Removing your grass?

With this summer looking like a brutal repeat of 2011 you might be thinking about removing or limiting the amount of turf grass in your life. That’s great! Here are a few things I’ve learned. Note, that I’m East of Lamar which tends to be a fairly good dividing line for the Edwards Plateau. I’m on Blackland Prairie not rocky limestone.

The most xeric plant is an established one.

Well established St. Augustine I rarely water

I had parts of my lawn that were always struggling. I also have some parts that are in dappled sun under a nice tree that never require any additional water. Focusing on ripping out the struggling parts first can help keep your workload in control.

Austin is not the desert.

My yard in August with no irrigation is NOT the desert.

I cannot emphasize this enough. If you rip out your existing turf grass and cover the area with rocks you will either be pulling weeds or using pesticides constantly. And rocks are HOT. It’s like making your entire yard a BBQ pit.

Cactus can have a place, but Austin is both too wet and too cold for most species. In Austin xeric does not usually mean cactus. Make sure the plants you plant are cold hardy into the 20s.

Decomposed granite is a wonderful growth medium for most of our wildflowers. I think it’s wonderful and can be a great part of your landscape, but it will require weeding. Having a decomposed granite path with a large flagstone or concrete stepping stone in the middle will help reduce your weeding.

Rent a sod cutter

You can rent a sod cutter from Home Depot for about $100 per day. And you’ll probably be able to rip up all your grass in a single day. If you do it by hand you’re probably looking at a couple months of weekends.

Avoid landscape fabric!

Landscape fabric promises to help you avoid weeds. And it does prevent “weeds” like Native Grasses, Bluebonnets and other wildflowers. It does NOT help prevent Bermuda Grass or Nut Sedge. They LOVE it and it helps protect their roots from weeding.

Mulch is good… at first

Mulch is great for helping perennials get established. But a few years in you should be able to stop mulching around your perennials. Plant density should be able to keep the soil cool and reduce weed growth.
And anything you plant from seed should not be in a mulched area. You’ll end up wasting money.

What do do this summer

First apply for your Austin Water rebate if you’re planning on doing that. You need to rip out healthy grass to get the rebate. When I did this, they did not need the most formal plans.

Rip out the grass and let it solarize. The sun and heat is probably going to nuke anything so no need to add carboard or plastic. You can’t install plants until the fall, so this will be ugly, but worth it. Also broadcast your wildflower seeds in the fall. Wildflower’s won’t really grow in mulched areas so I would suggest mulching areas where you plan on planting small perennials and ornamental grasses and leaving areas where you want wildflowers un-mulched.

Maintenance

I’m not going to lie. At first there will be quite a lot. In East Austin to reduce maintenance you should try to get as much plant density as possible. Open spaces are spaces where weeds can thrive. One a year usually in late March I do a cutback of most plants with a string and hedge trimmer. March frequently feels hectic with tons of weeding, but the yard fills out in May and by June there’s little weeding left to do and beautiful flowers to admire.

Plants I’ve had success with

These are plants I like and have had success with in East Austin. I specify Bluebonnets separately because not only are they beloved, but they also are really important for out-competing early spring weeds. They also love your crappy dirt that has been solarized all summer.

Seeds

Bluebonnets
Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
Seed Mixes from Native American Seed (pick ones that match your enviroment)

Perennials

Flame Acanthus
Red Yucca
Big Muhly
Texas Lantana (Lantana urticoides)
Mealy Blue Sage
Texas Sotol

Trees

Retama

Texas Persimmon

Sod

Density Buffalo Grass (not eligible for rebates, but it is a great full sun xeric yard cover)

Chihuahuan Desert Gardens

As COVID continues to rage we took an outdoor hiking vacation to El Paso and the surrounding parks. A flat tire left us stranded in El Paso for an entire day waiting for a replacement. We ended up checking out several local gardens including the Chihuahuan Desert Garden at UT El Paso (UTEP).

The garden meanders around a museum. I was expecting the “introduction to native plants” you find at many state parks, but the number and quality of specimens was amazing.

The most common common name seemed to be “shindagger”. Multiple plants carry it. Seems to be a big issue in the desert.
UTEP has its own architectural vernacular which melds well with the garden.
The campus itself is landscaped with native and adapted plants with the jaw-dropping backdrop of the Davis Mountains. I wish UT Austin would do more of this.
This Algarito specimen is amazing. A plant that in our wet environment I expect to be spindly was bushy and full in their garden.
We all loved the shape and remaining seedheads of the Mexican Tree Sunflower (Tithonia fruticosa).
Assuming this is a bigtooth maple with fall color (I didn’t take a picture of the sign). We saw a lot of these up in the Guadalupe Mountains, but they had all lost their leaves.
Lots of Queen Victoria agaves that were much more open than I’m used to. Is this because of the dry air?
An amazing caterpillar we saw chomping away. The neon greens and blacks reminded me of an energy drink can.
For my friends who think my garden is too spiky, at least I don’t have this plant. The aptly named “allthorn” (Koeberlinia spinosa).
In the middle of the garden was this respite from the sun – a delicate water feature.
And leaving my favorite plant for last – this is a Desert Willow. No really. My daughter is provided for scale, and she’s 5’9″. I have never seen a Desert Willow even remotely approach this. We all had to look at the label like 12 times and compare it to some of the smaller specimens in the garden. Now I have high expectations for the one outside my back window.

The UT El Paso campus had some amazing views and kinetic sculptures.

I-10, the wall, and Juarez.

Our vacation was supposed to be hiking and this wasn’t on our schedule, but it was an unexpected surprise. This has definitely gone one my list as one of my favorite gardens in Texas. I can’t wait to go back and see it in the other seasons.

Indiangrass

When we had our pool put in recently the bulldozer shredded a large part of the yard much of it on a hill. I built a flowerbed and was looking for something to be a visual back for the bed.

I wanted a grass that could hold its own and mostly keep weeds out, but I’ve pretty much gone through what’s sold in local nurseries. I’ve had decent success with Big Muhly, but it’s slow growing. I’ve had almost no success with Gulf Muhly despite my absolute love of the plant.

I’ve had some luck with growing Little Bluestem and Switchgrass from Native American Seed, so I decided to give another one of their seeds a try.

Indiangrass is supposed to be one of the main components of a tallgrass prairie. Native to prairie from Canada down through Mexico. It’s between 3-6 feet tall (but more on the 3 feet side). I sowed it on the side of our hill in very disturbed ground last year. The first year was… fine. It was not a particularly interesting pant and I was thinking of other solutions.

This year has been different. It really came into its own as a lovely green grass with a gray tinge to it. And then this week it began blooming. It’s amazing. I’m in love. More of us need to plant this.

I sowed them in November so now is a good time to start planning. In a stand they are dense and struggled with weeds the first year, but now seem to be competing very effectively. You can pickup some for yourself from Native American Seed.

Wide-Angle

After the hard-freeze and watching “Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf” I decided this would be the year I’d try taking everything down to the ground. Normally, I hem and haw, and cut back the bare minimum.


But this year? I used the string trimmer, lawn mower, and hedge trimmer to take most of it to the ground.




And a couple days later it’s all coming back.

Lantana and Mealy Blue Sage mostly here.

Including Rattlesnake Master!

Rattlesnake Master and Texas Sedge

I’m hoping we’ll get another bloom this year.

Post Freeze Cleanup

We are some of the lucky ones. We had power and water throughout the bitter freeze. But we lost a fair number of plants. I’ve been planting xerically, but not as many local plants as I should. This freeze brought that fact home. I’ve lost several magnificent agaves. Possibly some loquats that came with the house, and a Monterray Oak.

Today I took out one of the Agaves that has been a focal point of our backyard.

To be honest it was a little too close to people.
A pup growing that might replace it.

Gardening is nothing if not change. Although, now I’m considering renting a dumpster to get rid of all these dead plants. This one agave filled up 7 trash cans.

Bluebonnets – my favorite weed control

In xeric gardening the learning process is full of ups and downs. In terms of weed control I’ve:

  • Covered a huge swatch of my yard in weed control fabric. This created a bunch of super-weeds that were nearly impossible to pull out thanks to that fabric keeping them in place.
  • Mulching. It’s fine. But the weeds come back, and when you suppress weed germination you also suppress wildflower germination. So your wildflowers tend to stay more singular plants than glorious meadows.

Which brings me to my favorite Texas weed control – Bluebonnets! I don’t know if you can get them at your local nursery. Barton Springs might have them. If not shoot me an email and I can get you a few.

Bluebonnets start growing around Halloween, and create delightful green mats that slow germination of winter weeds. Then they bloom in early Spring. You pull them out once they’ve seeded and your spring wildflowers start popping up.

Even though they still have a bit of work too them, for me it’s totally worth it. What’s your favorite unconventional weed control?

Plants need more editing

I was weeding on Saturday. It was time to clear out the bluebonnets. While doing so I noticed a barrel cactus I had completely forgotten about. You can (not) see it in the below picture. Which is amazing because it’s pretty dang big.

very, sneaky hiding barrel cactus

But first a related tangent. When Etta was a baby we went to a farmer’s market outside of Bastrop. While there I picked up two tree seedlings and planted them. Fast forward 11 years and as part of putting in a pool we had to remove these two trees. So I took pictures with Etta to show how much they had both grown.

Ok, so now we’re done with that nostalgia. Do you see the yucca on the far right? The really lovely one? During the pool construction it got beat up. Repeatedly rammed with a digger. Soil was worked into pretty much every single one of its leaves. It ended up looking like this:

The dead yucca on the left used to be so full of life.

Yesterday I finally took it out. There were thankfully some pups underneath. One was a good candidate for replacing the original. I also added that invisible barrel cactus from the original bed, and ended up with this.

I try not to make extra work in the garden, but sometimes the results are worth it! I’m also adding a bonus shot of the agave pup I got from Pam Penick’s Moby surrounded by moss verbena. I’m excited to watch this bed change over time.

Buffalo Grass sod is coming in nicely as well.


Waste not…

We’ve been having a pool put in our backyard. This is probably one of the biggest things we’ve had done to the yard, but I haven’t been writing about it. The destruction has been a bit much for me. I will probably do a post at the very end when I can talk positively about it again. And the destruction means I’ll be reworking most of the back yard. So in some ways that’s positive.

Anyway. There has been tons of waste generated. Rather than let them haul it off I’ve been collecting it. I may use it for future projects. I have dreams of an outdoor shower.

At the very least I can use it for drainage at the bottom of beds and pots. After picking up leftover pieces of stone:

And they’ve been threatening cleanup this Friday so I’ve been scrambling to pickup all the rocks they’ve exposed in their excavations.

Decorative Wall Panel

We got our house painted recently. The first night they started painting we got a ferocious storm. Somehow it managed to get the paint to run, but only right next to our front door.

We like our brick color and didn’t want to paint all of it so Julie and I designed and built this mid-century panel to cover it. This project turned out pretty much exactly as planned which was really awesome for something so visible.

So what did we do? It’s a piece of pressure treated plywood on the back. the front is 2×2 pressure treated wood boards with about 1 inch of spacing between them. I determined the algebraic formula for this is:

(x * 2) - (x - 1) = y

x = number of 2 x 2s
y= width of panel


Julie drew it out using graph paper. Our numbes matched. We have different problem solving styles, but we are aware that we’re weird.

First we cut out the hole for the light and then stained all of the wood. After it dried we attached the boards from the back with 1.5″ decking screws. Having built too many sets to count we always pay more for decking screws. $2 is worth an extra hour of pre-drilling and stripped screws. Then I pre-drilled holes into the brick with my hammer drill and attached the board with a ratchet. It was a pretty easy project, and really inspired me to try more of the cool wood projects from the 1960s that it was inspired by. I’m thinking perhaps a slatted bench may be next…

(Julie suggested that I should add some after shots of the painting as well. they repaired our rotting beams in the front as well, which I just love)