Our priorities as homeowners have changed over the past 100 years. Today most of us want low maintenance, less water use, and less chemical use in our landscapes. In order to achieve this, we must change our values or habits a when it comes to lawns, irrigation, and choice of plants. The landscape and nursery industry has begun to address these issues but truly radical change has been slow to appear. Yet drastic change does seem to be just on the horizon if we are to continue ornamental horticulture as we know it. Likely as not, today’s do-it-yourself homeowner is liable to come home with the very same plant material, fertilizers, and other paraphernalia that were used by their parents or grandparents over 50 years ago. Better choices are available but in most cases are not being utilized by the general public or even recommended by many professionals. We offered a few suggestions last month for people who are considering additional landscaping or who have recently bought a new property. What about those who already have a mature landscape? Even though most of us have established lawns, trees. and shrubs there are steps we can take to lower our maintenance costs and improve the value of our property at the same time. Here are some suggestions:
1. Turn off the water. While this may shock some of you, it is a very good way to separate the good plants from the water guzzlers. If your particular community has not yet experienced the inconvenience of mandatory water rationing or been cut off from outdoor watering altogether, then consider yourself lucky………but be aware that this will happen sooner or later. One of the first lessons we learn under water restrictions is that the landscapes that were habitually watered are the first to suffer from drought stress and the most likely to actually lose valuable plant material. Any plant (even those normally considered drought tolerant) will adapt to regular irrigation patterns. If constant surface water is available then the plant has no reason to put down deep root structures. All the roots (even those of “deep rooted” trees) will stay shallow since moisture is readily available at the surface.
If you are one who fears the monthly water bill you can actually help drought proof your existing landscape by infrequent deep watering as opposed to weekly scheduled water. Research has proven that this is actually better for most plants and has the additional benefit of reducing disease and insect problems. Do not turn off the irrigation altogether as this will be very stressful. Instead you should drought proof your landscape by reducing irrigation at a gradual rate until you are only using water to supplement lack of natural rainfall. Nature does not provide constant moisture anywhere in our state. Instead we have rainy spells and dry spells. As the top of the soil dries out, plant roots will follow residual moisture down through the subsoil until they reach the water table, hardpan, or solid rock. This wet/dry pattern encourages deep rooting which in turn enables the plant to survive long periods of drought. Again, this works on any and all plants.
On the other hand, if you suspect that you own a landscape full of water guzzlers you may separate the tough guys from the wimps by allowing your landscape to go a full year without any supplemental water at all. One good Texas summer should be all it takes to find out which plants are able to stay and which will need to be replaced. The criteria for replacement plants will be (of course) any plant native to your area or any plant capable of survival on your annual rainfall. These plants then will look great with just a little extra water to help them through the dry times. Believe it or not, quite a few of our old standard traditional plants are very capable of surviving on rainfall once they have become established.
2. Get your lawn off drugs! Of course this applies to the entire landscape. You’ll never read this on a bag of fertilizer but it is true that high nitrogen products force growth. This burst of chemically induced growth causes more mowing (or pruning as the case may be) and more water use to support that growth. Furthermore this faster growth generally results in thinner leaf tissues which are more easily digested by insects or colonized by disease organisms. This is OK if you are into chemical use because then you can purchase even more chemicals to cure these problems. Here’s another fact; synthetic herbicides and those wonderful “weed and feed” products are actually harmful to your trees, shrubs, and lawn grasses. Don’t take my word for it, just read the fine print on the labels. Besides which, all of these products (including and especially the nitrates in fertilizers) are toxic to insects, fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals. Whatever we use on our lawns eventually runs off into our river systems and/or leaches into our groundwater. Where else CAN it go?
Yes we can produce lush growth, kill weeds, insects, and treat disease while at the same time giving our landscape the false appearance of health by using chemicals but it comes with a price. If you enjoy mowing more, watering more, and spending money on lawn products then you will find plenty of landscape professionals who will encourage you to do so. On the other hand, if you like the majority of homeowners today are interested in less mowing, saving time, and money (not to mention the environment), you should cease using synthetic lawn products and seek natural alternatives.
3. Limit lawn size. Even though the lawn has become a “given” in traditional landscaping, few people realize just how much time and money we spend on lawn space that we rarely use. Facts show that lawn grass is the most expensive item in our landscape. Consider other types of groundcover, garden space, extra parking, pathways, storage area, gazebo, water feature, basically ANYTHING THAT ISN’T LAWN will eventually pay for itself once you figure the true cost of mowing, watering, fertilizing, and weed control.
4. Plant smart. Beside choosing native and well adapted plants plus reducing your lawn area you should learn more about the art of planting. In the past 50 years or so, traditional landscaping has taught us to rely on chemicals. This is changing as better science and technology emerges. Not long ago, most of us were taught to dig out a hole or bed, replace our native soil with imported peat moss and topsoil then add some fertilizer to this brew. If any problem arose we were taught to immediately react with even more chemicals. Today we have found it much better to add compost to our existing soils to provide fertility. We now recommend improving the entire area with shallow applications rather than digging the deep “underground pots” of days gone by. In addition to this we also find it much easier to select plants suited to our conditions rather than attempt to change our habitat to suit the plant. Know your soil, climate, and exposure to plant smart.
Another smart thing to consider is the mature size of the plants you select. One of the glaringly ridiculous things we have accepted from our old traditions is planting trees and shrubs around our foundations that have to be constantly pruned to keep them in bounds. If you need a three foot plant then find something suitable that will reach that height at maturity. Don’t plant a six footer then attempt to keep it whacked off at three. That’s called maintenance. If you are already saddled with a bunch of pruning chores then make plans to extract the offending plants and replace them with something more appropriate.
5. Accept Nature. As you begin to turn away from our old traditions you will soon discover that things become a whole lot easier once you relax and let nature do her job. You will realize that much of what you were taught to believe about landscaping only works as long as you are willing to spend the time and money to attempt to control each and every aspect. You just may find that you can appreciate natural growth forms as opposed to forcing your trees and shrubs to grow into geometric shapes. You may join the ranks of a growing number of folks who now enjoy sharing their outdoor space with birds, butterflies, and other wild critters. Nature will always bring things into balance if we allow her to. Realize that balance means equality instead of perfection or our personal version of what we think Nature should be. On the other hand, things will certainly to get out of balance when we insist on control. Nature then becomes your enemy rather than your partner.
I hope these suggestions have got you thinking now. There are many other things that you can do to continue fine tuning your outdoor environment to save time and money. Just keep thinking along the same line with these general ideas. Keep your mind open to new things that you will discover as you go along. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Nature will show you the way if you’ll simply be observant. Realize that much of the free advice other people give on this subject is well meant but old news. Unless of course your friend or family member just happens to be on the cutting edge of landscaping in the current century. Let’s free ourselves from the old stumbling blocks of the past.