THE HOW DO GARDENER: Native plants save water, time, money, energy

New Dawn Rose on Trellis (Photo by Rick Bickling)

By RICK BICKLING

Native plants are flowers, plants, trees, shrubs, vines and grasses that have grown and adapted naturally over time in a particular area based on that area’s soil conditions, typical rainfall, elevation, general climate and weather conditions. They are an excellent way of introducing color, texture and variety into your home landscape with plants that are easy to care for.

Native plants offer many benefits over other traditional, but non-native varieties. Among these are reduced irrigation needs, reduced pesticide use, reduced fertilizer use, resistance to pests and disease, and energy conservation. In essence, since they are able to grow and thrive on their own, you won’t have to put a whole lot of extra effort into caring for them once they are established.

I really like working in the garden; I find it relaxing to be out in nature and focused on whatever gardening task I happen to be working on. But let’s face it, we all know the meaning of the phrase “too much of a good thing.” By using native plants whenever possible, you can spend less time maintaining your landscape, and more time enjoying it.

The key factor in successfully integrating native plants, or any plant for that matter, into your home landscape is to choose the right plant for the right purpose, and choosing plants that are adapted to Central Texas. A native plant that is ideally suited to growing in shade in Seattle, or the full sun in Phoenix, will probably not do well here in the Liberty Hill area.

Native plants are used to “taking care of themselves” when it comes to their irrigation and fertilization needs. Because they are so well adapted to a particular climate, and the typical fluctuations in temperature and rainfall that occur over time, they do best without heavy supplemental irrigation and fertilization. We all sometimes get an “itchy trigger finger” with our garden hoses when we are out in the yard watering our plants. But over watering and fertilization will kill a native plant much faster than a regional drought.

Just as native plants are well adapted to a certain area, each area of the country has its own “native pests.” The pests and the native plants have been trying to eat or repel each other for a long time. They have eventually reached equilibrium where either a given native plant is not damaged at all, or very little, by these pests. Which means that you typically don’t have to use pesticides on them.

You may be wondering how a native plant can help with energy conservation. After all, you can’t plug your toaster into your Oak tree. But, by properly placing native trees, shrubs, and vines in your landscape, you can significantly modify the micro-climate around your home to make it more energy efficient and lower your utility bills.

Large trees that shade the roof of a house can reduce the temperature in the house by as much as 8 to 10 degrees. By using native deciduous trees, trees that lose their leaves in the winter, you get the best of both worlds. Cooling shade from sun in the summer, and sunlight reaching your roof in the winter to help in keeping it warm.

Use smaller trees and shrubs to provide shade for outside air-conditioner units. Just be sure not to obstruct the airflow, and to leave room for service access. A study by the American Refrigeration Institute shows that this practice can reduce the temperature inside a home by as much as three degrees.

For exterior walls that receive severe summer sun, try using a vertical trellis, about one foot away from the wall, with a native vine growing on it. This will allow air circulation behind the trellis, the foliage will block the sun in the summer, and when it dies back in winter, will allow the sun to reach the house to help keep it warm.

The Texas AgriLife Extension Service in Williamson County is always a great source for information, not just about native plants, but about any plant, tree, vegetable, turf grass, or general gardening question you may have for our area.

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, The University of Texas at Austin, has an excellent web tool for finding the native plants that are specific to each state, and recommended for various purposes.

Native plants make an attractive and easy to care for addition to any home landscape. You don’t have to tear out all of your existing grass, trees, plants, and shrubs to enjoy them. Try different varieties and locations to find what works best in your yard. Remember, once they are established, to just let them take care of themselves, and you can just sit back and enjoy.

Rick Bickling is a certified Master Gardener in Williamson County. He has been designing, planting and maintaining landscapes and gardens for more than 30 years. Visit www.howdogardener.com or reach Rick by email at howdogardener@LHIndependent.com.