During the past twenty years or so, there has been a marked increase in the number of homes being built on small acreage. City folks desire a little elbow room – less noise, more privacy and enough land to pursue their dreams. There are many adjustments that the average person must make in the transition from city to country living. Some changes (longer commute) are expected, while others (raccoons eating the dog food) will come as a complete surprise.
One such surprise is the landscape. Many city dwellers make the mistake of attempting to landscape their new home in the country in the same manner as they did in the city. The new homeowner often discovers that he has unwittingly saddled himself with a couple of acres of Bermuda grass to mow. Likewise, the same guy may find that he now requires a good many trees and shrubs to provide shade and screening since the bulldozer destroyed most of what was there to begin with. He will also soon find out that much time and effort is entailed in keeping new transplants alive in the full exposure of the drying winds and brutal heat of a Texas summer. Dragging 500 feet of water hose gets old in a hurry!
To avoid those mistakes, it is important to take time to evaluate your land before you do anything. Become familiar with the vegetation that already exists on your property. Seedling trees, shrubs, wildflowers and grasses can be utilized in your landscape. Be aware that what appears to be a weed in one season may actually be a beautiful stand of wildflowers later on. There are a number of good reference books that can help you identify plants. You may also seek consultation from local professionals, including your county extension agent, Parks & Wildlife biologist, university professor or landscaping consultant. Any good landscaping consultant will be well worth the fees, provided they are experienced in natural landscaping. Stay clear of those who envision your property as becoming the next botanical garden or arboretum.
Next you should take your ideas and what you have learned and draw a plan. This can be a simple pad and pencil drawing or a detailed scale drawing. A plan will help you put things in perspective. For example, the lawn area (if there is one) should be no larger than you need for your family. Some folks enjoy mowing and for them it is good therapy, while most of us view this as just another chore. It is much easier to put your dream on paper and reflect on that than it is to have to go back and change something after the fact. If you pay a professional to draw a plan, bear in mind that even the best plan is just an idea and changes are inevitable.
Trees are the most important players in any landscape, and this counts double in the country. Tag all the trees you want to save before you talk to builders. Don’t hire a contractor until you find one who is comfortable working around existing vegetation. Trees are very sensitive to grade changes and soil compaction. It is a good idea to have someone responsible on the property anytime heavy equipment is being used even if it costs a bit more. Trees are worth it.
If your acreage has no trees, you may go ahead and plant those that will be out away from the house and other areas of construction as soon as water is available.
While we are on the subject of water, I encourage you to consider becoming your own water resource. Build a pond if you have the space or drill a well. While these are often expensive projects, they will pay for themselves in the long term. Most rural utility companies charge a premium rate for water, and these rates increase over time. Collecting rain water from your roof is another option. Modern polyethylene tanks are very cost effective to use as cisterns or as really big rain barrels if you prefer. Even the sewage from your house can be recycled using aerobic systems or by running effluent through bog plantings then into a holding tank or pond. Remember that any amount of water you can collect or recycle will cost you little or nothing. You will be wise to seek professional advice. Explore your options and do what you can to become self-sufficient.
If your property has no desirable vegetation or the bulldozer left you with nothing to salvage, you must begin the restoration process. Your first consideration should be to plant a mixture of short native grasses and groundcovers. Remember that diversity is what nature is all about. The seed mix should be composed of plant species that exist in your area. Stay clear of one-size-fits-all wildflower or pasture mixes that contain imported species. It may cost a bit more to choose the plants you want and create your own mix, but the end results will be worth it. The more land that you are willing to restore to natural vegetation, the less work you will have to do down the line.
Finally, we come to the selection of ornamental plants. This includes everything that you will use as foundation plants, decorative plants, screening, windbreaks, and so forth.
It comes as a shock to some folks to learn that many of the plants that were standard fare in their old neighborhood just won’t work well in the country. The truth it that within the city limits, the extremes of wind and temperature are moderated by the presence of buildings, fences, concrete and other structures. There generally is no pressure from grazing animals such as deer, pigs, and goats. Likewise, even though we do see damaging insects within the city limits, they usually don’t show up in such devastating numbers as they do in open country.
Once again, the answer is to look first at local native plants. Among them you are certain to find trees, shrubs and flowering plants that are perfectly suited to your needs.
The plants that are indigenous to your area have been able to survive the repeated onslaughts of insects, common diseases, the weather and even grazing animals to a great extent. If not, then these plants would have died out long ago instead of tenaciously clinging to their particular niche in the environment. You may use native plants in the same style and manner as you would use any of the imported plants that have been used in traditional landscaping. If you wish to have a formal look or copy a design you saw in a magazine, you can easily do it by simply replacing the more demanding exotic plants with natives that have the same approximate size, shape, or color. You’ll find our native species “clean up” real nice and don’t necessarily have to look wild or unkempt.
You’ll notice that so far in this article, I have not mentioned any specific plants. This is because Texas is a mighty big piece of real estate containing ten distinctly different vegetation zones or ecoregions. The plants I would recommend for the panhandle would be drastically different from the plants I would choose for the piney woods of eastern Texas. However, you will find that nurseries that specialize in native plants are popping up all over the state. You will find quite a few advertised within the pages of this magazine. The Native Plant Society of Texas also has a number of member nurseries listed on their website (“http://www.npsot.org/”). The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Research Center has over two thousand listings under “Native Landscapers” (“http://www.wildflower.org/”) on their website. Find the one closest to you. That will be your best plan to get specific plant recommendations. These knowledgeable people can save you thousands of dollars compared to the money that could be lost due to trial and error planting.
For example, Carissa, Burford and Needlepoint are all cultivars of Chinese holly (ilex cornuta). These imported hollies are considered excellent landscape material statewide. Yet when these hollies are planted in areas that are prone to grasshopper infestations, the grasshoppers chew them right up. Yaupon holly (ilex vomitoria) is one of our hollies that is native to Texas and also widely used. Given the same situation, you will notice that the grasshoppers tend to stay off the yaupons. Even if the grasshoppers do chew the leaves off for lack of anything else green to eat, the native shrub will bounce back quicker and be less likely to die than the Chinese imports. The reason for this is pretty simple. Our native yaupon has lived with our Texas grasshoppers for thousands of years. In this time it has had to develop survival techniques to deal with the occasional insect infestation. Perhaps the smaller leaves are harder to chew and digest, or maybe the plant has developed a chemical compound that just doesn’t taste good. Whatever the case may be, it becomes perfectly obvious that when the insects do come, they will eat your imported hollies first and the native yaupon last. In the nursery business, we speak of imported exotics as being well adapted to a particular area. Your local native plants are perfectly adapted. Big difference.
Texas lantana (lantana horrida) is another well known native plant that has little or no problem with chewing insects. Just crush a leaf between your fingers and smell it. The strong odor will affirm that this plant must also have a very strong taste that is unpalatable to most insects. Deer and cattle, however, do occasionally graze on it. Keep this is mind if you have an abundance of grazing animals around your property. Plant it in an area where cattle, horses, and goats can be kept away by fencing. A well established plant can regenerate itself quickly and thus withstand a certain amount of grazing as long as the animal is decent enough to leave a bit behind. This is a very good plant for attracting butterflies and hummingbirds to feed on nectar. Larger birds such as quail and turkeys feed on the berries that appear in summer and fall. So here is a native plant that repels some critters and is attractive to others.
Some of us that live in the country are in areas that are overpopulated by deer and will want to use plants that are not going to be eaten. Some may live in areas where wildlife is scarce and will want to use plants that attract deer and other critters. Others may wish for a bird sanctuary or a haven for butterflies. Whatever category you fit in, there are plant lists available. Your local native plant experts or Parks & Wildlife biologist can help you get started. If there is a Native Plant Society chapter in a nearby town, go to some meetings. You can quickly learn a lot and find people enthusiastic and willing to share their knowledge. The trick is to use plants that are utilized by the wildlife you wish to attract or concentrate on plants that will repel or at least not be eaten by the critters that can become a nuisance.
I hope that these general ideas and suggestions will help. I can assure you that all I have written here has come from the hard won experience or personal successes and failure. I continue to see so many folks attempt (with good intention) to create a rural landscape that can only survive with constant maintenance or is destined to fail altogether. True success can only be achieved by working in harmony with nature.