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drip systems and absentee gardening

Cast Iron Plant, Drying Out

Nearly every summer we pack down the house and leave for a month or two to visit friends and family abroad. Packing down the garden is becoming more and more of a challenge. I’d love to meet other fellow travelers with Texas gardens–to figure out how they manage to keep it surviving during the brutal summer months. The larger my garden grows, the harder this task becomes. It’s not just the waning vegetables or annuals that need tending but even the larger “sustainable” places of my garden.


I came back from several travels this summer to witness a slowly eroding lawn and lost perennials. In case you aren’t from Texas we are sustaining a pretty nasty drought period. Last summer was bad enough and this summer Austin’s weather officially broke all records. (Most days 100-plus degrees, hottest average.) One weatherman said this was the hottest summer since sometime in the late 1800s. I’m not yet packing my bags for San Francisco; although I dream of gardening in a climate like that I know I couldn’t get half the garden space I have here.

I try to take it all in stride. We underwent a major landscaping and planting overhaul last fall, and many of my “permanent” garden plants are in their first year–so I am tempted to stress out and what is happening here, but for some reason I thought to myself, this is what I got myself into. Even the cactus are wilting.

I love the idea of filling in bare spaces with summer annuals but there are so few that don’t need to be attacked with water daily. I had few sunflowers that actually got to blooming before dying and some needy zinnias. Cosmos sulphurus seem to be the only flowers that don’t need water every single day–maybe every other day. (Yes, even those xeriscape plants still suffer in 40 days of 100 degree heat and no rain.)

Over the last four years I have slowly built a large drip irrigation system, set on timers, to help me. Drip irrigation is fairly easy to set up, but takes time and doesn’t always run correctly. Often a clog or bug will block up the whole system, and if this happens while I am away, whole sections of my garden will stay without water for weeks. Once while away a clog burst off one of the connectors, and the resulting water just spilled out into a puddle during every timed watering session.

Drip systems have other limits. A certain line of tubing can only run so far away from the house, with so many drippers on it, before the farthest end of the line loses pressure. So watering the far back of my garden has become hand watering only.

It’s also not the be-all-end-all solution to shrubs like roses. Drip irrigation does focus the water in one spot, not wasting any water, but a drip system isn’t the greatest at soaking the entire root ball unless you have mini sprinklers. Roses have large roots and small feeder roots and if these stay dry you will notice the rose responding in kind with browning leaves and canes. This summer I lost several good canes on roses that were being watered regularly with drippers. A rose appreciates a good long soak all over the place at least once a week in a summer (and more than that here).

I will try to write more about drip systems in hopes that my experience will help others. In the end I am at the mercy of gracious friends who understand my love for my garden, and come to check on things. My potted patio gardenia was struggling before I left, but a green-thumb friend seemed to bring it to life, looking better than it did in spring bloom.

Because my lifestyle includes travel, I have to live with something that can’t be watched over 24-7.

The oxblood lilies started to poke out in my driveway this week, the usual first blooms of fall, and now I’m hatching all sorts of fall plans. It’s my favorite time of year to garden, to be in the garden. I’m a fall baby, so I always think of fall as a fresh start.

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