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Saturday - October 06, 2007

From: Austin, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Invasive Plants, Non-Natives, Meadow Gardens, Compost and Mulch
Title: Removing St. Augustine, replacing with native plants
Answered by: Barbara Medford


Hello Mr. Smarty Plants, always excited to talk to the Green Guru himself. I've recently purchased a house in South Austin and am interested in establishing a small, 500+ sq ft, prairie grass and wildflower meadow in my backyard. I've read most of the Wildflower Center materials on this as well as other references, but am still not sure of the best approach to bed preparation, in particular removing the St. Augustan grass. Any insight would be helpful. Thanks in advance.


You're certainly on the right track, concentrating on native plants for their lower use of water and fertilizer, as we do at the Lady Bird Wildflower Center. And you obviously know the first step is getting rid of the St. Augustine. Very wisely, you've decided to start small and work your way up. You probably live in a neighborhood where it's expected that you will have a mowed lawn in the front yard, at least. Stenotaphrum secundatum, St. Augustine grass, is very popular for lawn grasses. The most commonly used strain is native to the Gulf, Caribbean and West African regions. The disadvantage of St. Augustine is that it requires quite a bit of water, is susceptible to disease, and spreads by stolons. The good news is that it is fairly easy to dig out. The bad news is that any St. Augustine lawn is going to have other weeds in it, including bermudagrass.

You've chosen the right time of year to begin your project. The weather eventually cools down a little, which makes it much better for both plant and planter. Seeds and plants put in the ground now will have the cooler weather of our relatively mild winters to toughen up and prepare for our blazing summers.

So, you've likely already begun, marked your bed for native plants, and begun to grub out the grass. There are actually tools designed for stripping sod off an area, but you probably will do just as well with a sharp shovel. Shake as much soil off the grass roots as you can. Try to disturb the underlying soil as little as possible, as fresh newly turned soil is welcoming to all seeds, including those weed seeds that have been lurking in the ground waiting for an opportunity to get to the light, air and water. Further preparation of the soil is a matter of individual choice. If you happen to have a good source of compost, a nice layer of that will be an advantage. The beauty of native plants, after all, is that they are adapted to grow in whatever soil there is available, with organic materials deposited in it by organic waste that is naturally there, decomposing and refreshing the soil. In a city garden, with grass sucking up all the nutrients it can get, it would be well to give the soil a little help, at least.

Now you're ready for the fun part, the planting. As you say, you've already read the materials from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, but we will provide links for some of it for others who might be reading this. First, go to the How To Articles, where subjects such as Bluebonnets, Native Wildflower Gardens, etc. are detailed much better than we can do here. Next, look at the Plant Database for information on habitat, bloom time and color and pictures of the plants you have selected. When you select the seeds you want to plant, make sure they are native to this area. A "mix" of wildflower seeds might very well have some non-native species in it that could take over and dominate our own natives.

This last question you didn't ask, but I'm going to answer it anyway. Where can I get these native plants for my new garden? Lucky you, you live in the Austin area, and can plan to attend the Fall Plant Sale at the Wildflower Center on October 13 and 14. Take a look first at the Plant List of what will be available there, and make a list. Also, the Native Plant Society of Texas maintains a booth there and can offer you seeds you can be sure ARE native to our area.



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