Monday, August 22, 2011

Beat the Heat: Umbrella Gardening

It’s August in Texas and it’s hot. Like, melt your flip-flops to the pavement hot.

Dorris - the temperature is so high in Texas in August her flip flops melt to the pavement.

I’ve lived in Texas most of my life, so you think I’d be use to it, but oh no, as we creep from June into July each year, I find myself disturbed by the ability to water small plants by just hovering over them as sweat drips off the end of my nose. I think the heat actually kills the brain cells responsible for remembering how hot it gets here. Seriously.

We beat the heat by staying indoors and wearing out the down arrow on our thermostats. We try to keep our plants alive by drowning them each morning, but weeks of hundred degree temperatures make them brown and crispy, no matter how much water we waste.

So, how do you keep your plants alive during the hottest part of the year in Texas? Plant umbrellas. Yes, really. Umbrellas are gardening magic – think of them as cheap, instant trees. Look, we all know that trees provide the best kind of shade, but we don’t always have room to plant a tree and if we do plant one, we still have to wait years for it to get big enough to do anything. Take my back yard, for example. I have trees and I still have shade shortage issues.

I have one Big Tree:

Dorris - has on large shade tree.

And one Little Tree:

Dorris - has one small tree (no shade yet).

Little Tree doesn’t shade anything yet. Big Tree does a great job shading the porch, but most of my annuals and herbs are subject to the Evil Sun of Doom from noon until sunset. The solution? I planted umbrellas instead of trees. Not only is this a great way to recycle a beat-up patio umbrella, it works for everything from a vegetable garden to a balcony pot.

How exactly do you ‘plant’ umbrellas? There are many options. You can purchase an umbrella stand, but they can be pricey. A better (cheaper) option is to fasten lengths of PVC to any stable structure in your yard or on your patio (fence, deck railing, raised herb bed, etc. ) using some fence brackets.

Fasten umbrellas to raised beds or fences using a fence bracket and some PVC.

If you live in an apartment with a balcony rail, try using those beach or golf umbrellas that have built in clamps used to anchor them to chairs. I have to credit Mom for this idea. Her entire garden is in containers on the west-facing deck of her townhome. She fastened three foot lengths of PVC pipe at regular intervals along her deck railing and went dumpster diving for old patio umbrellas.

Another option is to make your own umbrella pot out of quick set concrete mix, an old fiberglass pot and PVC. These umbrella pots are pretty simple to make – take a gander at the illustration below and you should get the general idea. It’s important to note that my example is an umbrella pot that contains plants that do well in standing water (e.g. water iris and other pond and bog plants).

Make a stand to hold your umbrella using and old flower pot, PVC, and quick set concrete.

If you want to plant annuals or other greenery that requires good drainage, stick a few wooden dowels (or stakes, or anything that will leave a hole) in the concrete, being sure to remove them after it firms up a little – don’t leave them in! Another option is to skip the planting part altogether and use a bag of decorative rock or other interesting bits of nature (lava rock, sea glass, shells, etc.) to make the top of the pot look pretty. I have also been known to spray paint my PVC.

You can always go the tree route, but here’s a little cost comparison for you:

Solution                                             Cost     Time
1’ (shade area) tree sapling                $100    years
9’ (shade area) tree sapling                $600    days
9’ patio umbrella + materials             $50      hours

I have umbrellas over more than ½ my garden from June through August. So buy a much smaller sapling and go with a cheaper, faster solution to our hot Texas summers while you’re waiting on that little guy to grow.

Oh, one other great thing about umbrellas – they make handy shade for people, too.

Dorris - sitting under an umbrella on her flagstone porch, enjoying a tasty beverage.

Tricky Details:
  • Make sure the PVC you use is big enough for the umbrella pole to fit inside (it’s an easy mistake to make)
  • High winds a problem? Drill a hole through both the PVC and the umbrella pole and slip a large nail in to keep the umbrella from blowing away.
  • Can you just dig a hole and put the PVC in the ground? Of course! But be sure you have the area surveyed by Texas811 ( for underground utilities before you dig down more than a few inches.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

FAQs About Dorris

Who’s Dorris?

I’m an older gal who plants stuff and spends a lot of time in the garden. I live in a house in one of those densely populated suburbs just north of Big D. I have a twenty-two pound cat named Harry and a few dozen goldfish (who think they’re koi – but don’t tell them that) in a small pond in my back yard. I’m a third generation Texas gardener who paid attention when Mom and Granny said, ‘you can’t grow that here’, tried not to cry when they were right, and tried not to say ‘haha!’ too loud when what I planted survived.

What’s in this Blog?

Ramblings about my garden or Texas gardening related topics, including some of the funny things that happen to me when I go outside. Also, since this the internet and apparently plain text blogging <insert horrified gasp here> isn’t enough anymore, I’ve added my own cutesy illustrations of me in and around my garden. 

Sometimes, funny things happen to other people in their gardens and they tell me about it. Or they want my advice and invite me over for an ‘intensive gardening discussion’ which typically involves copious amounts of alcohol and cussing about Texas weather. You’ll probably see some of their stories here too.

Why did you start this Blog?

I’ve spent the last few decades trying to get stuff to grow in that black clay from hellebore we North Texan’s call dirt. Family, friends and neighbors started asking me for gardening advice a few years ago, so I thought I’d start a blog so I could write this mulch down somewhere and the next time someone asks me why all the leaves (and twigs, and stems…) fell off their Hibiscus (which they planted in the middle of their yard with no shade and no compost, in AUGUST) I can just link ‘em to this.

Help! I’m new to Texas – what should I plant here?

As I blog, I'll try to mention plants that do well here in the DFW area. At some point, I might make up a master list. In the meantime, you can always check out the Texas A & M Texas Superstar Plant list here: for a list of plants that typically do very well here. (IMHO, these are more like guidelines for selecting plants, rather than rules. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you the difference between a New Gold ™ Lantana and a Trailing Lantana if you held a pitchfork to my head – just pick up the thing that has the word “lantana” somewhere on the label, and you’ll be fine).

I plant stuff for two reasons: 1) because my mother, grandmother, aunt or neighbor gave it to me/told me to plant it (FREE! – this is my favorite option), or 2) some greenery caught my eye while wandering through my local  gourmet nursery and the little darling was so bad-aspen, I have to have one (or ten…).