This may be the first retrospective of 2011 that you've seen, and it's highly possible that you, as a devoted North Texas gardener, don't really want to look back at all. "OK. That was awful. I don't ever want to think about it again. Go away, and don't ever come back."
Still, in spite of our fears and frustrations, we learned some good lessons in this year of heat, drought and watering curtailments. Let's see what we can take away from the experience before we glue the book shut.
Traditionally, we've been overwatering our landscapes. This was the summer that many gardeners discovered that plants can get by on deeper but less frequent soakings. In some cases, the plants actually did better than before. I had "smart" controllers installed on my sprinkler systems three years ago (not an especially bad drought year). In case that's a new term for you, those are clocks that have built-in weather-monitoring devices and software. You program them according to soil type, flat or sloping grades, sun or shade and types of plants. Taking into account temperature, wind, humidity and water restrictions, they determine when the irrigation system can run. This year proved the controllers to be great investments, as our water bills were 40 percent of what they had been three years ago -- and under much worse conditions this year than then.
To the converse, a lot of people have learned, or will learn by next spring, that all of our landscape plants and lawn grasses are going to need at least a little water once in a while to survive. Thousands of North Texas landscape trees, large shrubs and hedgerows are browned and brittle now, where just a few dollars' worth of water, strategically timed, could have saved them. Wait till those people discover the hard work and expense that lie ahead of them as they replace their lost landscapes.
Many of us learned why some trees are native here and why other species are certainly not. This was the summer that separated our plants dramatically. Plants that needed moisture and humidity struggled mightily, while plants that are native to your exact area probably fared far better. Botanists will confirm this in the next few years, but the summer of 2011 may actually change many plants' native ranges in Texas. Plants that have made their way west from the Piney Woods into Central Texas' clay soils may be retreating. Most notably, yaupon holly thickets in South Central Texas really seem to have been hurt. We'll see how they come back once rainfall returns to normal, but they surely look sad at the moment. Of course, there will always be seeds left behind to replenish the native plantings, but it's still possible that the native plant maps will shift toward the east.
We've seen the resilience of Earth-Kind roses. Those are the varieties that have been tested and identified by Texas A&M research. The two dozen, mostly old heirloom roses looked good in the spring, suffered like most other plants in the summer and now have bounced back with a great fall bloom. They're not looking back. They're focused on making their lives (and ours) better by their current and upcoming efforts. Red Knock Out roses are on that list, and you see how nicely they've bloomed these past five or six weeks.
As a casual observation, I've noticed how much longer tree leaves stayed on our trees into this fall. Sure, they're starting to drop now that we've had some frosts and light freezes, but in the 41 years I've lived in North Texas, this is by far the latest I've ever seen foliage begin to turn and fall. I live in a pecan forest. Pecans are noted for early leaf drop, but that has not been the case this year. Perhaps the summer's high temperatures and low humidity helped suppress fungal problems. Whatever the reason, it has felt very different this fall. Then again, we've all felt a lot different this fall. Battle-scarred and weary, we're ready for a little rest while we plan for spring plantings that lie ahead. It won't be much longer until we're be back to gardening normally.
Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts Texas Gardening noon-1 p.m. Saturdays and 9 a.m.-noon Sundays on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.