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Summer Gardening in Texas

Here are some ways to make the garden look lively in Texas's hottest time of year.

Armadas of puffy white clouds drift cheerfully across Texas skies much of the year. Inevitably, however, midsummer arrives and this pleasant backdrop shifts. Morning haze dissipates, and the wide silvery blue bowl above fills only with the glare of an unfriendly orb. Cicadas drone from the wilting branches of trees. Gardeners cower in air conditioning or scurry outside briefly to move a hose. Our over-the-top summer has returned, and sensible folk are heading for a cold margarita or hitting the road for Colorado.

For gardeners willing to water, it's not difficult to keep a few hearty flowers and plants through the annual inferno. Yet the inertia of this season often gives plantings an air of arrested artificiality. During the surreal days of ultra summer, bright blooms like lantanas or zinnias may look more like spilled paint than plants. The polished foliage of many popular shrubs and trees may suggest molten plastic, not living greenery. What can gardeners cultivate to preserve a sense of vitality?

What's called for is cooling foliage from plants that continue to grow through hot weather. None are better than the fine-textured, rich green Asparagus virgatus and A. macowanii, both from southern Africa and adapted to dry, shady situations. Their feathery shoots send up magnificent masses of tiny green cladodes held in precise arrays that seem fresh and vital through the worst hot weather. These evergreen perennials are sometimes killed back in cold weather here but grow steadily through the most torrid summer.

The Mexican cycad Ceratozamia latifolia unfurls lustrous, coppery new leaves, while the Puerto Rican Zamia pumila sends up a lavish succession of shining green fronds. Summer-growing subtropicals like the upright, red-petioled Curcuma ‘Scarlet Fever’, the arching red pine cone or shampoo ginger (Zingiber zerumbet), and the curious snake-palm (Amorphophallus konjac) provide luscious new foliage at this season and active interest when many other plants are inert. These enjoy irrigation through drought, but otherwise perform surprisingly well in dry shade.

In sun or part-shade, the soft green bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa) carries weeping shoots like the plumes of some exotic bird, while the summer-flowering Chihuahua lovegrass (Eragrostis erosa) bears feathery compound blooms and wispy foliage. Both stir with the slightest breeze. Guahillo (Acacia berlandieri) makes a matte, dark green bush like some strange shrub-fern, a drought-tolerant companion for silvery-felted cenizas (Leucophyllum spp.) and dense-leaved Texas mountain laurels (Sophora secundiflora), generally a lustrous green, but also to be had in the smoky, gray-leaved selection, ‘Silver Peso’.

The perpetually glistening needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) also keeps gardens looking fresh, as do heat-loving flowers like the soft yellow, brown-eyed Hibiscus calyphyllus, fragrant, pale pink xAmarcrinum ‘Fred Howard’, or wine-colored Salvia penstemonoides. Particularly satisfying, however, is canyon ricegrass (Leersia monandra), a denizen of dry woods. Its modest, soft, weeping clumps of luminous yellow green exude the living spirit of growth and renewal that carry any garden through hard times. 

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