San Antonio Lawn Makeover UPDATE: Weather Extremes Spawn Spring Gardening Challenges

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Coming soon: "Rodeo tomatoes"

Coming soon: "Rodeo tomatoes"

Monika MaeckleBy Monika Maeckle

Two months ago, we encouraged San Antonio gardeners to convert water-guzzling St. Augustine lawns to thoughtfully chosen native plant beds and hardscape.

Hugh Daschbach heeded the call in King William.  Daschbach used three yards of shredded and chipped native hardwood to transform the sidewalk median of his new Mission Street home to a mulch-covered bed of well-adapted and native plants.

With help from friends and encouragement from neighbors, Daschbach used solarization to launch his lawn conversion.  The process uses the sun to kill grass and weeds.   Daschbach spent a day covering the bermuda and dandelion-infested sidewalk strip in front of his home with cardboard, a dose of water, and four inches of mulch.   Within a few days he plugged in some fennel, parsley, bulbine, peppers, sunflowers, a tomato plant and the drought tolerant Cowpen Daisy. The photos below reflect the yard’s progress.

Sunflowers draw butterflies in our converted Lavaca yard

Sunflowers draw butterflies in our converted Lavaca yard

“The mulch looks so much better than that scrubby grass,” said Daschbach.  “It was a fun project and I’ve had lots of compliments from the neighbors.”  The best part, he said, is less water use and lawn care.   Daschbach documented the garden work in a slideshow.

In Lavaca, we began converting a 6×20′ patch of St. Augustine in front of our rental home in December.  To date, the resulting butterfly garden and edible landscape has reaped herbs, flowers, pollinators, even a tomato or two. Our blooming sunflowers, still vibrant, tower more than 6′ tall.

But 2012’s wild weather  has wreaked special challenges. A mild, wet winter on the heels of historic drought was followed by a hot, dry April and now a rain-soaked May. April yielded only .04 inches of rain, more than two inches below average.  The average temperature in April, almost 74, exceeded the “norm” by 4.5 degrees. Eleven days climbed bove 90 degrees, with three exceeding 95, according to the National Weather Service.

King William curb, March 2012

King William curb, March 2012

The first week in May felt like summer had arrived, with every  day hitting 90 degrees or more.  This week, unexpected relief:  Up to 5″ rain has fallen in the city and surrounding areas, resulting in a feast-or-famine of temperature and moisture.

Tomatoes, Texas gardeners’ favorite, dislike such drama.  I planted three “Rodeo tomatoes,” special hybrids developed specifically for San Antonio’s climate and introduced each February at the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo.  Two plants found a home in the front yard and another went in a courtyard container.

King William curb, May 2012 --photos by Hugh Daschbach

King William curb, May 2012 --photos by Hugh Daschbach

The front yard tomatoes are progressing nicely, thanks to  regular grey water sprinklings from our landlord’s recycled water system. The high and dry April created  extra harsh conditions for the containerized plant, however, despite daily waterings.  The fruit now suffers from blossom end rot, an ugly condition that results from inconsistent moisture, leaving the fruit with a rotten, unsightly bottom. I fed them to the birds.

Front yard tomatoes will hopefully hurry up and ripen. Once temperatures stay above 85, tomatoes resist turning red because carotene and lycopene pigments, the  phytochemicals that cause coloration in the favored fruits, cease production.

In Lavaca: former St. Augustine yard en route to butterfly garden

Lavaca garden, March 2012

High temperatures also result in less pollinator activity , said David Rodriguez, horticultural specialist for Texas Agrilife Extension in Bexar County.  “Tomato season in San Antonio is pretty much ‘game over’ in late May and June,” he said, adding that many gardeners have better luck with tomatoes in the Fall.

High temps kept our artichokes from flowering and bearing fruit this spring.  Artichokes need extensive periods less than 50 degrees and prefer weather in the 70s.  Their lush foliage is its own reward, but the delicious flower buds make a great skillet supper.  When left to bloom, they form a dramatic lilac puff that attracts butterflies and bees. Not this year.

Lavaca garden: May 2012

Lavaca garden: May 2012

Another consequence of the warm, wet winter?   An abundance of insects.”We were hoping for a cold snap to help kill the bugs,” said Angela Hartsell, Community Manager for Green Spaces Alliance’s community gardens program. This year’s weather pattern has resulted in a surplus of aphids, beetles, caterpillars, butterflies– even a Raspberry ant invasion.  We recommend a strong spray of water to remove the undesirables , or you can follow the San Antonio River Authority’s lead and remove bugs by hand.  (Put them in the freezer to avoid unpleasant  squashing.)  Watch for a strong tick, flea, chigger and mosquito season this summer, too.

Hartsell recommended raised beds for drainage issues that result from extreme wet-dry-wet-dry cycles. “The main thing is to be selective in your plants. Southern peas, okra, sweet potatoes, and Malabar spinach can be planted NOW for a successful summer harvest,” she said.

Too hot for artichokes this spring. Maybe in the fall.

Too hot for artichokes this spring. Maybe in the fall.

In our garden, flowers and herbs have fared better than vegetables this season.  Mammoth Sunflowers, started as seed in February, have reached 5-7′, drawing butterflies, birds and more than a few curious students walking to nearby Brackenridge High School in the morning.  Transplanted milkweed bloomed profusely and yielded dozens of butterflies, and is now producing seed pods.  Fennel, dill, parsley and other herbs provide a steady supply of fresh cooking ingredients.

We’re planting okra shortly.  The next round of tomatoes will have to wait until fall.

 Here’s a few tips for feast-or-famine gardening conditions

1.  As it gets hotter, don’t forget to add mulch if yours has washed away or decomposed.  Minimum 2-3 inches, native hardwoods preferable.

2. For drought tolerant plants, following heavy rains like we’ve had this week, rake the mulch AWAY from the plant to prevent root rot, and allow the plant to breathe.   This can also apply to plants in containers.

Coming soon: "Rodeo tomatoes"

Coming soon: "Rodeo tomatoes"

3.  Well adapted and native plants often dislike “wet feet.”  Mulch rule of thumb: Mulch is for the soil, NOT the plant.

4. Water intelligently.   “We probably don’t need to water for two weeks, ” said David Rodriguez, following heavy rains in early May.  Turn off the automatic sprinklers and save the water for this summer.

5.  Resist the urge to buy on-sale vegetables at local nurseries that simply won’t do well in our hot summers.  Nurseries will be clearing out their small four-inch pots and cutting prices, but likely those plants won’t thrive.  “It would have to be a pretty big tomato plant to do well this late,”  said Hartsell.

7 thoughts on “San Antonio Lawn Makeover UPDATE: Weather Extremes Spawn Spring Gardening Challenges

  1. Very informative and I love your before-and-afters. My Austin tomatoes look to be gearing up for a bumper crop. Come and steal some!

  2. Great information to gardeners all over Bexar County. Rain was great but we all know that June/July/August is just around the corner and the lakes are still on the low side. Your pictures are great to share with those that need a bit of encouragement to do something other than annuals that will die as soon as the temps get to “normal” for SA.

  3. Very good information. I saw the yard on Lavaco before its transformation,
    what a change. Keep the good hints coming.

  4. Monika – the sunflowers and cowpen daisies you gave me are BLOWING UP. Thanks again for the great advice and the starter plants!

    • Yes I grow year round guess that’s one of the perks of living in Southern California we don’t get many frezee’s but my winter garden also has a purpose for my spring summer garden. One thing I will plant a lot of is broccoli they pull a lot of waste that tomato roots leave behind, they also add organic nitrogen to the soil similar to sweet peas, any kind of bean really. Look up Green Manure its all which involve plants that normally grow during the winter fall/ winter season.

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