South-Central Texas BY SCOTT OGDEN / Austin, Texas, Zone 8b
BY EARLY JANUARY, several freezes usually have singed lawns and prairies around Austin to various shades of straw. Late perennials have collapsed in blackened masses. Even the amazingly tardy foliage of the local oaks (often still gloriously burnished red in December) will have fallen from gnarled twigs, tumbling to the earth in piles of gray brown. Midwinter in central Texas seems as lifeless as in many other parts of America. Yet there is an epiphany here for those who remain alert. In a superb expression of nature’s irony, the desolation of the season brings with it magnificent light.
Most of the year, the quality of sunlight here offers all the charm and subtlety of a plaza in Cairo (roughly the same 30°N latitude on the globe). Like overly well-read gardeners anywhere, Austinites may be tempted to reproduce the floral joys of Giverny (about the same latitude as Bangor, Maine) or the rustic beauties of Tuscany (the same latitude as Albany, New York). In the laserbeam illumination cast by the Texas sun, these efforts invariably fall short, with floral colors either clashing or fading pathetically; many plants simply shrivel up in the blast furnace of late summer. Even the architectural Italianate garden loses much of its appeal when it feels like Kuwait City outside. Most Texans will have given up these attempts just about the time the gentle, low-angled light of winter arrives and actually makes such dreams possible.
The peaceful January sun gives even simple garden compositions the power and warmth of a Vermeer painting. A clump of paperwhite narcissus (N. papyraceus) will reflect this winter light like silken stars. Other early bulbs like the old heirloom Narcissus italicus and the Chinese sacred lily (N. tazetta var. orientalis) enliven the cool air with tones of eggshell and linen, as they offer pungent fragrances.
Gray and silver foliage brings unparalleled illumination at this season, and giant lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina ‘Countess Helene von Stein’) can act as a beacon in borders with its plush, reflective leaf surfaces. Common mulleins (Verbascum thapsus) collect dew and frost on winter mornings, sparkling in the winter sun. Arizona cypresses (Cupressus arizonica ‘Carolina Sapphire’), with blue branches and vague turpentine aromas, make brilliant sentinels.
Grasses make the most of the winter light by filtering the low rays of the sun through their slender foliage. Mexican feather grass (Stipa, or Nasella tenuissima, pictured) and bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa) are two of the best, capable of surviving the summer roasting they must endure here.
Lastly, the surprisingly frost-hardy Australian cycad Macrozamia johnsonii offers magnificent 12-foot rosettes of feathery chartreuse leaves, clustered like crowns of a date palm so that each plume gracefully weeps and twists, catching the sun as it moves across the southern sky. Like the grasses, these ancient plants take all the heat and drought that the rest of the year can (and will) throw at them.
Top do in the garden
The weeks after the first of the year are prime for pruning live and red oaks (to avoid spread of oak wilt disease) as well as other trees and shrubs. Chop up twiggy prunings and add them to compost piles or mix with fallen leaves (conveniently bagged and set on the curb by overly neat neighbors), shred with a lawn mower, then use directly as mulch for “sheet composting” beds and borders.
Set out seeds, tubers, or transplants of half-hardy flowers like sweet peas, bells of Ireland, Moroccan toadflax, sweet alyssum, German chamomile. Shirley poppies, lemon horsemint (Monarda citriodora), heirloom petunias, colorful lettuces and kales, comflowers, ranunculus, and poppy anemones. Orange-net toadflax (Linaria reticulata) and honeywort (Cerinthe major) are less common but especially rewarding Mediterranean flowers to set out now.
Algerian Iris I. unguicularis
The most exquisite midwinter bloom Texans can enjoy belongs to this clumping iris (once called Iris stylosa), with luscious, pale periwinkle-blue flowers that glow in winter light, appearing in flushes from December through February. Fast drainage and dry, rocky conditions are welcome but don’t seem essential. Sun or part shade will do. The grassy foliage remains handsome most of the year, but sometimes hides the short-stemmed blooms, inviting gardeners to inspect clumps for flowers every few days.