5 tips for gardening success
Welcome to Austin, where plants to come die
Writing about gardening during an epic drought. How quaint. Drought or not, gardening in July and August in Austin is only for hardcore masochists and the benignly insane. If you are toying with the idea of getting into gardening, now is the time, no one expects you to produce a thriving urban farm right this very minute.
Instead, let’s rewind several years to a time when I did not know this — or anything else — about what it takes to successfully grow plants in our quirky environment. You may recall the scene in the movie Idiocracy where our (hopefully fictional) descendants look on in awe at tiny plants which have sprouted from the land. This is exactly how I felt the first time a seed I had dropped into the dirt and given a bit of water subsequently sprouted a couple of days later. Ridiculously proud, I bored everyone silly with tales of this miraculous event.
One of best things about raising plants is that unlike children, pets or the undead, they do not require you to react instantly.
You know where this is going, of course. My personal miracle of nature withered and died in less than two weeks. Plant after plant suffered the same fate. It was an utter mystery to me how anyone got anything to grow in this bizarre, frustrating landscape known as Austin, Texas. Perhaps this has been your experience as well.
Fast forward several years. Turns out, successful gardening in Austin is not the oxymoron it appeared to be at first glance. Yes, we have our challenges. From droughts to deer to the topsoil which is poor at best and often nonexistent. No one is saying it’s easy, but it is possible. There are secrets you must learn.
Native Austinities born prior to 1980 instinctively know how to navigate these secrets, so obviously the first thing you want to do is befriend one. If you can find one, that is. There are exactly three of them on the entire planet. The waiting list may be a tad long.
If you haven’t got that kind of time, fear not. I’ve learned (stolen) the secrets of these plant whisperers and I am now going to share five tips from these pros to get you started.
#1 Fall is Key
Although we can technically grow year-round, there are two main growing seasons in Austin. Fall is the better one for beginners simply because your plants are more likely to die from heat than cold, so you’ll have a longer runway for success. If your plants die in the summer, they are truly dead. Not like that fake dying they sometimes do in the winter, only to bounce back again in March. PS: By ‘fall’, I mean actual fall — September 21st. Not Austin-Fall, which starts sometime in December.
#2 Go Native
Native plants are perfect for beginners because they are forgiving when ignored and mistreated. Believe it or not, some actually thrive when treated like this. Sort of like that poetry major you dated in college. See natives in action and get your questions answered at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
#3 Farm It Up
Not into the native plants? I understand. While a flower is nice to look at it, nothing says “Go me!” like eating a vegetable you grew yourself, and then telling everyone including random strangers about it for the next three weeks. You will be justifiably proud of your garden prowess, and that my friends is a little thing called motivation. Just make sure to start with the easy plants, such as...
#3b Lettuce & Other Greens
So easy to grow, it’s almost cheating. Get started with the Garden Guide for Austin & Vicinity.
#4 Patience, Grasshopper
You will run into befuddling situations. One of best things about raising plants is that unlike children, pets or the undead, they do not require you to react instantly. In fact, it’s usually better if you don’t. Once emptying an entire can of Raid in to a planter box of bougainvillea just because I found a tarantula there may not, upon reflection, have been the wisest choice. It certainly didn’t turn out well for the tarantula, and I was never able to get anything to grow in that planter ever again. So be patient, do some research, and think before you react. The Texas AgriLife Extension provides lots of learning resources.
#5 Friends of a Feather
Finally, the best way out of those confounding situations is to buddy up to other gardeners, such as the Austin Organic Growers group. For one thing, you will learn tons about gardening without having to make the mistakes yourself. For another, you’ll always have something to talk about at parties. Gardening is one of those topics people in Austin can’t seem to shut up about, like which food truck is their favorite, or whether it will ever rain again. Another good place to start is by taking a class at the Zilker Botantical Gardens. Do not, however, make the mistake of searching on OkCupid for “growers”. It doesn’t mean what you think it does.
So there you go, a few tips to get you started on the garden of your dreams. Just remember, at it’s heart gardening is an endurance sport. No need to rush outdoors right this minute. Instead, draw up some plans over a margarita and fantasize how great your yard is going to look next year. Assuming, that is, that water ever falls from the sky again.