. First inclination will be to suspect insects, disease or some other outside influence, but, in reality, we’re going to lose thousands of trees across Texas due to the prolonged drought. They will have used up their nutrient reserves just trying to hang on through the drought. They may not leaf out at all, or they may be lethargic in their new growth.

In my own landscape I have noticed the following unusual occurrences:

My Mexican plum flowered 3 weeks later than its 18-year average. Frankly, it was warm all of that time, so I don’t have an explanation. Our late-winter cold actually came after its bloom.

My Avalon and Mexican redbuds have been in flower for 4 solid weeks — or longer. That’s 10 to 12 days longer than ever in the 15 years I’ve been growing them. Maybe the cold slowed them down.

Live oaks had their big leaf change 3 or 4 weeks later than usual. Late cold caused that.

My Japanese maples never did drop their leaves. They quick-froze in place in early December. We missed their fall color, and we’ve been looking at the ugly brown leaves all winter long. The new growth came out, and the old leaves still stuck. I hand-picked a few, then I got bored and figured one or two more heavy rains and they’ll be gone. But, I’m not sure.

Forsythias were miserable bloomers this year. Not enough mid-winter cold, I suspect. What few flowers they did produce were concealed by new growth. My worst year in 35 years of growing them here.

Ryegrass was spotty at best, and it was slow to come in. Most of that was due to the drought, even through the winter. I refused to baby the ryegrass. In fact, I was helping conserve our water reserves (and save money on my water bill), so I just figured another year’s overseeding would be more successful.

Conversely, pansies were the best ever this winter. That has been widely documented by commercial landscapers, and it’s because it was so dry for so long. No soil-borne disease problems brought on by poor drainage. We need to remember that and prepare our beds to drain better in future years.

So, if your plants are behaving strangely after the growing season and winter 2005-2006, take a number. You’re certainly part of a big crowd of Texas gardeners. I love my native state, but gardening here can be really weird!

Good luck to us all!

Posted by Neil Sperry
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