Keeping Off the Grass
Don't be a Lance Armstrong! Quit your lawn habit with a little help from xeriscaping.
"I used to give advice to people on the radio about how to keep their grass healthy. These days, when people call and tell me their lawn is dying, my answer is, 'Good!'" That's what native plant and organic gardening expert John Dromgoole, founder of the Natural Gardener nursery, had to say about the endless turf that dominates so many Austin landscapes. With this summer's wicked drought leaving lawns in one of two conditions – marginally green and guzzling water or parched, brown, and dead as hell – the Natural Gardener recommends ditching grass in favor of a more beneficial alternative: a native xeriscape.
Damon Waitt, senior botanist at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, defined a xeriscape as "a style of landscaping that uses plants adapted to live in very dry or low-water conditions." In the summer, when the city's water use nearly doubles, lawn watering accounts for 60% of all water used, according to the Austin Water Utility. On Aug. 10, Austin set its summer daily usage record of 218 million gallons, nearly twice the 107 million gallons used on 2008's lowest use day, Feb. 16. The need to build new water treatment plants, like Austin's $500 million Water Treatment Plant No. 4, is based on meeting peak demand. So, the best bang for Austin's water-conservation buck may be to get off the grass!
"A lot of people don't know how beautiful a xeriscape can be," said Dromgoole. With global warming in mind, "less lawn means less pollution from gasoline equipment," he said, not to mention less chemical fertilizer runoff spilling into local creeks and Barton Springs. To get the full effect of what a native Texas xeriscape looks like, Dromgoole recommends heading down to the Wildflower Center with a pad, a pen, and a camera. "They have many, many scenarios of native, low-water plants and flowers, and everything has a name tag." The center's website, www.wildflower.org, has helpful fact sheets, photos, and information on 7,000 native plants, Waitt added.
The typical grass monoculture, said Waitt, not only "requires a large amount of water and fertilizer," but it "will occasionally be affected by bacteria, fungus, or pests, wiping out large patches and requiring more fertilizer." Though not all native plants make good xeriscape plants," Waitt said, natives have the advantage of hundreds if not hundreds of thousands of years of experience adapting to this climate and ecosystem. A xeriscape "usually goes after a diversity of plant species, offering an added buffer against pests and pathogens."
Water-conscious City Council Member Lee Leffingwell and Austin Water Utility conservation honcho Daryl Slusher both contend that folks can keep their lawns green abiding by the city's two-day-a-week watering schedule. But, Slusher said, "We frankly need more emphasis on native and drought-resistant plants." While the Water Utility nixed rebates for xeriscaping last year, the Watershed Protection Department's Grow Green program – which offers education on native landscaping that encourages water quality and conservation – is still going strong, he said. As for new city rebates, Leffingwell likes Las Vegas' Water Smart Landscapes program, which actually pays residents $1.50 per square foot to convert grass to xeriscape. "If we could afford it, I'd support it," he said. Since May 2006, the city has required new home builders to offer buyers a native-landscape option, Leffingwell noted.
Native xeriscaping is something that "works on Austin's water quality and quantity," said Slusher. And as an added bonus, declared Waitt, "It helps preserve our sense of place and celebrates what makes Texas unique."
The city's Grow Green program offers 21 fact sheets on topics such as pest and disease problems and landscaping design, installation, and maintenance. They offer a "Native and Adapted Plant Guide" with info on 200 Central Texas-adapted plants, available at most Austin-area nurseries and hardware stores. For more, see www.cityofaustin.org/growgreen, www.wildflower.org, and www.naturalgardeneraustin.com.