Houston Gardening: Droughts, Floods and Heat, Oh, My!

Fall is coming! Fall is coming!
Fall is coming! Fall is coming! Photo by Cornelius Nursery

Most Houston gardeners have become accustomed to the hardships of a Houston summer. However, the summer of 2022 has been particularly brutal. While we are used to 100 degree temperatures in July and August, this summer they were coupled with little to no rainfall. Until last week.

Now, we are getting bouts of heavy rain and street flooding. It's been enough precipitation for the burn bans to be lifted across much of Texas, but for many of our plants, lawns and trees, it's a bit too late. And even though we have some relief from the heat and drought, our gardens are now showing the signs of summer neglect and extreme weather fluctuations.
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Plants and creatures are refreshed by the rain.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
For garden centers across the city, it's also been tough. No one wants to get out in the garden and plant new pretties when the temperatures are steamy, and even dangerous. With the much-hoped-for rain, some of our shrubs and plants have sprung back to life but so have the weeds. And with more rain in the forecast, the opportunity for garden maintenance is almost nil.

What's a gardener to do? We reached out to one of Houston's foremost garden centers, Cornelius Nursery, for some tips and advice. Cornelius, first founded in 1937, is the Houston branch of Calloway's Nursery, a lawn and garden services company in the Dallas area which acquired Cornelius Nursery in late 1999. We spoke with the marketing director for Calloway's, Jennifer Hatalski, about the drought this summer and its effect on Houston gardening and the nursery business.
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Our plants are happy with the rain, but so are the weeds.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Hatalski said: "The warm temperatures that we have had all summer and the drought conditions... it really hasn't affected how we run the business. It's just all the tips we are giving our customers when it's in triple degree digits everyday. Just recommending to everyone that you can still get out and garden. Everybody was just doing it super early in the morning or late at night. And being smart with watering. Hand watering in most situations, mulching to keep water and that moisture in, so tips like that to make the most of it."

As for various watering practices during the drought, Hatalski told us, "We do carry soaker hoses at our stores. We also have Texas Certified Nursery Professionals at all of our locations. We don't do any installing ourselves but we certainly can give some tips on the best way to install those." She added that homeowners should make sure that rain sensors are working properly on irrigation systems so that they are shutting off properly. Residents can also turn sprinkler systems off manually to make sure they are not overwatering.
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The rain was too late for this sad tree.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
However, overwatering has been Mother Nature's fault in the past couple of weeks, with many areas in Texas receiving an overabundance of rain. Hatalski has advice on dealing with the saturated landscape.  "What we recommend at Cornelius Nursery is to wait for your landscape to dry out, first and foremost. Let everything dry out and see what is going to come back and what needs to be replaced."

So what should Houston residents plan for when replacing dead flowers, shrubs and trees? Hatalski has a list of drought tolerant plants that gardeners can turn to.  "For shade trees, we recommend live oaks and Texas red oaks. For flowering trees, of course crape myrtle, mountain laurels and vitex. And if you're looking at shrubs, Texas sage, yaupon holly and wax myrtle are good options for our Texas landscapes."
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Firebush is a hot pick for Houston gardening.
Photo by Cornelius Nursery
As for flowering plants, she also has a few suggestions. "Some really tough drought tolerant options would be firebush, esperanza... Pride of Barbados is another good one. If you're looking for flowering annuals, of course lantana, and then cora xdr vinca would be our top choices".

With the cooler temperatures Hatalski says, "Fall is a great time for planting (or replanting) trees or shrubs because your plants will have time to get established before winter and then they will continue to develop that healthy root system over the winter to prepare for next summer. Fall is our second chance to get things planted here in Texas."

She added that Cornelius Nursery will have all the foundation shrubs like boxwood and barberry ready to plant for fall plus the cooler weather annuals such as pansies and mums in the next week or two. And for those who watched their spring vegetable gardens struggle and shrivel in the summer heat, nursery centers across Houston will be bringing in the fall vegetables which often do better in the more moderate climate of autumn. At Cornelius, the pumpkins will be coming in right after Labor Day.
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There are five Cornelius Nursery locations across Houston like this store in Katy.
Photo by Cornelius Nursery
While all this planting and replanting seems daunting, older folks and those with bigger budgets can opt for Cornelius' Pick and Plant program which allows customers to visit the store and choose the plants they want planted. Then, a crew will plant the trees, shrubs or annual color wherever the homeowner wishes. It's especially convenient for homeowners replacing larger trees or shrubs. For those who need the assistance of design experts, the nursery has a Landscape Design and Installation team who can do personalized home visits to create a garden or yard of one's dreams.

It's not easy to garden in a climate that perpetually throws a monkey wrench into our plans of creating our own little Edens. Whether it's an exceptional drought, torrential thunderstorms or a freak snowstorm, Houston's extreme weather can make it seem futile to work so hard in our yards.

But then, we hear the rustle of leaves and see the oceans of fall mums at the local nursery center and our hope is renewed. Fall is almost here and the garden awaits. 
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Lorretta Ruggiero is a Houston Press freelance writer based in Cypress, Texas. She loves entertaining her family and friends with her food and sparkling wit. She is married to Classic Rock Bob and they have two exceptionally smart-aleck children.