My landscape crew recently installed a truck load of buffalo grass sod at the brand new hotel at Wildcatter Ranch in the Possum Kingdom area. The existing soil was a mix of mostly subsoil that had been highly compacted by construction equipment. I vividly remember the expressions of our general contractor and the local topsoil supplier when I told them that a layer of topsoil would not be necessary. “Buffalograss,” I explained, “Thrives in tight soils where most other grasses can’t grow.” Of course, these guys were used to providing rich soils for Bermuda and other imported lawn grasses.
My friend Armand Hufault got a similar response when he ripped out the typical suburban lawn of his newly purchased home in Austin. The neighbors really flipped when the gravel truck showed up with 20 tons of limestone gravel which was unceremoniously dumped and spread. Armand mixed this with some local “Dillo Dirt” and proceeded to provide the type of soil conditions that the Hill Country natives preferred. Not only did this work, but Armand’s landscape soon became the showplace of the neighborhood, plus his lawn chores were reduced to pulling a few weeds.
Most American homeowners have become so used to soil improvement, fertilizing, and providing extra water that they sometimes have trouble adjusting to using local native plant material. We are constantly reminding folks that our local natives have been doing just fine on normal rainfall and whatever soil is found locally. However, that is not to say that one can simply “go native” by purchasing a few plants, tossing them into the ground and proceeding to do nothing. Bear in mind that Armand did change the character of his suburban lawn. His methods were just a bit different. Likewise, my guys placed our buffalo sod on compacted soil, but when we constructed our beds for native shrubs and flowering perennials we used local sandy loam mixed with stone gathered from the ranch. What I’m working up to here is that knowing the preferred habitat is key to successful planting.
When you consider microclimate and soil type you will start to recognize preferred habitat. For example, the bluebonnets may thrive on the sloped shoulders along our highways but will not be seen in the borrow ditch where water stands after a rain. This clues us in that bluebonnets prefer well drained soil and will likely perish in boggy places. You will immediately extrapolate from this that all plants have a preferred habitat. Therefore the more you study soil type, microclimate, subsoil, even rock strata, the better you will be at matching these conditions in your landscape.
The misconception about native plants is that they are care free simply because they exist in the wild. The person who steps out the back door and haphazardly throws a package of wildflower seeds envisions a beautiful meadow. If this dreamer is lucky, he or she may be rewarded with a few of the more vigorous species. More often than not, what happens is nothing at all. Sooner or later you must realize that all plants are (or at least were) natives to somewhere. Success or failure in gardening depends largely on our knowledge of the plants we attempt to grow and their particular needs.
The one thing your local natives all have in common is your climate. Even so, there are places that are sunny, places in the shade, high and dry hilltops, or low places that collect runoff. These are called micro-climates. We can expect survival during extremes of temperature and sporadic rainfall. We can expect resistance to local insects or disease. But we should not expect that woodland fern, that native hibiscus from the marshy area, and that Blackfoot daisy from the rocky hillside to all be happy in the same location in our home landscape. It just doesn’t work that way. Although there are a good number of plants that actually do survive in a wide range of conditions, it is important to note that the tree or shrub found growing on the most exposed and barren sites is often twisted or stunted while the same plant in better soil and location will be more robust.
I am afraid that those of us in the industry who extol the virtues of native plants tend to overstate our case in an effort to get John Q. Public interested in trying a new approach. Yes natives do require less water and can reduce chemical use or other external inputs to near zero, but they are still plants. To look acceptable they still need assistance from the gardener from time to time. Unfortunately, too many amateurs will go to a seminar, read an article, or take the nursery sales person too seriously and surmise that natives are absolutely bulletproof. Well…………………….almost!!
Native plants, when used correctly can greatly reduce your maintenance while providing year round color and interest. If your gardening preference is neat and tidy then you can keep your natives just as neat and tidy as any domesticated greenhouse beauty. On the other hand if you prefer a more relaxed style or you want habitat for birds, butterflies, or wildlife in general then you definitely need to know your natives. Again, the trick is to understand the preferred habitat of individual species.
Like most of you, my landscape beds used to be slightly raised with some type of formal border. I filled these beds with rich compost thinking that this was best for most plants. As long as I was using traditional “well adapted” landscape plants this worked real well. When I started using more natives I noticed that some responded by becoming overgrown to the point of flopping over. Others just got lush and much bigger than I expected. It was then that I considered that some of these natives just weren’t meant for richer soils. What kept them looking good in Nature was apparently linked to their struggle to survive in meager soils and adverse conditions. “Tough love,” if you will, is just what these plants have evolved with and apparently require. As you become familiar with your local natives please notice just how many of the showiest flowering shrubs and perennials grow in some of the worst places. Here they have found their niche where competition from other plants is less due to the meager environment.
Lately my landscapes are beginning to look more like my friend Armand’s. I am constructing rock and gravel berms. I have begun to plant beds that have no discernable borders when I am not plagued with invasive lawn grasses like Bermuda. In fact, we invited our buffalo grass to come on in the beds to mingle with our native shrubs and flowering perennials at the new Wildcatter Hotel. My beds will have contour as opposed to being flat or level. This gives us high spots for the plants that prefer drainage plus low places to collect runoff for those that need more water. The result of these combinations is more interesting for the viewer plus more natural in appearance. In addition, this type of landscape is SO MUCH MORE FUN to design. Using natural elements combined with local plants gives us a true regional identity which is just what my friends at Wildcatter Ranch want.
I have learned this from observing Nature and attempting to replicate her handiwork. Now when I see an interesting plant in the wild I look closely at the habitat. Is it found in rocky soil where the grasses are sparse? Is it under a tree? Are there better specimens in sunnier locales or in richer soils? Is this plant found mainly on southern exposures or cooler northern slopes? Microclimate is the key. We can manage this by constructing similar habitat in our home landscape.
Although native plants really are better suited to our climate and soil, they are still going to perform best if given suitable habitat. In order to get really good at selecting the right plant for the right location you must have an understanding of preferred habitat even if that means providing compacted gravel for soil. To be sure, success with natives is no different than growing healthy roses or being good at vegetable gardening. They are all plants that respond (or not) to the conditions we provide. The more you know the easier it will be to grow.