A Summer Sleep Walk Down the Garden Path - by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden

Dormancy is a word rooted in the French verb "dormir", meaning to sleep. In gardening terms, it usually implies that time during the middle of winter when the branches are bare and the ground freezes solid. We sometimes experience true winter dormancy in Central Texas, it may only last an hour or two, but it has been known to happen. What is more typical, however, is for our gardens to "sleep" during the summer. Summer here is a time for most plants to hunker down, growing only modestly, if at all. Central Texas Gardeners tend to sleep through the summer months as well. We can be seen dragging water hoses around in somnolent trances, or retreating into air-conditioned lairs, our gardens relegated to wilted dreams that trouble our hibernation.

Despite, or perhaps because of, our mutually groggy state, my garden and I have managed to weather sixteen summers together. True, I am one of those twisted individuals who actually enjoys the ritual of hand-watering my plants; I find that watering provides me with needed Zen time to "be one" with the garden. All is not bliss under the sun, however. I have learned to be thankful for those plants that go completely dormant (out of sight, out of mind) and do not pant for my attention.

One of my all time favorite Austin garden plants is a summer sleeper called oxalis, (Oxalis crassipes) also known as "pink woods sorrel". It completely disappears at this time of year and only shows its happy little face again after the first rains of autumn. Many a suburban homeowner has probably committed oxalicide in the name of a perfect lawn, for it is commonly disdained as a weed, but, I admire its tenacity, bright blooms, and the fact that I never need to water it in summer. In my garden, it blooms from September through May or June, adding a bright touch to the cool season landscape. It also makes a great complement to a groundcover of English ivy; it pops out over the ivy during the fall, and shrinks back beneath it in the summer.

The spuria irises in my garden pull an even more dramatic disappearing act. This tall hybrid form of beardless iris shoots up in the fall, has a brief blaze of color in the spring, and then collapses. I simply cut the faded foliage to the ground and forget about it until next year.

Perhaps my all time favorite summer no-shows are the red spider lily, (Lycoris radiata) and the schoolyard lily (Rhodophialia bifida) also known as ox blood lily (it earned this charming name because of its dark red color.) These fall blooming bulbs appear from nowhere after the first autumn or late summer rains and create a real sensation in the garden. In fact, another common name for the Lycoris is "surprise lily". After their short, but memorable, blooming season, their foliage appears and lingers through the winter. Again, they require no attention during the summer months.

All of this may sound a little too Zen (less is more) for most folks. So, which plants are the true stars of the summer? After all, we do need something to admire as we drag the hose around! Thankfully, there are plants that somehow manage to triumph over the elements and find their moment of full awakening in the dead of summer. These are not just summer survivors; rather they thrive on the heat and lack of water. Here are two of my personal favorites:

The Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis) is, without question, one of our most colorful and elegant small ornamental trees. As the name implies, it is native to the desert-like regions of West Texas, where it is found growing alongside the usually dry washes and arroyos. Desert Willow has tubular, orchid-like, flowers that bloom from spring into fall. In recent years, hybrid forms have appeared that range in colors from a deep royal purple to nearly white. There is one form, God help us, called "Bubba" that is truly spectacular. Desert Willow demands full scorching sun and only needs water to establish itself after planting. I have seen a few older specimens around town as tall as twenty feet.

Esperanza or "yellow bells"(Tecoma stans) is another sun loving winner. I have seen several forms in the nurseries and they always appear to be covered in blooms. Esperanza is a small tree or shrub that usually grows no higher than six feet tall. I have grown one as a container plant for the past three years, and even though they are frost sensitive, it has survived without any special effort to protect it. As a container specimen, it requires extra water, but in the garden, they thrive in our dry heat. As the common name implies, the flowers are a bright yellow and are bell shaped.

Despite the temptation, our summer, which stretches for half of the year, is too long for a nap. Instead, we should try to find the right balance between less and more and try not to snore.

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