Something silly (and serious) for y’all.
This article first appeared in the Austin American Statesman in 1996 but is still relevant today.
You bought a home–it cost a lot of money. Now you want a landscape that will enhance your home’s beauty, add value to your home, and be easy to maintain. Landscaping choices are an important part of the City’s Green Builder Program. By making good choices when you plant, you can save time, money and protect Austin’s beautiful natural environment.
Austin is unique; that’s why you live here, or got here just as fast as you could. But so are Austin’s soils–and not knowing your soil and the plants that will grow and thrive on your lot could be costly both in time and money. The Central Texas region consists of several soil and climate combinations which means that landscape decisions should be specific to your site.
Three distinct vegetation areas meet in Austin: the Edwards Plateau, the Blackland Prairie, and the Post Oak Savannah. Each of these areas has different soil types with different planting requirements. The native and adaptive plants (adaptive plants are non-native plants that thrive in this climate) that will thrive on these soils are also very different. Before you plant, take this tour of Austin soils types and choose your landscape to fit.
The Edwards Plateau is generally west of Mopac. This area features shallow soils with rolling hills and steep slopes. West Lake Hills, Oak Hill, and Rollingwood are representative communities. Commonly referred to as the beginning of the Texas Hill Country, the Plateau’s undeveloped areas are dominated by mesquites, oaks, and cedars (really junipers). When you choose a homesite in the Hill Country, take stock of the existing vegetation and develop a plan with your builder to protect it during construction. Avoid indiscriminate clearing of the land in this very ecologically-sensitive area. Limit fill only to that required to insure adequate drainage away from the foundation. Avoid cheap “sandy loam” fill. It is usually an infertile product referred to by landscapers as “red death.” Use a “landscapers mix” instead.
The majority of new plants in the landscape should be native or adaptive to the area. For trees, select Bur and Chinquapin oaks, cedar elm, Chinese pistache, Mexican buckeye, Mexican plum, Texas persimmon and Texas redbud. For shrubs, select Burford, Chinese, or yaupon holly, nandina, mountain laurel, yuccas, and native bunch grasses.
The Blackland Prairie is generally east of the Balcones Fault. Soils in this area are mainly deep and the terrain is gently sloping. Sunset Valley and Manchaca are right on the dividing line. The intersection of the Missouri Pacific and Southern Pacific rails at McNeil is just west of the line. Undeveloped homesites in this area were once farmland. Fertile areas near Del Valle and Govalle were used as truck gardens at the turn of the century and provided early Austinites with fresh produce. Existing vegetation may include grasses and scrub brush. Existing trees may consist of oaks, pecans, and some cedars. Pecans, oaks, and Texas ash are excellent selections for new landscapes. Some shrub choices include cherry laurel, Indian hawthorn, oleander, and Burford, Chinese, or yaupon holly.
The Post Oak Savannah is generally east of Austin. Indicators for this area are sandy, slightly acidic soil with post oaks. Some references include this area in the Blackland Prairie or in a more inclusive area referred to as the Cross Plains and Timbers, so plants from Blackland lists may be appropriate for your specific site. Some landscape plans for this area may include some of the selections from both the Blackland Prairie and the Edwards Plateau lists. This may seem a bit confusing, but look at your actual site. A city by city list of regions is included in the “must have” book, Native Texas Plants – Landscaping Region by Region, by Sally and Andy Wasowski (Gulf Publishing Company). Sally suggests starting “with the city you live in or live closest to. Next read about the possible choices for your area. Then go outside, look at your soil, and match it as best you can to one of those described for your area. The plants listed under your soil description are the ones most characteristic of that region and can serve as indicators.”
Each homesite should be evaluated for the dominant soil type, not by its location on a map. The above regions and soil types are general. Your site may be slightly different from your neighbor, both in soil and climate. If you are unsure about the type of soil, consider getting a soil analysis. This is a free service at some area nurseries, or contact your county Agricultural Extension Service.
Create zones in your landscape according to existing or improved soils. Group plants that have similar soil and water needs together. Keep high water use plants to a minimum and group these together to make a miniature oasis. These small distinct areas can be easily maintained if they are near the front or back door. Be aware of microclimates that exist even on your own property. New Braunfels author Scott Ogden writes in Gardening Success with Difficult Soils (Taylor Publishing), “Even the smallest gardens offer a series of microclimates around the house or grounds that favor various plants and enable a wider variety to be grown.” For example, reflected heat from walls or patios can create pockets of warmer temperatures for more tender plants, while plants exposed to cold north winds need to tolerate colder winter temperatures.
Native and adaptive plants thrive the best and are low maintenance. Low maintenance alternatives to traditional landscaping are becoming the norm. In Central Texas, with our hot, dry summers, native and adaptive plants require very little water to thrive. In the 1980′s, the word Xeriscape was coined from the Greek word “xeros” for dry. Xeriscape is defined as “quality landscaping that conserves water and protects the environment.” It is not a style of gardening, but a method of gardening.
Recently, a neighbor of an award-winning Xeriscape commented, “I’ve never seen a ‘zeroscape’ that I liked.” What he didn’t realize was that almost any landscape he found to his liking could be a Xeriscape. His neighbor simply preferred a more natural style. A very formal landscape, or even an oriental garden, could be a Xeriscape.
Xeriscapes depend on seven basic principles. By using these principles, you can reduce yard maintenance, use less chemicals and synthetic fertilizer, and spend more time enjoying your yard.
Planning and Design. Developing a plan is the first and most important step in a successful Xeriscape. Consider the regional and microclimatic conditions of the site; existing vegetation and topographical conditions; how you intend to use your landscape; and the zoning or grouping of plants by their water needs.
Soil Analysis. Soils will vary from site to site and even within a given site. Be aware of the acid/alkaline state of your soil and what nutrients are lacking.
Appropriate Plant Selection. Your design will determine the overall effect of the landscape. The actual selection of plants should come from those species that are native or adaptive to your site. Deviation from the appropriate selections creates the need for more soil amendments, more maintenance, and different watering schedules. Think low maintenance.
Practical Turf Areas. Lawn grass usually covers more of the landscape than is needed for entertaining or recreation. For a more interesting and manageable yard, use turf as a fill-in plant. Increase the area of decks, porous paving, paths, and mulched planting beds to reduce turf. Be sure to select drought-tolerant grass varieties such as Buffalograss and Bermudagrass in the sunny lawn areas.
Efficient Irrigation. Water infrequently, but when you do, water deeply. Plants and grasses develop deeper, drought-tolerant roots when forced to find deeper moisture. Frequent, light watering results in shallow roots, leading to water stress during periods of drought.
Use of Mulches. A 3″-4″ layer of organic material should cover all exposed soil areas. Replenish it twice a year. Mulch retains moisture, controls soil temperature, discourages weeds, and prevents erosion.
Appropriate Maintenance. You can’t totally eliminate maintenance, but by following the first six principles, you can reduce time spent on maintaining your yard. After they are established, Xeriscapes require less fertilizer, chemicals, and less water. Your neighbors will admire your landscape and may not even realize it’s a Xeriscape!
You can have a beautiful, efficient landscape that is friendly to the environment. Logical landscape choices will insure our children will have a cleaner, greener planet. The future depends on you. For more information about Xeriscape, call the Austin Xeriscape Garden Club at 370-9505, or see the Xeriscape page on Sustainable Sources.
This article first appeared in the Austin American Statesman.
by John Gleason
As the weather turns warmer, landscapes are breaking their winter dormancy and waking up to a powerful thirst. Although the current drought has been especially tough on ranchers and farmers, homeowners are to feeling the pinch too. Many are turning to local irrigation contractors, who are scrambling to fulfill an overload of requests for sprinkler system installations and repairs. Used efficiently, automatic watering systems are a powerful tool for dry weather. However, you don’t need a sprinkler system to reduce drought-stress in your landscape. By following these tips you can conserve precious water and save money.
Don’t make the mistake of watering too often and not deeply enough. This type of watering causes plants to grow shallow roots that are stressed easily during dry or hot weather. Water less frequently, yet when you do, thoroughly saturate the roots of your plants. Then let the soil dry out again. This encourages a deeper, more substantial root system that tolerates drought better. Rather than watering on a set schedule, keep an eye on your plants, and let them tell you when to water.To saturate your soil without creating lots of runoff, use the “water and soak” method. Runoff is the water that “runs off” your property because it’s being applied faster than your soil can accept it. Most soils in Austin are clay, which admits water only very slowly. Slopes make the problem worse. To get the water deep down into your soil, use repeated short watering cycles, followed by a “soak-in” period. This method may initially be a bit more demanding, but less frequent irrigation overall means you save time, energy, and water in the long-term. Consider using drip irrigation in your beds since this type of system has a slower application rate than spray.
Purchase a moisture meter and soil analysis for your landscape. They will each provide you with valuable information. A moisture meter is tool with a soil probe and a dial which indicates your soil’s wetness or dryness. They cost about $15, and they’re available at many local hardware and garden supply centers. Use it frequently to monitor not only if there is soil moisture present, but if so, at what depth.An analysis of your soil will tell you about it’s texture and chemistry, and will recommend soil amendments that are important to your plants’ health. There are many good soil labs; the least expensive is offered by the Texas Agricultural Extension Service, which has an agent in every Texas county. Costs vary from $10 to $30, depending on the level of analysis. Refer to your local Extension agent for instructions and a soil collection bag.
Mind Your Soil
Most soils could use the addition of large amounts of organic matter. A soil enriched with organic material has good water-holding capacity and encourages large, vigorous root systems. A good, cheap source of organic matter is home-made compost. If you’re not already composting, start recycling those kitchen and garden wastes into what organic gardeners call “black gold”.If you’re creating a new landscape area, till in lots of organic material to create a rich loamy soil. For existing areas of your yard, spread a thin layer of compost on your lawn and beds, then water lightly.
Go easy on the chemical fertilizers, especially during extended dry weather. Consider using organic alternatives such as ‘Dillo Dirt and compost. While lawns occasionally need to be fertilized to stay healthy, too much fertilizer means you have to water more. Do not fertilize prior to rainfall! That drizzle that you expected could turn into a thundershower and send the fertilizer into your local creek, pollute the water and harm wildlife. Use the “water and soak” method after you fertilize.
When mowing your lawn, use “Don’t Bag It” principles. By not bagging your grass clippings, you save time and add organic material to your soil. Mowing height and frequency should be set to cut off no more than one-third the height of the grass. Taller grass develops a deeper root system and shades the soil surface.Mulch can be any material applied to the surface of the soil to act as a barrier to retain moisture, insulate the soil, and control weeds. Mulching is the easiest and one of the most effective methods to slow down rainwater and hold it in your landscape. Mulch also keeps the soil surface cooler and reduces heat stress on your plants. Mulch aids in conserving water loss by reducing competition from weeds for available moisture. Organic mulch also enriches your soil as it decomposes.
With a little research, you may be able to locate a free source of mulch. Check with your neighbors or a local landscape contractor for bags of grass clippings and leaves. Some municipalities and homeowner associations offer the shredded wood leftover from land clearing.
Do the Math
Drought-tolerant landscaping conserves water, saves you money, and protects the environment . To learn more about these and other drought protection techniques, check with local landscape professionals and consider joining Austin’s Xeriscape Garden Club. Xeriscape is “quality landscaping that conserves water and protects the environment.” Call the Austin Xeriscape Garden Club at 370-9505 for more information. When you conserve water, you support a cause with community-wide dividends. It may seem a big jump to be talking of regional benefits in the same breath as how we landscape our property. But the two are intimately linked through our consumption patterns – and it is only by changing our own lives and habits that we can begin to protect our environment.
At the time this article was written (1996) John Gleason was a landscape architect with the City of Austin and was president of the Xeriscape Garden Club.
In an unfortunately too common incident of bureaucratic lack of common sense, an Atlanta area microbrewer 5 Seasons had to switch back to city water after officials couldn’t find any regulations on rainwater use in their books and concluded it must therefore be illegal.
According to our source the brewery “could have dug a well on the site of the former stockyard without even having the water tested” but their rainwater, which has been tested and passed with flying colors can’t be used until they receive official blessings to do so.
Support these guys if you’re able. They’re trying to do the right thing.
We’re happy to report that Dick Peterson, a 15+ year veteran of Austin Green Building who spent a fair bit of that time advocating, educating, and advancing rainwater harvesting in Central Texas has agreed to join us in the Harvested Rainwater section.
You can also subscribe to the Q&A RSS feed at the top right corner of the Harvested Rainwater page.
Clean Air Gardening
Compost bins, rain barrels and other eco friendly lawn and garden products online at
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