I did not move to Texas just to have a garden. That would be crazy. After all, the state’s official plant is a cactus, and its other attractions include tumbleweed and tornadoes.
But it never occurred to me that I couldn’t have a garden in Texas. After all, I had scratched out lush perennial beds on a windy hilltop in upstate New York, in soil so rocky the local motto is “Two Stones for Every Dirt.”
That garden wasn’t exactly a showplace, but it gave me what I really wanted: something new blooming every week from when the ice melted in March to its return around Thanksgiving.
Surveying the land
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When my beloved told me he had found the job of his dreams in Dallas, though, I packed up my begonias and my iris bulbs. Like a pioneer woman, I headed west.
I started out optimistically enough.
I bought books about gardening in Texas, though in retrospect they were ominously obsessed with botanical survival.
I joined the Dallas Arboretum and went on garden tours. I found a fabulous nursery. And we bought a great old house with a flat plot out back.
The site had issues. There was an amoeba-shaped patio around a fire pit full of broken safety glass, which to a New Yorker means your car radio has just been stolen. A random arroyo of river rocks waited hopelessly for a flash flood. A massive desert palm tree rattled its sword-sharp fronds – and quickly died.
The whole thing seemed to be modeled on a Tucson gas station, down to the cheap but un-killable plants you see all over North Texas: Junipers. Pampas grass. Chinese witch hazel. Yuccas. Scary spiky ferns that would have been at home in Jurassic Park.
Everything in the yard was scratchy.
Nothing would survive
Even so, I happily began planting. True, the soil was sticky, clinging to shovels and the tines of a garden fork. The bugs were vicious. And the scorching afternoon sun threatened to incinerate everything.
I found success with very Texan yellow roses of various varieties. Nothing else, however, thrived.
Perennials from home – peonies, lupins, delphiniums – could not survive. Beloved annuals like poppies and sweet peas dried up before they could bloom. I tried Mediterranean plants, like broom. Then Californian plants, like ceanothus. Then the tropicals that drape Houston and New Orleans. Natives. Xerics. Plants that had Dallas in their names. Plants that had Texas in their names. Nothing doing.
One hot day in June, I was digging up some dead stuff in the back garden when I realized I was covered in huge red itchy splotches. My eyes puffed. My throat started to close up. I ran inside to down a whole handful of Benadryl. My yard was trying to kill me.
I stayed inside – for two years.
Texas Garden 2.0
It was my husband who convinced me to garden again. His complaint was fair: He wanted to be able to barbecue without getting depressed by weeds and dying plants. Or being smothered by cypress vine, one of the few plants that truly loved my garden and showed it by covering every surface, including chairs, tables, a huge smoker and a grill.
Out went the scratchy plants, with the aid of a burly ex-convict who liked to work in gardens. The patio was too well-built to remove, alas, but we used gravel and flat stones to straighten its edges. A new pergola now protected us against the death rays of the Western sun.
And we bought dirt, a nice sandy loam. I had realized that I could never make enough compost to lighten our sticky clay. But because my previous garden experience occurred deep in the countryside, I hadn’t realized I could purchase garden soil. A guy with a truck dumped a huge pile in my driveway, and I felt like I had won the Texas Triple Chance lottery.
Lots of stuff still dies. But generally, Texas Garden 2.0 is going a lot better, now that I have unlearned a lot of my eastern horticulture habits.
Finding gardening joy
These days I mostly plant in the fall, and I use a knife (a lethal-looking Japanese blade called a hori-hori) to do it. I invested in bug-proof clothing, the kind sold to nervous and fashion-challenged travelers, which I can pull on over my regular clothes rather than drenching myself with DEET. On the advice of far more experienced Texas gardeners, I dump rocks – expanded shale – in my soil to break up the clay and hold water.
But mostly, I expanded my definition of what brings me gardening joy.
Colored foliage, from tiger-striped cannas to silver-blue agaves, make beautiful pictures even in 100-degree heat. Grasses and vines and herbs (basil self-sows!) are a treat. And who can resist the charming anole lizards that smile as they eat bugs? My very favorite crop these days is caterpillars. I’ve watched them turn into black swallowtail butterflies.
This garden certainly isn’t a showplace, either. But every week when I wander outside, I find something unexpected, growing or blooming, or just eating bugs with a grin. And if that’s what it means to have a garden in Texas, I’m getting to be just fine with it.