December 3, 2020

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Make sure to keep records of the work you do in your garden

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Plant selections are even more critical as weather conditions shift.

Special to the Star-Telegram

I’m not sure if 50 years’ experience of gardening in the Metroplex is a blessing or a curse.

I started “teaching” plant people here about their landscapes and gardens for all of the ‘70s. I worked for the Extension Service back then. Looking back, that was a fairly generic decade. No extensive droughts. No extreme winters. Just ordinary growing conditions.

I began to use the term “normal winter” in my everyday writings. It was comfortable. I thought I knew what to expect. And then the New Year’s Eve ice storm of 1979 hit and many of us were without power for four days. That wasn’t normal, and it certainly wasn’t pleasant.

And it got worse.

The summer of 1980 found 43 consecutive days above 100 degrees. I was coaching Little League baseball that summer, and my wife brought our toddler daughter to many of the games. Lynn would hold her in her arms and lean up against the telephone pole for the shade it would provide. We sweltered and our plants suffered.

Then the winter 1983-84 had, as I recall, 292 consecutive hours below freezing. It started in December, 1983 and bridged into January, 1984. It wasn’t that it was extraordinarily cold. It’s just that it was cold without interruption. Gardeners lost thousands of plants in North Texas – plants that never would have been lost at those temperatures had they not been sustained for that length of time.

The next big challenge came the night of December 23, 1989, when the temperatures dropped to record lows. My family lives in a rural area on the north outskirts of the Metroplex, and our low temperature that night on three different thermometers went to -4 degrees. Needless to say, I lost plants in my landscape that I never thought I would lose, most notable among them, my entire Raleigh St. Augustine lawn.

We stumbled ahead into the first decade of the new millennium, and my overall recollection of it was that the winters were milder than before. The USDA apparently agreed, because when they published their 2012 Revised Plant Hardiness Zone Map it showed a major movement of the Zones to the north. Most Zones in Texas were shoved three or four counties farther north.

Gardeners took that to mean that plants once considered off limits were now recommended for these colder parts of the state. In the Fort Worth/Dallas area, that would have added plants like loquats, pittosporums, gardenias, oleanders and other Zone 8 plants to our lists of choices.

That was a drastic change in the Hardiness Zone Map based on 10 to 15 years of above-average winter temperatures, and there were those of us who are concerned that it would lull us into planting tender species.

Sure enough, by 2014 and in a couple of winters since, temperatures have gotten cold enough to damage or kill many of those Zone 8 plants. We’d be much better served by the 1990 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map and its old boundaries. If you’re determined to test fate with those less-hardy types, limit your numbers and limit your risks.

As long as I’m musing back over things I’ve observed these past 50 years, there’s something going on right now that I’ll keep watching for a while. Several years, including 2019 and now 2020, our first freeze here in North Central Texas has come in late October. You’ve heard weather reporters say many times that the average date of the first killing freeze for the Metroplex is November 22. That’s the date I’ve always used as well when I have helped the gardeners figure planting dates for their fall gardens.

That’s why I recommend planting tomato transplants for the fall garden on or before July 4. At the time it seems extraordinarily early, even silly and hard to explain. But when you see freezing rain hitting as early as the third week of October in our area, it makes perfect sense.

All of which is to say that you need to keep records of what you do in your garden and the dates on which you do it. Jot down notes of the weather and how your plants respond. Keep track of when problems show up and what they are. You’ll become your own best trail guide for the journey. And you’ll also find that the journey doesn’t always follow the same path.

As for this year, it is pretty much followed its own course.

In all respects, it hasn’t always been pleasant. Sometimes we’re happy to have a chance for a fresh start, and that’s where most of us are in our landscapes and gardens right now. With some degree of frost damage, ravages of disease and insect attacks, we’re looking for something new and pristine.

Maybe that just means we’ll tidy up the perennial garden and put a fresh layer of mulch out to keep the weeds from getting a start. However, it could also mean that we set out pansies and pinks and other color of the season.

Finally, there are many of you who are new to gardening in the Lone Star State, and we veterans welcome you among us. Psychologically, we put our arms around your shoulders and we say to you we know you’ll have challenges, but the rewards will make it worthwhile. Watch what other veterans have done. Try the tested and true plants for the area.

And above all, don’t be afraid to modify your dreams. Texans have been doing that for many decades. Welcome aboard!

You can hear Neil Sperry on KLIF 570AM on Saturday afternoons 1-3 pm and on WBAP 820AM Sunday mornings 8-10 am. Join him at www.neilsperry.com and follow him on Facebook.

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