Gardening in Central Texas can be a real challenge, especially in periods of extreme drought. Add to that the weeks on end with temperatures above 100F, and it’s almost enough to make even the most dedicated gardener throw in the trowel.
So what’s the answer? If you can’t beat Mother Nature, join her. Most seasoned gardeners will tell you that using a variety of native and well-adapted plants will consistently give you the best results under difficult conditions. These plants are used to surviving with what nature provides and don’t need as much watering or maintenance.
That is the crux of Xeriscaping. Not “zero” scaping, as some mistakenly call it, but using xeric plants and water-wise practices to create a landscape that will flourish in our extremely hot and dry conditions.
It can be so much more than using only cacti and agaves in a rock bed – unless that’s the look you want — there are many lush green and brightly blooming xeric natives from which to choose.
Xeriscaping, however, does not mean never having to water or care for plants – it means developing a water-efficient landscape through the use of good planning, appropriate plant and lawn selection, efficient irrigation, use of mulch and proper maintenance.
A friend told me last week that she thinks of gardening as an event, not a process. Plan, dig, plant and you’re all done. She appreciates a beautiful landscape, but doesn’t want to get her hands in the dirt to create or maintain it. Like her, many people simply don’t want to spend all their free time maintaining and watering when the going gets tough in the summer.
Increasing concern about the depletion of our aquifers and the threat to our water supply and quality is also driving the growing use of xeriscaping.
Texas’ fast-growing population and historic droughts are straining the limits of our water supply in Texas. In Austin and surrounding communities, water rationing has become commonplace in the hottest summer months.. When availability of quality water for human consumption becomes an issue, many Texans look for ways to conserve and to save money on their monthly water bill. Among them, using xeric gardening methods can significantly reduce consumption.
So, what are the steps to developing a xeric landscape that will flourish in our extremely hot and dry conditions?
Seven principles of Xeriscaping
- Good planning
- Soil analysis
- Appropriate plant and lawn selection
- Practical lawn choices
- Efficient Irrigation
- Use of mulch
- Proper maintenance
Planning is important. Research the best plants and turf to use. Before you begin – think about the water needs of your landscape. If you plan well, you can cluster plants with low water needs. And have your soil tested to determine if additional minerals or fertilizer might make your plants or soil healthier. Add necessary amendments and compost when building beds.
Choose native and well-adapted plants
Reducing the amount of turf grass in your landscape and expanding use of native plants can significantly reduce water consumption. Native plants are also generally less susceptible to disease and harmful insects and have less fertilizer or special soil needs. There are plenty of xeric plants from which to choose – trees, shrubs, perennials, groundcovers and grasses — that can provide your garden with color and blooms all year.
A few of the popular native and well-adapted plants for our area include:
- Gregg’s Mist Flower
- Desert Willow
- Pride of Barbados
- Texas Sage
- Blackfoot Daisy
Excellent resources for finding more xeric zone 8 plants include:
Many methods used to irrigate landscapes are very inefficient. Most sprinklers – both automated systems and hose-end, waste a great deal of water to evaporation, particularly when run during the day. Watering is best done in the very early morning hours to prevent scorch and to minimize evaporation – even before sun-up for early birds or those with automatic systems.
Overwatering is also a problem. Overwatering encourage plants to keep shallow roots. Longer, less frequent, deep watering, develops deep roots away from surface heat that will require less water.
Drip irrigation is an excellent option to reduce water use. By keeping the water next to the plants and using little pressure, there is almost no evaporation and the soil is able to absorb and use all the water, whereas sprinklers often saturate soil and the water runs off the landscape.
Collecting rainwater (when we are lucky enough to get it) is another way to conserve. From simple rain barrels placed under downspouts to large commercial systems, using this “free” water is always a good choice, especially since plants prefer natural rainwater to tap water that is chemically-treated.
One turf is not like the other
Lawns can drink up a lot of water. Truly xeric landscaping plans minimize the amount of turf in the landscape. For Central Texas, Bermuda, Zoysia and Buffalo grass are the most drought-tolerant. Bermuda and Zoysia are commonly used in area lawns.
Buffalo grass doesn’t produce a manicured lawn – it is more like a sparse native prairie grass that goes dormant in the summer, turning brown. It grows to 6 inches high and should be left to grow for the most part, unlike more traditional turf grasses. Because it is sparse, it is also highly susceptible to weeds.
Grass should be mowed high, allowing the longer blades to help protect the roots from the heat and to hold in moisture when there is some. Grass should be mowed when it is about 1/3 higher than you want it to be. Bermuda should be mowed at 1.5 to 2.5 inches, Buffalo Grass at 4 inches, and Zoysia at 2 inches. Clippings left on the lawn help return nitrogen to the soil, so they don’t need to be collected.
Keeping roots cool
Mulching beds is an easy way to help insulate plants, keeping soil temperatures lower and cutting down on evaporation. There are a variety of good mulches from which to choose, including: Native Texas Hardwood mulch (highly recommended), shredded cedar, pine needles, wood chips, other shredded barks. Several inches of mulch should be applied to ensure sufficient insulation.
Now, maintain it
Proper pruning, weeding and fertilizing will help keep your landscape healthy. There are many organic fertilizers and pest control options for problems that may arise in the garden, rather than chemical options that can contaminate our ground water. Check with local nurseries for good organic choices.
For more information, check out the City of Austin’s Grow Green Program — an extensive water-wise public education program. Grow Green offers an extensive selection of free gardening how-to materials throughout the Austin area. Local nurseries carry the program’s free fact sheets and the very popular Native and Adapted Plant Guide that includes 200 recommended plants that will thrive in Central Texas.