Welcome to Austin
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The Central Texas region, with its unpredictable weather and less-than-ideal soils, can pose some real challenges to gardeners — particularly those hailing from different climates. We often joke that gardening here is a “full contact sport.” However, with a little knowledge and the right plants, you can be successful on your Central Texas gardening adventure! We’ve developed this guide to give some useful information to help you on your way.
We are the only garden center in the area that has a team dedicated to giving you the best information possible and we have a number of resources available to you:
- Check out other articles on our website. Learn which plants make a good privacy screen, guidelines for growing in containers, and so much more! We are constantly working to expand our library of information.
- Visit our Information Desk for one-to-one advice. Bring photographs or sealed samples of pests/diseases for a free diagnosis.
- Attend one of our Free Classes which run weekly outside of our busy spring period.
Although rain falls throughout the year, there is significant seasonal variation in the amount. It is generally wetter in the summer and drier in the winter. May is usually the wettest month. When the rain comes it is often torrential, leading to flash flooding
The hot season lasts from June to September, with an average daily high temperature above 90°F. The hottest month of the year in Austin is August, with an average high of 96°F and low of 75°F.
The cool season lasts for three months, from December to February, with an average daily high below 68°F. We often have mild winters only to have a late winter cold snap.
Austin experiences extreme seasonal variation in humidity. The muggier period of the year lasts from April to October during which time it can be oppressive. The month with the muggiest days in Austin is July, and the month with the fewest muggy days in Austin is January.
Over the course of the year, the temperature range is rarely below 30°F or above 102°F. While our summertime weather is consistently hot, the rest of the year is more erratic. We can have days when the heat is needed in the morning, the air conditioner is on for lunchtime, and the heater is necessary once again that evening.
February 2021 was exceptionally cold with sustained freezes which did a lot of damage to landscape planting and killed many trees. Although the freezes are not usually sustained like those of February 2021, they can still cause a lot of damage to unprotected or poorly adapted plants, because they can be short and sharp and often interrupt a warm period.
The average first freeze is around the end of November; the last freeze at the end of February. Either of these can vary by more than a month.
We have two “dormant” seasons in Central Texas – one in the winter and one in the summer. Winter temperatures can be swing dramatically from day to day, with a 75°F day followed by a 45°F day, then back again. Summers are consistently long and hot. Our winter freezes are rarely sustained for more than a couple of days at a time (February 2021 being an exception).
If you come from regions further north you will be familiar with winter dormancy when shorter days and cold temperatures in the fall trigger plants to go into dormancy. As we can often have mild temperatures right through December, many plants here will continue to produce leaves and flowers throughout this period making it hard to know the right time to do winter pruning.
In Central Texas, some plants can also experience a summer dormancy. Horseherb, a popular groundcover, will die back in our summer heat without sufficient water. Red Buckeye, a native tree has stunning blooms in spring, but it can drop its leaves entirely during a particularly harsh, dry summer. By developing an understanding of the plants’ natural behavior, and allowing them to go dormant when it is time, we can avoid unnecessary watering.
Soil type plays a large factor in determining your growing conditions. Austin is located where three different eco-regions meet, and while the soil is primarily alkaline, its properties can vary widely depending on where you live in Austin.
- Edwards Plateau – Soils west of I-35 are typically thin and rocky with exposed limestone.
- Blackland Prairie – East of I-35, the soil contains black and reddish clays that pack densely into a heavy mass. This soil absorbs water very slowly and has little interior air space, making it hard for plants to get established.
- Post Oak Savannah – Along the river, east of I-35, the soil is composed of deep sandy loams that absorb water and drain well, but don’t hold soil moisture.
The main thing to remember is that our soils in Central Texas are deficient in organic matter, and low in nitrogen, so amending with compost and adding supplemental nitrogen will really help your plants to do well. Adding organic matter will also help with water retention which is absolutely critical when the heat of summer ramps up.
While you might find a few plants familiar, many popular plants grown in other regions will not do well here. We make it a point to stock primarily native and well-adapted plants that can conquer our area’s challenges. If you don’t see a particular kind of plant offered for sale here, it may pose too much of a challenge for this area.
- Influence of temperature — The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location. The map is based only on the average annual minimum winter temperature. Although we are in zone 8b, don’t assume that all 8b plants will grow here. That is a measure of cold, not heat, and our brutal summers are a major determining factor of what can thrive in this location. This combined with the lack of consistent cold in winter makes growing plants such as dahlias, peonies, and lilacs a challenge. Likewise, varieties of fruit trees that do well further north, are unproductive in this area due to lower chilling hours. It is also important to note that our nighttime temperatures stay high during the summer months (the high 70°s F and sometimes 80°s F); this means that the plants do not get a chance to recover overnight and is a significant reason why many plants do not cope well with our summers.
- Influence of sun — Never underestimate the power of the sun here. We arrange our plants for sale depending on how much sun they need. The amount of sun a plant can tolerate is a critical factor in deciding where to locate it. Many plants that can tolerate full sun further north will be wilting by the afternoon on a typical summer’s day here. Pay attention to the sun requirements as listed on our labels before choosing your location.
- Influence of soil type — Our soils in this region are primarily alkaline, some excessively so. This means that acid loving plants such as camelias, rhododendrons, and azaleas will not thrive at all if grown in the ground, unless special measures are continuously taken to amend the soil. Other plants, such as loropetalum (Chinese Witch Hazel) are used widely in landscapes here, but they can still suffer from chlorosis where soils are thin and alkaline, and so soils will need amending with sulfur periodically.
Many people arrive here with preconceived ideas about the types of plants they expect to see – saguaro cactus and tumbleweed seem to feature frequently in images of Texas, when in fact the saguaro is from Arizona, and Central Texas is not a desert!
Succulents (which include cactus, agave, and the like) have become very popular in domestic plantings in recent years. Many folks have relocated from coastal California where their use is widespread in the landscape but the sharp freezes we get here during the winter make succulent use in landscapes more problematic. Selecting the right plant in this situation is crucial as many of the larger specimen agaves and cacti come with a hefty price tag! Come and talk to us about the best selection for your needs.
Many people start their vegetable gardens here full of enthusiasm and hope, but quickly get discouraged when the heat kicks in and crops don’t produce as expected. Timing is so important; a great resource to help you plan is the Vegetable Planting Guide produced by Texas A&M. You can also consult our month by month guides on this website. We have a relatively short, warm winter and a short spring before temperatures rise above 75°F, which makes the timing of certain crops really important. These are just a few crops where timing is crucial:
- Potatoes grow best when high temperatures are between 60-75° degrees Fahrenheit and low temperatures are between 45-55° degrees. This means there is only a small window of time before it gets too hot. The usual planting time for potatoes in Central Texas is “between the presidents’ birthdays” – roughly between February 12th and 22nd. Harvest time is typically late May to early July.
- Onions can be planted by seed in October through mid-November, or by planting onion sets from January to February. In Central Texas, we have the most success with short-day length onions. Planting time is critical because onion plants are sensitive to both day length and temperature. If sets are planted in the fall, or if seeds are planted too early, they will likely bolt the next spring. Planting seeds too late may lead to immature plants being damaged by winter freezes.
- Tomatoes are harmed by temperatures below 45º F, and won’t set fruit above 90º, so timing is crucial. It is important to grow varieties that are fairly quick to mature, varieties that ripen in 73 days or less are recommended. We carry many varieties that are well adapted here. Spring tomatoes can be planted in the ground just after the average last frost date (at Austin Bergstrom, it’s March 3), but will need to be protected from cool/cold temps. Use row cover, a sheet, blanket, or plastic for frost protection. To get a head start on the season, plant tomatoes in a container first and bring them indoors when cool temperatures threaten or use the growing tomatoes in a well method.
- Strawberries are a challenge to grow successfully here in Central Texas. The ideal time to plant strawberries in Central Texas is in the fall – the earlier the better. Here, strawberries are treated as an annual that is pulled up when the plant stops producing and begins to suffer from the heat.
If you are new to this area some great crops to try in your first warm season of vegetable gardening are:
- Yardlong beans
- Black-eyed peas
- Sweet potatoes
Heat stress is definitely an issue here, so be sure to invest in some shade cloth to give your summer crops a break from the intense sun of summer.
Cool season gardening is a little easier, but be careful not to start those crops too early; lettuce and spinach should not be planted until November as its often too warm before then and the crops will bolt. Invest in some row cover and keep it handy to protect against freezes. Beginners can try:
- Radishes (root crops are best from seed)
- Snow or snap peas
We stock a wide selection of native trees, shrubs, perennials and wildflower seeds, and have planted many in our extensive grounds so that you can see what they look like in a landscape setting.
Thanks to the conservation efforts of Ladybird Johnson, wife of former President Lyndon B. Johnson, there is a thriving and active interest in the use of native plants in the landscape in Texas. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin is well worth a visit to see how they can be used in a variety of settings. Why native plants? This is the Center’s explanation:
Native wildflowers, grasses, shrubs and trees do much more than add beauty to the landscape. They help:
- Conserve water
- Reduce mowing costs
- Provide habitat for birds, butterflies and other wildlife
- Protect soils
- Clean our air
- Mitigate flooding
- Reduce temperatures in urban areas
- Save money on fertilizer and pesticides
As Lady Bird Johnson said, “native plants give us a sense of where we are in this great land of ours. I want Texas to look like Texas and Vermont to look like Vermont.”