As water woes force homeowners to rethink their landscaping, “nativescaping” is catching on. Two Georgetown residents show just how practical, easy, and gorgeous nativescapes can be.
“It was nothing but weeds and one rosebush.”
In 1995, when Winnie Bowen bought her Georgetown house, that was the state of her backyard. She could easily have replaced ugly weeds with a plain green lawn like the others in her neighborhood, but Winnie, who’s seen the world as a seasoned traveler, took a different path. She hired a man to shape the bones of a new yard: meandering crushed granite paths studded with natural stepping stones, curving beds rimmed with sturdy steel edging, and a slight berm. Then she got to work planting a yard that could survive while she was away—sometimes for weeks—and still look good. “I made some mistakes,” she confesses, but today her backyard blooms mostly with native, drought-tolerant plants.
After Winnie became a Master Naturalist in 2010, she set her sights on transforming her all-grass front yard in the same way. Today, the 82-year-old enjoys a completely grass-free yard that requires little maintenance other than a session each spring and fall for raking, trimming, and adding a little mulch. Other than that, she says, “it takes an hour a week” at most to keep the yard looking beautiful in the summer. “You have to stay flexible,” Winnie adds. “Trees grow, sun becomes shade. If you make a mistake, simply dig the plant up and move it, give it away, or toss it.”
Randy Pensabene, a member of the Williamson County chapter of the Texas Native Plant Society, moved into the Sun City home she shares with her husband in 2005. By 2006 she was ripping out the water guzzling, cookie-cutter green lawn, invasive exotic plants, and small, rounded shrubs Randy calls “meatballs.”
Now, her yard boasts dozens of native plants with colors, scents, and textures that delight year round. And, says Randy, “I’ll match my water bill against anyone’s [with a yard of] rocks and cactus.” The Pensabenes’ water bill averages 5,000 gallons per month over a year (according to the EPA, American families average 400 gallons per day—that’s about 12,000 gallons per month). Native plants, Randy points out, “will get leggy and not bloom as much if they get too much water.” They don’t require pesticides or fertilizers, either. “I may throw around a little compost now and then,” she says, but that’s it.
As water usage in Texas punches political hot buttons, more and more homeowners are looking into nativescaping—transforming their water-craving, high-maintenance lawns into drought-tolerant, low-maintenance yards using native plants. Winnie and Randy demonstrate that homeowners can achieve eye-popping beauty and design delightfully personalized yards.
Considering a makeover for your yard? Here are how-to tips for putting in a yard that will require minimal water and maintenance yet delight the eye.
1. Remove all invasive exotic plants. Invasives include plants like Chinaberry trees, English ivy, Japanese honeysuckle, vincas, and wisterias. For a list of such plants, go to www.srs.fs.usda.gov/pubs/gtr/gtr_srs062.
2. Draw a plan. Randy used SmartDraw software to map her entire yard to scale, and she updates it as she adds new plants or entire beds to her yard. Hand-drawn plans work fine, too. “There’s no need to hire an architect,” Winnie says. “Just draw a simple design and stay flexible” because yards change over time as trees mature, sunny spots become shady, etc.
3. Remove as much grass as possible. “Consider adding more plant beds, sidewalks, or patios to reduce your grass areas because grass is high water use and high maintenance. Grass is a barren monoculture with no benefit to wildlife,” Randy says.
4. Focus on one bed at a time. It’s easiest to clear the entire bed, but any healthy native or non-invasive plants can be saved. Then work compost and crushed (decomposed) granite into the top six inches or into the planting hole if you’re not clearing the bed. The best time to prepare beds, Randy says, is during the winter.
5. Choose your plants carefully. “Read about a plant and make sure you’re putting it in a place where it’ll be happy,” Randy advises. Consider each plant’s need for sun and shade, proper soil, and room to mature. Check out the Williamson County Native Plant Society’s website for lists and recommendations. Randy also recommends Native Texas Plants: Landscaping Region by Region by Sally Wasowski and Andy Wasowski. “If you hire a landscaper,” Randy warns, “be sure you tell them you want only native plants,” and if you or they are consulting the City of Austin Grow Green Guide, then read it carefully; the plants recommended are not all native to Texas, and some are considered invasive.
6. Put in the big stuff, like trees and shrubs, first. They provide the overall structure. Then fill in the bed with perennials. Randy recommends planting trees, shrubs, and woody perennials in the fall to begin establishing a root system before our summer heat hits.
7. Even native plants need water in order to get established. Some will also need a little water during our hottest months to look their best. You can find out about a native plant’s water, soil, and light needs at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center website. “Not all native plants are ‘zero’ water,” Randy cautions. “It depends on their native habitat.”
Both Winnie and Randy used native plants that are readily available in our area. Here are some of Randy’s favorites:
- Agarita (Mahonia trifoliolata)
- Carolina Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens)
- Datura (Datura wrightii)
- Dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor)
- Gregg’s mistflower (Conoclinium greggii)
- Evergreen sumac (Rhus virens)
- Esperanza (Tacoma stans, Tacoma stans var. angustata)
- Four-nerve daisy (Tetraneuris scaposa)
- Mexican buckeye (Ungnadia speciosa)
- Texas betony (Stachys coccinea)
- Texas lantana (Lantana urticoides)
- Yaupon holly “Pride of Houston” (Ilex vomitoria)
The Native Plant Society of Texas (NPSOT), Williamson County Chapter, meets the second Thursday of each month, 7:00 to 8:30 PM, at the Georgetown Public Library, 402 West 8th St., Georgetown, TX, 78626. Meetings are free and open to the public.
The Native Landscape Certification Program is a series of classes developed and taught by NPSOT that teach best practices for native plant landscape and habitat preservation and introduction. To find a class, go to npsot.org/wp/nlcp.