First wave of summer casualties

Crispy may be a good thing when it comes to fried chicken. Not so much for plants. It’s the one thing you don’t ever want your plants to be. Unfortunately, it’s something that happens every summer around here. Usually it’s in spite of my best efforts; sometimes it’s because I didn’t try hard enough.  But survival isn’t for the weak in a climate where daytime temperatures in the summer routine climb above the 100° mark, there is no rain at all for a good four or five months, and any water plants receive is doled out by me. What’s more, I like to push the limits of what plants should even be tried here, which in itself ups the odds of failure. But taking these calculated risks is half the fun, even if I lose a few here and there.

So without further ado let’s look the poor suckers who have earned their RIP this summer. We’ll start in the backyard with the casualty that hurts the most: my bird’s nest banksia (Banksia baxteri). I bought it at the Ruth Bancroft Garden’s 2014 Black Friday Sale and it had been in the ground since December 2014. I’m not 100% sure what ultimately did it in, but I suspect it didn’t get enough water. As you can see, I made the rookie mistake of not mulching it properly.


Banksia baxteri

The Dymondia margaretae that replaced the lawn in the backyard is doing fine in many spots but we’ve had more failures than I anticipated. Again, I blame this on a lack of water. I will run the sprinklers every 4 days instead of every 5. After all, this “lawn” was just planted this spring, and I should have allowed more time for it become established. I will need to buy a few more flats in the fall to fill in.


Dymondia margaretae

The Agave victoria-reginae is doing just fine; they’re virtually indestructible. The Daphne odora behind it not so much. Daphnes are a finnicky lot anyway, but this one was doing so well. It was a special variegated cultivar, Daphne odora ‘Maejima’, a Valentine’s Day present to my wife in 2014. Cause of death: lack of water, exacerbated by a lack of mulch. I really need to take a refresher class in mulching; I tend to forget that not every plant I have is a succulent that is able to make do on very little water.


Daphne odora ‘Maejima’

The last two casualties in the backyard that I want to show you are both running bamboos. They’d been hanging on to dear life for years now, surviving on an ever shrinking amount of water. This summer they finally reached their tipping point. RIP, my friends. I will miss you.


Sasaella bitchuensis


Phyllostachys aurea 'Koi'

While in the backyard the primary cause of death was a lack of water, the casualties in the front yard were simply not able to handle the harsh temperatures. The two new succulent mounds that replaced the front lawn are mulched with light-colored rock, which reflects a lot of heat. Most plants I chose have no problems with this inhospitable situation but others weren’t able to cope. There’s really nothing I can do, other than pick plants that are better able to withstand the (reflected) heat. This problem will diminish to a degree as the plants get bigger but for now plant selection is key.


Agave × gracilis


Sedum nussbaumerianum


Delosperma nubigenum


Agave schidigera ‘Black Widow’. I think the pup was just too small and I didn’t acclimate it slowly enough. In theory, this species should be able to handle the heat.


Yes, there is (or rather, was) something there: Verbena lilacina. The plant, a small seedling, may simply not have been strong enough. I will try again with a more established plant.


Aloe dhufarensis. Actually, this one is very much alive. Tricked you!


Not alive: beach primrose (Camissoniopsis cheiranthifolia)

The next one is a bit of a mystery. This is an Old Man of the Andes cactus (Oreocereus trollii). It stood proudly until one day I found it leaning precariously. Now it’s completely flopped over.


The base is soft instead of turgid. In spite of it only receiving water every 10 days, it managed to rot. Once the heat lets up and I feel like gardening again, I’ll remove it and replace it with a closely related Oreocereus celsianus (just because I have one that I don’t know what else to do with). I will, however, make sure this spot stays relatively dry when the drip irrigation runs.


Overall, though, I’m quite pleased with how nice the mounds look in the dog days of summer.


And since I prefer to end this post on a positive note, here’s one more thing that pleases me: The palo blanco tree I planted in the larger of the two succulent mounds—an acacia from Sonora, Mexico (now Mariosousa willardiana, previously Acacia willardiana)—is beginning to shed its juvenile bark. Underneath is the white adult bark which, in turn, will also peel off on a regular basis, creating the otherworldly effect I so love. Check out these palo blancos at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona to see what I mean.


While it’s far too hot to do any meaningful gardening—although I did plant an eyelash grass (Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’) and a red buckwheat (Eriogonum grande var. rubescens) this morning—I’m starting to accumulate replacement plants so I’ll be ready when the weather starts to cool off at the end of September.


  1. Your heat and next to no summer fog are a much less forgiving environment for getting new plantings established. So glad we get fog here, as I'm not fastidious about keeping up with watering. I'm glad I've made the effort to check on client's gardens more frequently, and have been making adjustments both up and down on watering amounts/frequencies based on what I see. As I have previously been trying to use the least water possible, adjustments have been mostly up in July and August. Adjusting down back in June showed me how the Anigozanthus in particular weren't as happy.

    1. I need to pick your brain some day about kangaroo paws. There has to be a way to grow them successfully here in Davis. I think it has to do with watering them at the right time, in the right amount...

  2. Thank you for sharing about the things that did not work out. I have had quite a few of those myself and though I am sorry for your losses, it is nice to know that I am not the only one. (I am in Los Angeles and it has been HOT.) Like you, I am finding out which plants are the toughest or best-suited for my microclimate. Being stubborn, I will try again with some of my favorites before giving up for good.

    1. I'm with you, Rachel. While I'm fairly realistic, I don't give up easily either. Plus, you learn from each failure.

  3. I worried about reflected heat when I added a stone top-dressing to my street-side succulent bed. I've been lucky there but the difference may be that my succulent bed is in full sun for only a portion of the day. I tried to be philosophical about the losses I experienced following our June heatwave but I wasn't as good at that as you are. Removing the dead helped some, even if it left empty spots. I responded to that first heatwave by stepping up my watering. I've been so miserly with water over the past year (at first foolishly expecting that El Nino would fill the breach) I think I left my plants ill-prepared to handle a heatwave that awful. However, the good thing about being miserly is that I've accumulated a substantial credit in my water budget and I've been drawing on it heavily for the past 6 weeks in an effort to help my remaining plants get through the rest of the summer.

    Bury the dead, Gerhard, and plan for fall!

    1. The effects of reflected heat are often underestimated. When it comes to inorganic mulch like rock, it's a fine line between heaping on enough to keep the roots cool and prevent moisture from evaporating and baking the plants above.

      The weather is getting more extreme, we simply need to adapt. But from what I know following your blog, you're way ahead of most people when it comes to saving (and storing) water. Don't feel bad for opening the faucet a little more now.

  4. Ugh. Brown is a color but not one to love when it means the plants are dead. You're a brave man for sharing though, and I think posts like this are invaluable for new gardeners to see. Even the seasoned pros lose plants!

    After a less than hot summer all of a sudden were facing back to back weeks with temps approaching 100, and no rain of course. I've been a lazy gardener this summer so my pants do not have a nice bank of moisture to draw from. We shall see how they do...

    1. Plants die, that's just a fact of life. And even though some losses are harder to take than others, I'm generally OK with it. More opportunities to tweak things...

  5. Ouch. Like that you photographed in the harshest sunlight for added effect! Although we had a bit of a dry spell earlier, mostly the summer has been pretty wet here in STL -- which means steamy. Can't relate to the dry, but everybody can relate to dead plants!

    1. Yeah, I took most of these pictures in the late afternoon when it was particularly toasty.

      No steam here, and for that I'm thankful.

  6. I was sad to see that Banksia corpse Gerhard! My Phylica from the Bancroft sale in spring was a victim of my stingy watering this summer.

    1. That's a real bummer because I was going to get a Phyllica pubescens myself. Did it require more water than you thought, or were you simply too stingy?

    2. More water than I thought ..I was afraid I would overwater it so I with held and it only took one 90+ degree day . Corpus delecti.

  7. Fall planting after the first rains would be my suggestion for ideal season to plant out Anigozanthus in hotter summer locations. Also planting with well drained but moisture retentive soil, and never let young non-rooted-in young plants get moisture stressed, they hate it. So getting them well established under cooler growing conditions really helps. Perhaps planting next to large rocks which would help shade the soil plus retain ground moisture would help. In Davis, probably a bit of dappled shade at mid-day would be beneficial.

    Lastly, never start off with a nursery plant that looks to have been water stressed, it will definitely already have lost roots. They like regular more mesic soil conditions, and I find new flower stalks get crispy and abort flowers if drought stressed. Also, if they don't get good air circulation or foliage receives spray irrigation, watch for black ink spot fungus on foliage. Remove it and thin out older infected foliage occasionally to keep it from taking over.

    My first attempts with Kangaroo Paws as container plants was constant failure, I let them water stress between waterings and they never recovered. A. flavidus cultivars that are the taller ones are the easiest to cultivate in my opinion.

    1. David, that's a million for the info. I'll use it as a roadmap in the fall.

      Yes, it's the tall A. flavidus cultivars I'm after. The UC Davis Arboretum has massed plantings of chartreuse A. flavidus along the banks of Putah Creek. The last time I was there they looked insanely happy. I surmised it might be because the roots can get water from the creek if they so desire. I think my mistake has been to underwater. Kangaroo paws are definitely not as "drought-tolerant" as they've been made out to be.

  8. Sorry to see you lost the Banksia. Such a beautiful plant.

    The Eriogonum grande rubescens here could not handle our Big Broil, which killed it.

    Aloe dhufarensis here has been perfectly happy with an extra blast of reflected heat from the street--it didn't seem to like winter much, even though it was a very dry winter here.


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