Home on the Range


April is a glorious time in San Antonio, when anything seems possible. The weather brings out the optimist in
everyone — especially the gardeners: Yes, it will rain this summer, and we can grow herbs! We will dine al fresco every evening! All we need to solve our little mosquito problem is a few well-placed citronella plants! Deep into May, we ping-pong between Home Depot and Lowe’s, trying to get the best deals on hibiscus, lantana, and those legendary “heat-tolerant shade plants.” We giddily buy teak patio furniture that will turn grey and splintery by August, as well as vividly hued outdoor cushions that’ll fade even sooner. And by June our hopes begin to wither like impatiens in “dappled” shade.

I realize I shouldn’t speak in the first-person plural. I was once a gardener but I can hardly call myself one now. No one looking at my yard would say, “Wow, someone here really has a green thumb!” No one would believe the person responsible for the bedraggled shrubbery, fried grass, and neglected oaks was once a passionate gardener — let alone a subscriber to Horticulture magazine, who regularly attended garden tours and wasn’t shy about throwing some sharp elbows at super-competitive rare-plant sales.

When I moved to Texas from New York City almost five years ago, I had every intention of taking my gardening hobby to the next level. Seduced by the promise of “country living in the city,” I held out for a house with a two-plus-acre lot. I envisioned a Martha Stewart–like set-up, with greenhouse and chicken coop, cutting garden and organic veggie patch. I was sure I was up to the challenge. After all, my backyard Brooklyn garden was a lush oasis nestled amid ugly parking lots and charmless vinyl-sided homes.

If I close my eyes, I can visualize almost every inch of that garden. But I don’t have to close my eyes — I can just consult one of the journals I made to track its evolution. Believe it or not, NYC is a kind of Eden. Brooklyn soil is so fecund, it’s like something out of a fairy tale. Seeds or seedlings, bulbs or corms, whatever I stuck in the ground, flourished. I grew roses, dahlias, and daffodils. Two apple trees, a plum tree, even a row of corn.

But I knew the transition from Zone 6 to Zone 9 gardening would be tricky, so I did my homework. One of my first purchases was Neil Sperry’s Complete Guide to Texas Gardening. I also bought the Wasowski books on native Texas gardens and pondered going purist. I contemplated joining my local gardening club. But when it finally came time to put spade to earth, I was rewarded with the clang of metal striking stone.

My home apparently sits on a sheet of limestone — this was an obstacle. There was also a small matter with the water, or lack thereof. Estimates on verdant-lawn — producing irrigation and sprinkler systems proved laughably out of reach, so I met with a landscaper who supported my plan to rip out the pointless grass and replace it with crushed granite and xeriscape plants. But first, she said, I needed to rebuild the berms on my property to protect my house from flooding. Did I know my berms were in need of fortifying? No, I did not know what berms were — or that it might actually rain.

I can’t blame the climate or the soil for the unraveling of my dreams. I’m a victim of classic your-eyes-were-too-big-for-your-stomach syndrome. In Brooklyn, my garden was a 20-by-40-foot rectangle. I used to haul mulch in a wagon; here it has to be brought in by the truckload. When the landscaper outlined the berm-fortifying project, she may as well have been describing the construction of the great pyramids of Egypt. Since I’m no deep-pocketed pharaoh with a slave army at my disposal, I find that container gardening on my patio is all I can handle. Ironically, I’m doing by choice the kind of gardening most urban folks do by necessity, on their fire escapes and in window boxes.

Meanwhile, the promise of springtime has already gone brown at the edges — the mint has flamed out, the bougainvillea is failing, the impatiens is DOA — and I’m throwing in the trowel for the next several months. But I know the optimism will re-emerge, next April, perhaps even sooner. I hear that November is the optimal time to broadcast wildflower seeds — maybe I’ll have bluebonnets for my fifth anniversary as a Texas gardener.