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Lawn Legislation

Texas bill expands homeowners' landscaping options

ABOVE: Maximilian's sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) can provide color while weathering a drought.
That dead, brown spot in the middle of your lawn isn’t going anywhere without lots of water, which can be hard to come by during ongoing water restrictions.

But a number of Texas Homeowner Associations had rigid rules on landscaping that specified water-hungry non-native shrubs and St. Augustine lawns. Starting Sept. 1, Homeowners Associations (HOAs) in Texas can no longer prevent residents from installing native plants or drought-tolerant ones a recognition of the severe drought that continues.

Although homeowners may still need to submit design plans for approval, a bill passed by the Texas Legislature specifies that a design cannot be denied simply because it uses native plants, which help conserve water. The bill was sponsored by state Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin and Rep. Dawnna Dukes also of Austin.

“As people keep moving to Austin and other areas, water resources are going to be more and more stressed,” says Andrea DeLong-Amaya, the Wildflower Center’s horticulture director. “So it’s good to get used to conserving resources by using native plants well adapted to the climate.”

Estimates suggest about one third of the water used by Texas homeowners goes to landscaping. Nationally, landscape irrigation accounts for more than 7 billion gallons of potable (drinking) water used daily.

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is expert in recommending attractive plantings that need less watering (saving money on utility bills). At the Center, the public can explore everything from what native landscapes look like to native groundcover and lawn options to consider.

The first step is to check out the Homeowner Inspiration and other Center gardens planned with drought tolerance in mind. You can use the QR tags on gardens signs at the Center to learn more about what you see, and visit the Center’s website.

“A good starting point is the Drought Resource Center,” DeLong-Amaya says. “That page has links to information on everything [about] native plants: soil prep, planting and maintenance as well as what exactly a native plant is and why they’re such a good thing.”

four inch habiturf ABOVE: Four-inch Habiturf™ growing at Austin residence. Photo by Center's Mark Simmons.
She adds that those who want to keep their lawn can consider Habiturf™ as an option. This seed mix developed by the Center contains three different native grasses that look alike. Each performs well under slightly different circumstances, allowing Texans and those in nearby states to keep a dense carpet over the entire yard. Information about this native lawn option, including how it stacks up against Bermudagrass and how-to’s on developing it from seed, is available through the Drought Resource Center.

Next, DeLong-Amaya suggests using the Native Plant Database to choose from among thousands of native plants to install. “It contains a nifty tool called ‘the combination search,’ which you can use from anywhere in the country by typing in your city and state or ZIP code,” she says. “The feature lets you narrow your search down to qualities such as plant type, bloom color, size and even the time of year a plant blooms. It then searches our database and spits out a lists of those meeting your requirements.”

For garden design and planting, DeLong-Amaya points to the Center’s Go Native U classes, which start in mid-September, as a great resource.

“There are six classes in our gardening series that are developed to help people make decisions about how to design a native garden, what kind of plants to select, how to install and how to maintain them.”

She suggests fleshing out your initial ideas while taking a stroll through native plant gardens. Pay attention to what plants look great together or what plants grow well in full-sun or shade, she says.

She also encourages novice gardeners to start small to not feel overwhelmed, and to design a master plan to work from. Though the process can take time, it comes with real rewards and reduces mistakes.
Native plants in a landscape ABOVE: A spray of native wildflowers in a home landscape.
“Using native plants in a landscape is not only the right thing to do but also a good thing,” she says, noting that, “We are blessed with such a nice native plants palette in Texas that has a great aesthetic, full of color and texture.”

Natives are often drought-tolerant because they have evolved here in Texas and are equipped to handle this climate. Native plants also offer an energy saving advantage over lots of hardscaping. “Although rocks are great as accents, they absorb heat and then reflect it back, unlike plants which transpire (water into the air) and help to cool things down.”

Regardless of the size of your yard project, now is a great time to start planning before you prepare beds and plant when the weather cools off. And when you’re ready, you can find local nurseries that carry native plants, or attend the Center’s Fall Plant Sale Oct. 5 and Oct. 6 that offers the largest selection in Central Texas. The timing of the sale fits with what’s best for the plants.

“Not everyone understands that winter is a great time for plants to get established because they aren’t actually dormant,” DeLong-Amaya says. “They look dormant on the surface above ground but they’re growing their roots and getting established underneath. So starting the planning process right now is a very practical idea. The timing is all just perfect right now.”

Learn about Center research comparing Habiturf™ and Bermudagrass lawns

Learn about the City of Austin’s landscape rebate program and water-wise information

Story by Kaine Korzekwa

© 2016 Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center