A Sahara dust storm is crossing the ocean, heading our way. This isn’t an unusual occurrence, dust storms cross the ocean most years. There is a positive to the dust – no hurricanes while it crosses the ocean. Of course, the dust reminds me of our years in West Texas, lots of dust and very a different type of gardening.

I always thought we were dry until we moved to Alpine, and I learned what dry really is. With rainfall of 13 inches in a good year, it was important to plant smart. I found out how important it was to choose plants that could adapt to the conditions because water wasn’t cheap. I’m still trying to plant smart – we are always going into or coming out of a drought. The South Texas region is known as the Wild Horse Desert. 

Adequate supply of high quality water has become a critical issue for the future prosperity of Texas. Urban areas use between 40 and 60 percent of the water supply for landscape and garden watering. Water is used to maintain traditionally high water-demanding landscapes of turf – or is applied inefficiently. We have to do better.

With the redesign of the garden, I went back to the basics, incorporating the fundamentals principles of a xeriscape landscape. Xeriscape is a philosophy that incorporates the land, the climate, what grows in your area and how you will use your landscape. When planning a water-wise landscape, it’s important to consider the mature trees, buildings, driveways, walks and other existing vegetation. 

There are seven principal steps to achieving a landscape that will thrive even in a drought. Most important, study the land and come up with a plan. When the house was being built, I would come and sit on the grounds, studying how the sun traveled across the trees on the lot. I did a sketch showing where the house would be and added mature trees. Added to the sketch was the driveway, water well, utility lines and septic lines. Over the years, fencing, a well house, pool, greenhouse and playhouse have been added to the sketch. It was easy to site all of these additions since we had the initial sketch showing where everything underground was located. 

With the redesign, it was time to look over the sketch and reevaluate how we are using the garden today. All the major shade is in the front of the lot. The garden was designed where we could take advantage of that shade and still have privacy. 

It has been the site of our annual family gatherings, Easter egg hunts and numerous other events under those beautiful mature trees in between the lush planting beds. 

With the lock-down, we are spending more time in the sitting area each afternoon and using the pool. So the basic design works well for us. Major change needed – the garden paths needed widening and overgrown plantings thinned.

The beds were designed where plantings provided privacy so we could take advantage of the shade. Colorful shrubs and blooming perennials that require little water were planted on the far edge along the street. The garden wraps around the west side of the house providing a space for the greenhouse and the well house. Plantings and structures were placed to provide privacy from the neighbors. This gives us the ability to enjoy the sitting garden and still have privacy. 

To reduce the work load, I used natives and plants that have adapted to our area. Plants that require little effort, because the purpose of the garden is for me to be able to take care of it and enjoy it without spending all my time working in it. That has become more important as the garden and I age!

The second step was to analyze the soil. The soil on the lot was thin and needed major help when the garden was started. Soil in South Texas lacks organic matter. I brought in a dump truck load of composted top soil to start the planting beds. That sounds like a lot of soil but it isn’t. Several times a year, I add a layer of a mix of cotton burr compost, alfalfa pellets and cotton meal. Top that with native hardwood mulch to keep moisture and soil temperature even, and the garden will thrive. With our high heat and humidity the organics break down and enrich the soil as they feed the roots of the plants. Happy roots, happy plants. 

The next important principal is to have practical turf areas. We all love vast expanses of green grass, but with droughts and water shortages, it’s important to reduce the amount of turf we have. When I designed the garden, I limited the amount of grass and planted a variety of carpet grass that is resistant to disease and needs less water. When the garden was new, weeds were okay – they were green. We picked Floratam and started it with five runners. That variety of St. Augustine is aggressive and has spread crowding out the weeds. Best of all, it doesn’t need as much water. Other grasses that are drought tolerant include Zoysia and buffalo grasses. Reduce turf by establishing patios, decks, mixed planting beds with shrubs and groundcovers.

One of the most important principals is the selection of plant materials to be planted in the garden. It is important to select trees, shrubs and groundcovers that will thrive in the garden’s soil and climate. We are blessed with an abundance of beautiful native plants which have adapted to the region. These plants will require less water, less fertilizer and have fewer pest problems. This is my kind of gardening. I’m basically a lazy gardener and don’t want to work harder than I have too.

Irrigation is next on the list. We have to learn to water smarter. Water applied too rapidly can be lost to run-off. Overwatering leaches out nutrients from the root area of the plant. Watering at the wrong time of the day wastes water. Runoff caused by excessive irrigation can carry polluting fertilizers and pesticides to streams and lakes. Mulching planting beds reduces the amount of water needed and keeps the soil temperatures protecting the roots. 

There are many types of mulches available on the market. I prefer to use native hardwood mulch. As it breaks down, it becomes a part of the soil. Avoid mulch volcanoes around the trunk of a plant. Mulch reduces the weed population which steals valuable water. It prevents soil compaction while keeping soil temperatures moderate. 

Using these principals reduces maintenance, enriching the soil while reducing the need for excessive watering. By following these principals you will be working smarter and will conserve water, our most precious natural resource. 

This system is more than cactus and rock gardens. It can be a green, cool landscape full of beautiful plants maintained with water-efficient practices. In my next column I will list trees, shrubs and perennials that will help you create your little piece of heaven!

Happy gardening.

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