Spring Time Perspective

If pushed, I’d declare Spring my least favorite season.  It’s the rush.  There is no lineal time in gardening, only a revolving and rotating sphere of experiences.  But it can be tough when clients don’t share the same perspective, and stressful.

But the Redbuds are blooming and the birds seem a little more frisky, which always stirs up a horticultural urge or two.  And we do have to respect the financial benefits of human nature this time of year.  So I reluctantly recognize that its time to get busy, and offer some considerations and perspective for the start of the worst season:

Drought and Commitment

Austin’s drinking and garden water source, the Highland Lakes, are still at only 38% capacity, unhelped by one of the driest Januaries on record.   It’s a difficult time to make big improvements in the landscape.

An established St. Augustine in proper conditions requires less water and maintenance  than new native plants.  Only after a long-term commitment of watering, weeding, selective pruning, deer/pest management,  mulching, and hands-and-knees effort can one realize the full benefits of native plants.   Since most people don’t even know if they own the same home in five years, it really makes no sense for most people to invest in the construction of large native beds, especially in drought.


Work With What You’ve Got

Instead of a big landscape re-do, we’re pushing for a big perspective shift.  If your St. Augustine has survived the last several years of drought with no help from you, then maybe it deserves a little respect.  It’s very likely that only the small patches out by the street and in the corners that don’t receive the protection of your mature Oaks are looking ratty right now.  A house shouldn’t get torn down just because it needs a new paint job, so a landscape doesn’t need a total restart because there are few dead patches in the lawn.  A little touch-up will work wonders.

So, instead of scraping it all down, build up those edges.  Plant some understory trees to expand the shade offering – a Redbud for Spring, a Palo Verde for Summer, a Prairie Sumac for Fall, a Possumhaw for Winter.  Four trees, a little compost, a little mulch, $800 to your favorite landscaper, a $3 shower bucket for gray-watering your new trees and boom, cross off Spring gardening from the list and get on with your life.  Or consider some other low-impact options.

Build A Garden Box/Rain Water Harvesting

The return on investment for vegetables happens much faster than natives.  Austin almost always requires raised beds to allow space for supplemental soil, but they can be built on the cheap with found materials.  Almost any time of the year is good for planting something edible in Austin gardens, and with a little extra care, vegetables will thrive where a traditional lawn won’t.

Food gardening still requires water, so consider incorporating rain water harvesting to your landscape.  Even a small barrel will give you a one- or two-week supply, though storage of several thousands of gallons will get you closer to total water independence.  There might also be opportunities for passive rain water harvesting – re-shaping the land in garden areas to slow and hold rain water.  Treating rain as a asset instead of a burden is one of the biggest steps towards sustainability in the landscape.


Drought is a good time to deal with those physical problems in the landscape too.  If the mailman is wearing a path across the front lawn, or the dog has created a trail along the fence, or you just need to tie two spaces together, a beefy limestone walkway could do the trick.  Mulch can work too, as an easy and cheaper alternative that helps buffer soils from compaction and temperature and humidity swings.


Irrigation systems are one of those gardening chores always written in re-appearing ink.  These should be inspected at least once a month for leaks and other inefficiencies, and tweaked as the needs of plants change from month to month.  Often, an established landscape has outgrown the irrigation system designed for its adolescence, and water and money can be saved by combining or eliminating zones.  Replacing nozzles with more water efficient models is an easy and relatively cheap way to reduce water use by up to 30%.

Compost Topdressing

We usually spend our Aprils spreading compost as a topdressing in lawns.  It’s an easy theoretical justification – the microbes in the compost are most active when the weather is nice and the nutrients in the compost will be absorbed more completely by an actively growing plant.  A 1/4″ will do the trick, usually 1-3 cubic yards for a typical lawn.

So as you get the itch to do something during the most sinful season, try it at a mature pace.  Consider taking care of the preliminaries first while the drought limits our ability to be ambitious, and develop the stamina for the more long-term requirements of a major re-do.  Plant some trees, build a little vegetable patch, spread some mulch compost, fix those sprinklers, and put in a rain barrel.  When the drought finally lifts, we can lift our expectations a little too and start thinking big again.  But for now, take it easy, chill out, and try to avoid racing against Nature.  Enjoy whatever section of the constant cycle you happen to find yourself in, and happy spring.






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