August is the Cruelest Month for Central Texas Gardeners

by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden

A few days ago, I ran into a friend, a university professor, and asked how his summer was going. He shocked me by expressing his unbridled enthusiasm for the season. He quoted Somerset Maughm, the British author, saying, "The most beautiful words in the English language are summer afternoon." I smiled imagining old Somerset wilting in the heat of a Texas summer afternoon.

August is the cruelest month for Texas gardeners. Most of the time, I think that I am a damned fool for trying to garden here, but in August, I know that I am simply damned. When the full force of summer beats down on the faded remnants of our springtime dreams it is hard to not to associate gardening with lunacy, an affliction of the mind accompanied by seasonal amnesia. What else can explain the mass hysteria that sweeps us into the nurseries every March? We are just like creatures of the sea pulled by a tide that inevitably strands us on August's baking shore.

This year, I suffered more than the usual case of spring fever because I am putting in a new garden. My ears were pinned back before March even got here, and only now am I waking up to the fact that I have a huge garden that expects tender loving care. Standing in the air-conditioned comfort of my home, I stare out the window at the brave survivors limping along in the heat. I feel a little bit like someone who slipped over the wall at the Alamo before anyone started drawing lines in the sand. There are days when I cannot bear to look, knowing that I was the one who gave the order to charge.

Despite the blasting heat, most of us end up riding to the rescue like the cavalry armed with water buckets. A few years back, I was talking with a colleague about how difficult it was for me to take long vacations during our summers because I had to be there for my garden. He scoffed at my co-dependent ways, and told me to leave the "jealous mistress" behind. I feigned determination, only to run back home, drawn by my garden's siren song.

Despite lingering suspicions about our own sanity, there is a certain boastful pride shared by the gardeners who endure our extreme conditions.We scoff at east and west coast gardeners who bask in mild climates with fertile soils. Hell, you can garden in Portland or Charlottesville with your pinkies extended! Try that in Pflugerville! We tell each other war stories like veterans at a small town VFW hall.

"Remember August of '98? Not a drop of rain all month, and there were clouds of grasshoppers that darkened the sky."

"Sure, that was tough. But, at least there was shade! How 'bout the summer of 2000 when Lake Travis evaporated? Now, that came pretty darned close to hot."

Gardening in a Texas summer is like playing "Survivor" without canteens, cameras, and cash. The pickings are slim and you're really glad that no one is watching. While some of us can't help ourselves- we wheel and deal and try to fight on, others simply give in and go with the lack of flow. Walk through any neighborhood in the city and you'll see evidence of both all out warfare and unconditional surrender. After over thirty years in Texas, I still can't decide which of these strategies makes more sense.

The way of the warrior becomes a habit for those of us who simply refuse to face the facts. That's a pretty Texan attitude. We construct Army Corps of Engineer like systems that fight fire with water, lots of water. If Lake Travis hasn't evaporated, we'll suck it dry. Surrender is an easier and cheaper option. It is also the quickest way to determine who the true survivors in your garden are. Though, you are bound to encourage the wrath of the warriors on your street if you take the path of least resistance.

So, why do we even bother to garden when we know that August is always coming? What's the cause of our madness? I think the answer, like the devil, is in the details. What does a jellyfish that has washed up on the beach dream of? If anything, I'd suspect it dreams of floating on the warm currents of the sea. What do we dream of when the August sun is turning our heads to jelly? Perhaps it is the delicate yet earthy fragrance that follows an early spring rain; or the taste of freshly picked tomatoes and basil tossed with a little olive oil; or the sight of a dew laden rose. We are buoyed though our season of agony by these blissful memories of seasons past and the promise of those to come.

I remember an August day a few years back when I was going to work. As I approached the intersection across the street from my office, I noticed a co-worker standing in the shade of a building. When I stepped up beside her, she turned to inform me that she was "hiding from the death star." Until this dreadful month is over, let's join her by hiding from the death star in the garden of our memories and dreams.

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