Texas redbud

The unrelenting heat of summer has set in with no relief in sight until fall. With the hot weather, the garden is filled with tiny jewels gliding from flower to flower. Queens, swallowtails and sulphurs soar on summer zephyrs, filling the garden with splashes of color and the heart with joy.

A well-designed xeriscape plan will have a good mix of native and adapted plants that attract butterflies to your garden. Over the millennia, native plants have adapted to our soils and growing conditions. Once established, natives don’t require massive amounts of water. They tolerate the extremes of the weather. The plants have deep roots, leaves coated with waxes, oil glands, fur or other substances that retard evaporation. Some drop their leaves when stressed and re-leaf when conditions improve. Natives provide food for birds and the insect population.

Most people hear the word xeriscape and assume the landscape is composed of rocks and cactus. If you live in the eastern part of the state, dogwoods and magnolias would be considered appropriate trees for xeriscaping. 

Just because a plant is native to Texas doesn’t make it suitable for use in your area. Eastern redbuds will languish in our area while the Mexican redbud or Texas redbud will flourish. 

It’s important to know where a plant is native. A plant native to the east of you will require more water and some protection from the hot afternoon sun while a plant native to the west of you needs good drainage and lots of sun.

The soil in Bee County is alkaline dark clays, caliche and sands. Our topsoil is thin with caliche, a hard layer of calcium carbonate (lime). Calcium carbonate forms because the area receives low rainfall – not enough water to wash the calcium and salts through the soil. Calcareous soils, containing calcium carbonate, are alkaline. Native plants have adapted to that soil and will thrive.

Historically, this area was a sea of prairie grasses, wildflowers and prickly pear. Trees were found along the banks of creeks and rivers. Texas persimmon, soapberry, live oak, cedar elm, retama, huisache, pecan and bald cypress were among the trees growing in the area. 

Several things happened in the 1800s that changed the prairie to brush country. Settlers established farms, prairie fires diminished and grazing intensified. This allowed mesquite and cactus to flourish while the grasses decreased. When new settlers came to farm the rich black clays the land was more brush than prairie. 

With all that in mind, it makes sense to utilize native trees when planning a garden. Trees are an important part of your landscape. Shade in a hot summer is priceless. Trees planted on the south and west of a home will reduce energy costs. When we built our home, trees were located on the south and west side of the house. The first thing we did was plant trees in areas where we would need shade. We have been in the house almost 17 years, and those trees are now shading windows and protecting the house from strong north winds in winter. 

One of the most important things to consider when choosing trees for your landscape is diversity. We all love our live oaks but with oak wilt attacking old established tree populations, diversity in the landscape will insure the health of your trees. So far, oak wilt hasn’t been found in Bee County, but it is important to be prepared for that eventuality.

It is important to consider the four ‘rights’ of tree planting. Plant the right tree, in the right place, in the right way, at the right time of the year. 

As important as picking the right tree for your needs, where you plant it and how you plant it are equally important. A tree planted too close to the house will require constant trimming to keep it from damaging the roof. Its roots can crack a foundation or sidewalks. A tree is planted too close to electric lines can cause power outages. Among the many characteristics to consider is the tree’s potential for disease or insect problems. It is also important to know if the tree has fruit or nuts, flowers or excessive leaf drop. 

An experienced gardener will tell you planting a tree isn’t as simple as digging a hole and sticking the tree in it and expecting the best result. If you want your tree to reach its full potential don’t plant a $100 tree in a $10 hole! The hole is critical for establishing good tree root growth. 

Dig the hole two or three times larger in diameter than the current root ball – make sure it isn’t perfectly round – keeps the roots from circling. If you have clay soil and only dig a hole a little bigger than the root ball you will doom the tree to a slow death. It has the same effect as planting the tree in a giant cement pot – the roots circling and eventually strangling the tree. Plant the tree at the same depth as the root ball or an inch or two above to allow for settling.

Keep the soil you remove and break it up. Use it to backfill around the new tree with the native soil. Mix a little compost with native soil – no more than 10 percent. The tree needs to adapt to the soil it will be growing in so don’t add much in the way of amendments. Research has shown that trees grow better if you use the native soil that has been broken up instead of adding a lot of soil amendments. Be sure to pack soil in firmly around the roots to eliminate air pockets and water well. 

Make a temporary soil wall around the edge of your hole to allow water to remain near the root ball. Remove this wall after a year to encourage root growth beyond the original hole.

Apply 3 to 4 inches of mulch to help regulate the soil moisture and temperature. Mulch will keep the soil warmer in winter and cooler in summer. Mulch will help keep grass and weeds away that compete for water. In addition, it makes it much easier to mow around the new tree. 

Some excellent small, ornamental trees to consider adding to your landscape include Texas redbud, Texas mountain laurel, wild olive, ‘Little Gem’ magnolia, crape myrtle, desert willow, yaupon holly and vitex. If you must have an oak, consider Bur, Chinquapin, Shumard and improved varieties of live oak. Some other trees to consider include Dura Heat River Birch, Bosque elm, and Lacebark elm, and cedar elm. 

Selecting one or more of these trees will add beauty and value to your landscape while providing shelter and food to native insects and bird populations.

Happy gardening.

Texas Master Gardener Columnist: Down the Garden Path

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