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Wednesday - January 12, 2011

From: Houston, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Turf
Title: How Can I Replace my Lawn with Natives in Houston, Texas
Answered by: Marilyn Kircus

QUESTION:

I want to remove the turf grass from my lawn and put in gravel and sand. I want to put in native and adapted plants that will attract butterflies and I want different native and adapted ornamental grasses. I want a sustainable yard that does not require mowing or much watering. How do I permanently remove this St. Augustine grass so that it doesn't come back in when I bring in loads of gravel? Do I use a machine to remove it and then put down some kind of sealing plastic sheets? I'll put in a recirculating fountain and other attractive additions. When I try to find an article, everyone seems to assume that I want some garden, but I want to GET RID OF THE GRASS. I use an electric mower right now, but I want to truly become more sustainable with my yard. I live in Spring Valley, which doesn't have too many regulations about having to grow turf in the yard. It just needs to be attractive. Can you recommend any books, magazines that can guide me?

ANSWER:

What a beautiful idea to remove an non-native monoculture and replace it with all sorts of wonderful natives that will then attract birds and butterflies to your garden for even more beauty and interest. And planting natives to this area will bring back a little of the habitat our local birds and butterflies so desperately need to avoid extinction. You might also consider applying for your yard to be a certified wildlife garden. Check here for the details.

But I'm not sure why you think you need gravel.  Plants native to these soils will grow just fine in them. But making a hardscape design consisting of paths, fences, screens, trellises, water features, sitting areas, etc. will go a long way towards making your native garden fit in with the urban landscaping look. And wide paths of decomposed granite or gravel will set off your beds and add to the design. And a strolling garden with hidden corners makes people want to keep walking. You'll probably want some kind of an edging to keep the gravel in the paths. And also you'll probably want to use a commercial grade landscape cloth under the paths to block weeds.

There are several ways to get rid of your grass.  If your area is pretty small and you are pretty determined, you can chop it out with a hand tool. This past August I spent about a week in Galveston chopping out St. Augustine, mowing it into small pieces, and building a compost pile with it. I used a little hand hoe, with a hoe on one side and a little cultivator on the other.  I did an area about ten feet wide by sixty or seventy feet long. And I’m sure I've pulled up less than twenty little sprouts since then.

You could rent a tiller and till your area but then you have to take a hand cultivator, garden rake ,or the hand hoe and be sure to get out each tiny piece of root or it will probably re grow and make lots more grass than you want to deal with. This is almost as much work as clearing it out by hand.

If you had done this last summer or want to wait until this summer to begin getting your garden ready, you can solarize your soil by first watering it well, then covering it with a sheet of heavy clear plastic. Cut trenches along the edges and tuck the plastic in tightly.  This will cook the grass (and dormant seeds) over several weeks. Again, this is easier to do in a small area.

And finally, if you don't mind using chemicals, you can spray the grass with the recommended strength of something like Roundup.  Just be sure and screen any plants you don't want to kill.  Then, in a couple of weeks, you can rake out the dead grass and leave the roots in the ground to add organic material.  Then you'll be ready to put in your hardscape, lay out your beds, and get planting. This needs to be done when the grass is actively growing, so wait to do this until late spring.

Once you get rid of St. Augustine grass, very little or any of it will come back. And you can just pull it up like you'll do for any weed.

In case, you still need information on the plants that will grow well for you, I've used the explore plants feature on the Wildflower site and found the ones recommended for East Texas. Here is the list of the 133 plants you'll get. You can scroll down on the right hand side and narrow the list to the kind of plants you want - grasses, herbs, vines, shrubs, etc.,. as well as the amount of sun and water levels in the soil you have. And this is not an exclusive list; you can look up others that grow in central and south Texas, but be sure to check out the amount of water each plant needs. Don't include ones that need either constantly dry or constantly moist soils.  And do think about including an island of shrubs/small trees, and perhaps add a few vines to give your garden more visual interest and increase the biodiversity in it, thus attracting more wildlife. And remember to plant each species in groups to make it easier for the butterflies and other pollinators to find.  For small plants use at least seven or more plants.  For large grasses, you can use three or more - uneven numbers also seem more beautiful to us. You can also group your shrubs or use the large ones singly and perhaps repeat them if you have enough room. And if you make your water feature one that will attract birds, bugs, and small mammals, it will do double duty serving both esthetics and animal needs.

And don't forget to plan for colors that look good together and a succession of blooms or interest from berries and colored leaves.

You may want to limit yourself to plants that don't need moist soils but can tolerate them.  And if you want to try and grow plants native to further west Texas, you will have to amend your heavy clay.  In the Hill Country we use decomposed granite.  You may want to check with a nursery that also offers landscaping on their recommendations for amending the soil in your area for the plants you want.

And if you will mulch with wood chips, you will make the area seem more like people's expectations of a garden while conserving water, keeping the soil cooler and gradually adding organic material to the soil to feed your microorganisms, which in turn will feed your plants. If you grow plants more adapted to dry conditions, you will probably want to mulch with gravel in addition to amending your soil with decomposed granite or gravel.

Good luck to you on this wonderful endeavor. And hopefully, in a few years, you'll mostly be watching your garden grow while your neighbors frantically mow, water, and fertilize their yards. I find that native garden maintenance consists mostly of whacking it back when it starts looking scraggly.  Then it will return more lushly and usually will start reblooming.

Check out the books I've referenced for more help and ideas:

From Art to Landscape: Unleashing Creativity in Garden Design by W. Gary Smith

Habitat Gardening for Houston and Southeast Texas by M & M. Bowen

Native Texas Gardens: Maximum beauty, Minimum upkeep by Sally & Andy Wasowski

Gardening with Prairie Plants: How to Create Beautiful Native Landscapes by Sally Wasowski

 

 

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