Dallas is experiencing its fourth drought since 2000. We went into Stage 1 water restrictions on December 12, 2011 and meteorologists are currently predicting that the drought will continue at least through the summer. Nearby areas such as Frisco and Plano are in Stage 3 water restrictions, that mandate watering no more than one time a week.
It seems to me that “the writing is on the wall” in that smart Dallasites will move toward landscaping designs that involve more draught-tolerant plants. Stage 1 water restrictions mandate that watering can be done twice a week but if draught conditions continue, restrictions could become more severe. Either way, many of the lawns and landscapes I see around Dallas simply aren’t “simpatico” with the concept of water conservation.
As a professional landscape designer, I understand the challenges this presents. The palette of draught-tolerant plants simply isn’t as broad, but there is still plenty to choose from. It is important to remember that just because a plant is native to Texas, doesn’t necessarily mean it is draught-tolerant and that the Southwest, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chili and the Mediterranean all are sources for beautiful plants that come from climates that are similar to ours. Among my personal favorites are native grasses, they are great for adding drama and focus to an environment. Other plants I love that are draught tolerant include rosemary, yuccas, agave and roses.
What can you do in the meantime to optimize the appearance of your landscape while moving toward a more draught-tolerant landscape? Here are some general tips:
- Water restrictions mandate that all watering take place between midnight and 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. and midnight. Because it stays hot into the evening in Dallas, it is better to water lawns during the early morning hours when temperatures and wind speed are at their lowest. This reduces evaporation and waste.
- Cycle soak. This allows the soil to absorb all that is applied, avoiding runoff. The length of the cycle will vary based on the conditions of the landscape, but you want to schedule several short cycles about an hour apart in order to allow the water to absorb to a depth of about 6-8 inches. This is the most important thing that we can all do to save water and improve the health of the plants. We have successfully kept many landscapes alive in Frisco when we were only allowed to water once a week in 100+ degree weather by cycling the water 3-5 times to get a deep soak without runoff. This also helps to promote deep foot growth where the soil stays much cooler.
- Raise the lawn mower blade to at least three inches, or to its highest level. A higher cut encourages grass roots to grow deeper, shades the root system and holds soil moisture.
- Avoid over fertilizing your lawn. Applying fertilizer increases the need for water. Apply fertilizers which contain slow release, water-insoluble forms of nitrogen.
- Install irrigation devices that are water efficient. Micro and drip irrigation and soaker hoses are examples. The most important thing is to make sure that your irrigation system is well-designed and operating properly.
The reality is that the current water restrictions are simply forcing us all to do something we should be doing anyway and that’s reducing the amount of water used in our landscapes though good water management practices. Maintenance becomes even easier when these best practices are combined with draught-tolerant plant choices. Do you have a favorite draught-tolerant plant? How well did your landscape survive last summer’s heat wave and our current draught? We’d love to hear from you.
With the holidays approaching, I thought I would to a round-up of a few of the more interesting gardening-related books that have come out this year for anyone looking for gift ideas. It’s a short list and doesn’t contain any practical books on gardening – there are plenty of other sources you can turn to for that. This is just a short list of some of the more interesting and fun plant- and garden-related reads that came out in 2011.
Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation by Andrea Wulf (published March, 2011) is a fascinating look at the founding fathers (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin) from the unique and intimate perspective of their lives as gardeners, plantsmen, and farmers.
Fifty Plants that Changes the Course of History by Bill Laws (published September, 2011). This book details how plants have influenced human behavior and in turn affected the course of history. By chronicling the commercial activity surrounding the discovery and marketing of the foods and beverages we consume and the plants we transform, the author describes how those activities have impacted wars, politics, habits, social behavior and addictions.
Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants by Richard Mabey (published June, 2011). ”A profound and sympathetic meditation on weeds in relation to human beings” (Sunday Times), Weeds shows how useful these unloved plants can be, from serving as the first crops and medicines, to bur-dock inspiring the invention of Velcro, to cow parsley becoming the latest fashionable wedding adornment. Mabey argues that we have caused plants to become weeds through our reckless treatment of the earth, and he delivers a provocative defense of the plants we love to hate.”
Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon’s Army & Other Diabolical Insects by Amy Stewart (May, 2011). This is a sequel to Wicked Plants which came out in 2009. Although it may seem to be a bit of a stretch, since gardeners are always dealing with insects, this counts as “garden-related” in my book (no pun intended) and in fact, Stewart provides some tips for gardeners like putting out rolled up newspaper or cardboard tubes at night to trap earwigs and dumping them into soapy water in the morning – ugh. The book is as creepy and as interesting as it sounds.
It’s fall, which means garden centers are full of pansies which are cold hardy and will bloom all the way through spring. Anything but exotic, and not particularly fancy, pansies have been a favorite of gardeners since the 16th century. A member of the violet family, the Pansy gets its name from the French word pensée, meaning “thought.” It was so named because the flower is reminiscent of a human face that in the heat “nods” forward as if deep in thought. My favorite pansy related trivia, however, is that in early drafts of Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell name the main character Pansy O’Hara. Now that would have been a true oxymoron.
As perennials go dormant, don’t be afraid to trim them back. Trim back tender perennials such as firebush, Mexican heather and lantanas after the first freeze and then mulch them to protect them from the cold. Fall is also a great time for moving and dividing perennials; it will reduce your work next spring. The cool, moist weather is ideal for perennial roots to become well established. A good rule-of-thumb is to move and divide plants in the fall that bloom between early spring and late June, if the plant blooms after June, you may want to wait until early spring to do any dividing. Always remember to cut back the foliage by at least half to prevent serious wilting; this helps keep the leaf mass in proportion to the reduced number of roots. And remember, if you’re a less experienced gardener and are not sure what to do or when exactly to do it, you can always do nothing – it just means you’ll have a bit more work to do in the spring. Another good option is always to hire a professional to help your yard and garden during the transitions between seasons. Most landscapers, including Bonick Landscaping, offer as-needed garden and lawn maintenance.
October through mid-December is bulb planting time in Texas. The Southern Bulb Company, founded by Chris Wiesinger, a Texas A&M grad, aka “The Bulb Hunter” specializes in growing and supplying rare and other “tried and true” species of bulbs for warm climates. Many are bulbs you won’t find anywhere else and they will propagate and naturalize beautifully in our hot Dallas climate. The bulbs cost a bit more than cold-climated bulbs but are a greater long-term value. Cold-climate bulbs last one or two years in the Texas heat, while Chris’s bulbs will multiply and thrive naturally.
I love garlic. And here in Dallas, the planting season is upon us. Soil preparation is key. If you have clay-based soil, which is the norm in North Texas, you’ll need to amend your soil. Garlic likes rich, well-drained soil but will tolerate and adapt to many soil types but it is difficult to grow garlic without rot problems in tight soils or clay soils with poor drainage. The two varieties recommended for Texas by The AgriLife Extension Service are Texas White or Elephant Giant garlic. But there are many, many varieties of garlic and the best thing to do if you’re interested in growing your own garlic is to talk to one of the specialty garlic resources and ask for their recommendations. Three good online sources for garlic are Gourmet Garlic Gardens, in Bangs, TX, Filaree Garlic Farm in Okanogan, WA and Hood River Garlic in Hood River, OR. All of these sites have additional information for aspiring growers.