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It Was So Hot in Texas

Blackfoot daisy, Thorn-crested agave
Blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leucanthum) makes a lovely groundcover even when temperatures flare up. It is pictured here with thorn-crested agave (Agave univittata), an evergreen succulent.

Plant sale showcases drought-tolerant plants

There's a joke in Texas that goes: It's so hot in Texas that [fill in the blank.] It's so hot in Texas that you no longer associate bridges with water. It's so hot that you can make instant sun tea. It's so hot that you realize asphalt has a liquid state.

This year it was so hot – and dry - in Texas that it was hard to find the humor. It was so hot in Texas that the state surpassed Oklahoma as having the hottest, driest June through August on record in the country and that it suffered the worst single drought year on state record. Around Austin, Dallas, Midland and Denton, coyotes were found seeking food and water on suburban lawns. Livestock and cotton took the biggest hit in unprecedented agricultural losses in a given year.

It was so hot in Texas that late-summer fires in Bastrop County turned out to be the most expensive in state history by far. Thirty four thousand acres burned, with thousands of families and their homes affected.

Water was rationed and likely will continue to be if predictions that the heat and drought will persist into 2012 – and maybe beyond - are correct. The driest period on record for the state is the 1950s. Still, today four times the number of people live - and need water - in Texas as did in the '50s.

We can't change the temperature or make it rain, but homeowners can take action by rethinking their landscapes to emphasize drought-tolerant native plants.

The Wildflower Center Plant Sale & Gardening Festival is on the second weekend in April and in October from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. A Members Only Sale occurs from 1 to 7 p.m. on Friday.

Turks cap, lantana, cenizo and chocolate daisy
LEFT TO RIGHT: Turk's cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii), Texas lantana (Lantana urticoides), gayfeather (Liatris mucronata) with Agave spp. and cenizo (Leucophyllum frutescens) with chocolate daisy (Berlandiera lyrata)

The sale will feature plants well suited to dry heat, including succulents and cacti like prickly pear, agaves, twisted leaf yucca, cenizo and sotols. Flowering plants like blackfoot daisy, gayfeather and damianita need little to no water once established.

"Plants that are native to hot, dry locations rely on different strategies to survive when those conditions are at their worst," says the Center's Director of Horticulture Andrea DeLong-Amaya. "Some natives like winecups and liatris are able to store water in their fleshy taproots or underground stems. Others like Turk's cap or Texas lantana have fibrous root systems that are able to extend deep in the soil to find more moisture."

Other features that allow plants to endure harsh weather conditions are fine and dense thorns like those of the lace cactus (Echinocereus reichenbachii) which act as a screen to protect the plant from harsh sun. Some plants like candellia (Euphorbia antisyphilitica) have a waxy texture that helps seal moisture in and gives a greyish appearance to reflect sunlight and keep the plant cool. Succulents of course store water in their plant tissue.

The plant sale at the Wildflower Center also will feature an exhibit that illustrates how a lawn made up of native grass species can withstand extreme heat and drought without a lot of supplemental water and maintenance.

"There are ways to prepare before a sale to make shopping time more productive," says DeLong-Amaya. She offers this advice when preparing for a plant sale.

The Establishment

Once established. Chances are that if you garden, you see and hear those two words a lot. You might hear: "Once established, plants will require little to no water" or "Water twice a week once established." When do plants establish?

As you might imagine, it depends on the plant. In general, smaller, fast-growing plants like annuals and herbaceous perennials establish faster – maybe in just a few months – and larger woody plants like trees can take up to four or five years.

DeLong-Amaya says, "It is best not to 'push' plants too hard when they are young. They will actually establish faster if you give them mild fertilizer like compost (really more of a soil conditioner), fish emulsion and seaweed – that has minerals and other nutrients the plant uses to grow roots. "Pushing plants too hard – say with fast releasing or heavy doses of synthetic fertilizers – can result in abundant foliage and flowers but weaker root systems." Appropriate watering (not too much, not too little), soil preparation, and mulching helps with everything.

Study the conditions of the spot where you will plant. Know the number of hours of sun it gets throughout the day in each season, if drainage is poor and what is the soil type. Do deer visit the spot so that you require deer-resistant plants? Will you need plants able to tolerate some shade?

Assess what types of characteristics you want to add to your garden: blooms, color, texture, height or shape. Some organizations like the Wildflower Center publish a list of available plants at their sale online to help you prepare. Answer whether you want drought-resistant plants, fast-growing plants, blooms in different seasons, edible or evergreen plants and consider how well particular plants will fare given the conditions of your garden. Butterfly and hummingbird plants also are popular.

Prepare the area of the garden that will be receiving the plants to make it more likely that they will get in the ground quickly. Gather your wagon, hat, sunscreen and water. "Ideally, plants that are brought home from a sale are best planted right away. However, if the gardener isn't quite ready to plant, it may still be wise to take advantage of semi-annual sales to locate hard-to-find species," says DeLong-Amaya. If you must hold plants for a few weeks, gardeners should be careful to give them adequate light and not let them dry out nor get overwatered. If plants are at the verge of being root bound, they should be moved into larger pots before going into the ground.

Have options. Preparation is key, but staying flexible may allow you to discover a plant you haven't considered. It's also possible a plant you had your heart set on is sold out, so having alternatives and being open to new possibilities is smart shopping.

By Christina Procopiou

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