Spring often takes the cake for Texans’ most beloved gardening season, but autumn is also an ideal time of year to put new plants in the ground. If your yard regularly requires an exasperating amount of water to stay alive, consider switching to a drought-tolerant landscape this fall.
Xeric yards — areas designed with specific plants and layouts to thrive on minimal watering — support pollinator-friendly plants and benefit the environment. These water-wise gardens also vary widely from the stereotypical spreads of rock and cacti. From flowering cottage gardens to native plant paradises to tree-filled escapes, water-efficient yards can be both beautiful and effective.
Linda Lehmusvirta, producer of Central Texas Gardener, advises those considering the switch to xeric to first think about how they want to use their yard. “We all have different needs,” she says. “If you have small children and pets, you might want a play area or a swing set. You might want a patio where you can entertain your friends and family. Or you might want a vegetable garden, succulent bed or raised bed.”
After determining your priorities, the next step is to observe your space. If you have any patches of grass growing well without frequent watering, leave them intact! There’s nothing wrong with areas of turf if they are easily maintained without herbicides and excessive watering. If you do leave some turf, don’t mow it too often. Constantly cutting grass is harmful to a lawn, as it prevents seeding and slows root growth.
Larger trees should also be taken into consideration. When working in a yard with trees, plant outside of a tree’s drip line — the circular space that starts at the trunk and expands to the widest branches, reflecting where its roots grow underground. Keep in mind that the drip line will grow as the tree does. Either mulch the area thoroughly, leaving a small bare spot around the trunk of the tree, or leave any grass that’s growing well in place.
According to local landscape designer Lisa LaPaso, the open space beneath the drip line gives gardeners the perfect opportunity to put in a bench or picnic table. “With trees, I tell people to pretend you live in a park,” she says. “Generally what I'll do with my clients is try to figure out what's the minimum we can do back there and let the trees be the star of the show.”
Another preparatory step is figuring out the sunny and shady parts of your yard so plants with specific light requirements will go in the right places. “There's not a one-size-fits-all when it comes to designing in Austin,” Lehmusvirta says. “The first thing that people need to think about is the light and their soil. You need to watch the light at different times of day, and through the different seasons.”
In Austin, the quality of soil differs dramatically from neighborhood to neighborhood. If you’re unsure of what the soil in your yard is like, have it tested for nutrients so you know which fertilizers and amendments should be added before planting. This can be done via the City of Austin’s Soil Kitchen or the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
Once you have the soil, shade and sunlight sorted out, it’s time to prep your yard for new plants! When constructing a xeric space, LaPaso suggests taking a less-is-more approach, relying on compost and mulch to do most of the work.
“Compost like nobody's business. I always tell people to put down four to six inches; it should come up to your fence, because by the time it's laid out and the air has come out of it, you're down to three inches if you put down six,” LaPaso says. “People don't realize that what we really need to do in the way of amendments is the same thing that we're doing out in the woods, which is composting. Out there, you have natural degrading of plant and animal materials.”
Though rocks are a common filler for xeric yards, Daphne Richards of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service cautions against using too many. “Rocks are problematic because they give off more heat than people realize. They will also get weeds growing in them,” Richards says. If you have large areas of the yard to fill, Richards recommends using locally made mulch to both cover the empty spaces and retain groundwater for plants.
When it comes to choosing greenery for a xeric garden, native and adapted plants are the way to go. They’ve evolved with our climate so they naturally need less water, and pollinators love them. But keep in mind that even these plants require some extra love at first.
“Everything needs water its first year,” Lehmusvirta says. “You don't take a baby plant from the nursery where its been coddled and throw it into the big, wide world without giving it a little extra care. It's getting its roots in.”
After the plants are in the ground, the true learning experience begins. “Every day I learn something new; every day I make a new mistake. You just try your best,” Lehmusvirta says. As with all things in nature, there are ups and downs in gardening, but the successes are extremely beneficial to both the gardener and the surrounding environment.
•Prep the ground for forthcoming garden beds by layering newspaper or cardboard in the spots where you want to clear out patches of lawn or weeds.
• Buy plants that are both drought and freeze tolerant. Find plants suited for USDA Hardiness Zone 8, meaning they will survive winter temperatures down to 10°.
• Before you put new plants in the ground, be sure the dirt is moist and loosened to minimize shock to the transplant.
• Do your homework on the plants you purchase. Know how large they will become so you can give them adequate room to grow while planting them. Drawing a grid of your yard to visualize plant spacing is helpful.
•If you don’t already have any trees or taller plants, put in a mix of plants that vary in height to provide some shade and canopy for the yard.
•It isn’t necessary to install irrigation with a garden. A bit of watering from a hose sprinkler, drip hose attachment or watering can will suffice. Try to water early in the morning, before the sun is up.
By Darby Kendall • Photography by Linda Lehmusvirta