Water Conservation – Part 2

Chinese Ground Orchid (Bletilla), Chinese Ginger (Asarum) and native Hinkley's Columbine happy in shade.

A couple of weeks ago, I began a series to look at how we can get our lawns and gardens through the tough times of drought. We’re using the Earth-Kind ® model, developed by horticulturists with Texas AgriLife Extension Service.

Earth-Kind Landscaping uses research-proven techniques to provide maximum garden and landscape enjoyment while preserving and protecting the environment. The objective of Earth-Kind Landscaping is to combine the best of organic and traditional gardening and landscaping principles to create a horticultural system based on real world effectiveness and environmental responsibility. Earth-Kind landscaping includes water conservation as one its main objectives, and pulls together 7 principles to help you develop a water-efficient landscape.

These principles include: 1) planning your landscape with water conservation in mind; 2) using plants appropriate for our area and your soil type; 3) having practical turf areas; 4) improving the soil prior to planting; 5) employing efficient irrigation practices; 6) using mulches to cover bare soil; and 7) applying appropriate maintenance practices.

Last time we discussed looked at how developing a plan can help avoid mistakes and make your landscape more water-efficient.

Scene in IDEA Garden

Appropriate Plant Selection. Plants are the stars of the landscape, the living texture that makes up the scene. The wise gardener will chose plants with a proven track record of thriving in the local environment. These are the plants are adapted to our climate – average rainfall, humidity, average high and low temperatures, and soils.

Every yard has microclimates and specific environmental conditions that need to be considered during the plant selection process. For example, a site can have conditions with full, all-day sun, or all-day shade; sandy, droughty soil, or water-retaining clay soil; sloping terrain or boggy depressions. During the planning process, these should be discovered and noted so plants can be selected that will be adapted to those specific conditions.

Landscaping with drought-tolerant plants doesn’t mean 1) you’ll never have to water them, or 2) you have to use desert plants. One of the most drought-tolerant groups of plants is cactus, but these plants don’t fit well into most East Texas landscape plans. On the other hand, azaleas, an East Texas iconic plant, typically require more frequent watering than many other landscape plants, but are effectively and efficiently used when wisely located in properly prepared soil, and perhaps limited to high-visibility areas where you get the most for your landscape and water dollars.

Any new planting will require regular irrigation the first year or two for the plants to become well-established and able to withstand periods of drought later on.

Knowledge Resources. There are thousands of plants used in landscaping, and probably just as many reference books and online sources of information. So, where do you go to find help in selecting the right plants for the right spot? An obvious choice is a knowledgeable neighbor or friend with years of successful gardening experience. Nurserymen at local independent garden centers are rich sources of knowledge and can help you pick out the right plants. Master Gardeners are often available in county Extension offices to answer your gardening questions.

Gardening publications for our East Texas region are invaluable. The Northeast Texas Gardening Guide and Calendar, published by Smith County Master Gardeners, is an example of one specifically tailored to our region.

There are many gardening books written for Texas by Texans.  There are so many, that I hate to start listing, because I will leave out a lot of good ones. (Maybe a topic for a future column). But, a couple of helpful titles that I’m familiar with to get you started include The Best of Texas Landscape Guide published by the Texas Nursery and Landscape Association (TNLA), and Doug Welsh’s Texas Gardening Almanac.

And, then there are references for the South, which can be of help. I particularly like The Southern Living Garden Book which has an encyclopedic listing of plants adapted across the south, plus helpful lists for selecting plants for specific conditions. Most of reference books have maps that identify different growing zones.

Of course, the internet is full of sites offering information of all kinds. Sorting through the millions of web pages for reliable information can be frustrating and confusing. So, here are some online resources that you can rely on for choosing plants for your yard:

Easttexasgardening.tamu.edu – this is my web site, and there you’ll find a link to East Texas Home Gardening. One of the submenu items is Landscape Plants where you find several useful articles and resources, including Recommended Plants for East Texas.

EarthKind.tamu.edu – Included in this resource-rich web site is the Earth-Kind Plant Selector. This innovative database lets you search for plants based on regions in Texas and criteria that you specify. The search results are ranked, starting with the best “resource-efficient” plants, which includes drought tolerance, heat tolerance, pest tolerance, soil requirement and fertility requirement.

Also included in the Earth-Kind web site is the Earth-Kind Roses site, which lists 21 roses, selected based on their low-maintenance requirements and great landscape performance.

Aggiehorticulture.tamu.edu is the home of Earth-Kind web site, but includes so much more. If you are looking for the best the vegetables or fruit trees, or other landscape and garden information, make this site one of your top bookmarks to visit regularly. You probably will find the answer to your questions.

Public Gardens. Locally, another resource you should not overlook are public. In Tyler, the IDEA Garden, located in the Tyler Rose Garden, was designed to provide ideas, information and inspiration through plant trials and plant displays, and demonstrating good gardening techniques. Across from the IDEA Garden is the Heritage Garden, which displays adapted roses and time-tested perennials in an attractive landscape setting. And in between these 2 are the Shade Garden, full of shade-loving plants, and the Sunshine Garden, a theme garden filled with sun-loving mostly white and yellow plants.

Azaleas in Ruby Mize Azalea Garden at SFA Mast Arboretum in Nacogdoches

A bit further away is the Stephen F. Austin Mast Arboretum in Nacogdoches, the East Texas Arboretum in Athens, and a new demonstration garden in Cherokee County.


Note that there is no such thing as “no-maintenance” plants or landscapes. But by careful selection, you can minimize maintenance and maximize your success and enjoyment in landscaping your yard.

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