Austin Landscapes in the 5th Dimension

Hello January Spring Lovers!

Last years frozen pipes are this years Mountain Laurel blooms, so it goes in Austin, TX.   Usually, spring means concentrating on organic soil building to strengthen turf grass and fight weeds.  But drought and rain and unseasonable temps have expanded our understanding of the universe, giving us a new reality of what it means to be a landscape in Austin, TX.   Welcome to the 5th Dimension.

WEEDS

St. Augustine lawns turned to dirt by October, then to a salad of weeds when the rains started in December.  Historically, we’ve fought weeds with hand pulling and organic maintenance programs that promote vigorous lawn growth to choke out weeds.  This year,  the grass is gone and the weeds are the new majority.  But are they really weeds?  Depends how you look at it.

In the ancient world of three dimensions existed a monoculture of plain boring turf grass.  Around 1985 or so, Einstein discovered native plants, and developed his theory on the superiority of Salvias and Lantanas to suburban lawns to bring us into the fourth dimension.  But that was an elementary exercise compared to the contributions of the Queen Bitch of Enlightenment, La Niña.  She graced us with unprecedented drought starting in 2011, vaporizing the illusions of so-called drought tolerance and creating a new reality for Austin landscapes.  Hence, the dawn of the 5th dimension.

In many landscapes around Austin, we’ve seen certain plants thrive, including the old standbys like Twist Leaf Yucca, Texas Mountain Laurel, Sotols, 4-nerve Daisy, and other super tough natives.  No problem there.  But in lawns, we’ve seen the rise of Henbit, Chickweed, Black Medic, Stickyweed, Shepherd’s Purse, Dandelion, Wild Lettuce, and others, all targeted as pest plants in the pre-Drought world.  But not in the 5th Dimension of Enlightenment.  Here, these scapegoats become heroes, packed with valuable uses from aesthetic to zinc.

Henbit

These are the little purple flowers that are everywhere in Austin lawns right now, usually in sunny spots but also in part-shade.

Henbit

Instead of pulling or spraying or mowing these, they can be cultivated and eaten!  When allowed to colonize and with a little weeding of single and random plants growing among a patch of Henbit, they can be just as beautiful as any wildflower.  And the stems, leaves, and flowers are edible and make a great addition to salads or rubs.

Chickweed

The Cobbler has stands of this growing in the most neglected parts of the lawn, along the sidewalk outside the fence.  By just pulling the random cool season grasses that pop through every few weeks, its easy to pretend that Chickweed is an intentional ornamental.

Chickweed
Chickweed Bed – Ready to Eat

The leaves and stems are edible in small quantities, raw or cooked.  Although its nutritional, Chickweed can make the tummy churn with violence if consumed in large portions, so use it sparingly.

Black Medic

This clover-like legume has rough edges around the leaves and bright yellow flowers.  They grow in sunny lawns all over Austin.

Black Medic – Organic Nitrogen Factory
Black Medic Lawn Strip.  The only visible weeds are grasses!

The seeds of Black Medic are edible, but even more impressively, Black Medic plants are like organic fertilizer factories that pull Nitrogen out of the air and add it to the soil.  An entire multibillion dollar industry double dips on this poor plant:  1) by selling chemicals to kill it; 2) by selling synthetic fertilizers that try (and fail) to replicate what the poisoned Black Medic plants used to do on their own.

Stickyweed

This is one of the most ubiquitous Austin weeds of very early spring, and always disappears as soon as it gets hot.  It grows super fast, is easy to pull, climbs, and sticks to clothing without being too prickly.

Lone Stickyweed, Growing Where No Other Plants Could
Stickyweed Growing in Neglected Lot in East Austin

A certain local morning radio show host complains about this stuff in long. boring. detail. every. single. year.   Not that I listen to him of course, I’m a KOOP man.  Turns out, the stems and leaves of Stickyweed can be eaten raw, cooked, or brewed into a tea, and are a great source of Vitamin C.   Eat that.

Shepherd’s Purse

Like most plants, this one is most enjoyed at a closer level when you slow down, eliminate superficial distractions of life, and pay attention to the beauty of the world right under your nose.  Shepherd’s Purse grows in sunny spots where there’s foot traffic, crappy soils or other disturbance, and seems to thrive in areas where stray trash lands.

Shepherd’s Purse seed stem, with Heart-shaped Seed Pods
Patch of Shepherd’s Purse, at a Vacant Church Where Prostitutes Like to Hang Out on Early Sunday Mornings

The  heart-shaped seed pods can be eaten raw,  and the young leaves are good raw or cooked.  Be sure to wash them first though, especially if unsure about contamination levels of certain human body fluids on some urban crops.

SOIL FEEDING

A 1/4″ layer of compost as a topdressing is still a good idea, no matter what’s growing in the lawn.  Compost still does great things by adding nutrients, beneficial microbes, and improving drainage and water retention of soils.  But just about any plant growing in that soil will benefit, not just the few strands of St. Augustine that somehow survived last summer.  So be sure you know who you’re feeding, and consider a big push of hand-weeding unwanted vegetation before applying the good stuff.

Compost

Usually applied in April, though the window seems be opening a little earlier this year.  Dillo Dirt is fine if you’re not scared of what could be in there, but you might not want to risk that if you decide to start grazing your lawn.  Finished manure composts are more expensive, but are probably cleaner and safer.

Each 1,250 square foot patch of lawn would need about one cubic yard of compost for good coverage.  We charge about $50/cubic yard for Manure Compost plus a $50-100 delivery fee, and another $40/cubic yard to spread it.  Mas or Menos.

Triple Shot

This is our blend of locally sourced compost tea, liquid seaweed/fish emulsion/humic acid, and liquid molasses.  We start applying this organic cocktail as a foliar feed to lawn and landscape plants in March, and continue monthly or even bi-weekly through the growing season and until the first freezes.   Monthly applications are usually about $55, and cover up to 5,000 square feet.

RAIN WATER COLLECTION and IRRIGATION

The story on Stage 3 Restrictions isn’t as grim as it was a few weeks ago, and there is no longer a threat of banned outdoor watering by June.  But still, that scare should be enough to have everyone thinking hard about every drop.  We can install a basic 2,500 gallon rain water collection system for about $2,500.  This doesn’t include guttering, pumps, or anything fancy, but should keep a small vegetable garden alive all summer.  Systems are relatively easy to retrofit for added capacity, or to incorporate into a more sophisticated automatic irrigation system.

For those with existing irrigation systems, it’s critical to pay close attention to when and how they are used.  Most systems should be OFF right now, the recent rains have saturated soils for us.  But when the soils dry out and the heat sets in, use those systems sparingly.  If they must be set on timers instead of running them manually only as needed, consider starting them out monthly, then gradually increasing the frequency as the season wears on.

Irrigation assessments are usually about $65, and include a look at all heads and visible components to make sure there are no major inefficiencies.

VEGGIE GARDENS

We’re still going forward with food gardens in this new world, considering it the one luxury of modern landscapes of the 5th Dimension.  Cool season stuff is slowly playing out:  we’ll keep the broccoli in the ground as long as the flowers are attracting bees, the lettuce going until it turns super bitter, and the strawberries fed with Triple Shot all spring when they fruit, and then covered with shade cloth in the brutal summer months in hopes of another fruit set this fall.

But as the winter annuals fade out, we’re adding extra compost to beds and starting seeds for warm season crops, which we’ll start planting soon.  Not only the usual suspects like Tomatoes and Cucumbers, but also cut flowers like Mexican Sunflowers and Poppies, tough perennial plants like Butterfly Weed, Sages, Bergamot, and herbs like Oregano, Basil, Epazote, Cilantro and more.

We’ve made some pretty cool boxes from found materials over the years, but are still building our standard 4’x8′ boxes using 2″x12″x12″ milled Cedar as a simple, attractive, and long-lasting option.  These boxes, built, set, leveled, and filled with super high quality garden soil are about $600.

Or just eat your weeds.  Weed is the new green, grazing is the new mowing, and neglect is the new love.   It’s a strange new world.

New Tree Care

By assuming the City of Austin will shut off outdoor watering by June, I’ll have a head start on the collective depression our region will feel come August, when just about everything is dead.  But I’m a big fan of balance, so I’m fighting off that inevitable depression by planting lots of trees this winter.  I figure I’m buying a little shade for when we need it most, and a place to dump our used dish water all summer.  Maybe you’re in the same school.  If so, here are some tips to keep your new trees alive.

Water your tree.  How often?  Hard to say.  But when you water, soak the soil to make the water go deep.  Then let the top 6″-12″ of soil dry out before watering again, to train roots to grow down.  When its super hot and dry, this might be once a week.  In winter it might be once a month.  As the tree matures, you can back off watering.

Here’s a chart that attempts to standardize maintenance for fruit trees.  It can also apply to native trees if you’re hyperactive, but for the most part, all you really need to do for the natives is keep them watered.

A stripped down plan is this:  keep your tree watered once a week during the first year and you should be fine.

 

 

 

 

My Landscape is Dead, Now What?

Oof, the gauge of public reaction to drought rots in the in-boxes of landscapers all over Austin.  “My grass is dead, we need help replacing it with something that won’t die in drought.  How?”

There are no easy answers.  Austin is not Phoenix or Seattle, with predictable rainfall and temperature patterns.  2011 was El Paso precipitation with a Minneapolis winter blast.   2006 was  New Orleans rainfall and a Miami January.  We can’t grow desert plants because it gets too cold, and we can’t grow sub-tropical plants because we experience long-term droughts.  We are the bastard child of normal climate patterns.  “What’s a poor Fort Worth (or Austin) boy to do”?

For Dead Lawns in Full Sun

Chances are that the dead grass that used to live in full sun conditions was St. Augustine.  I like St. Augustine, it’s a super drought tolerant groundcover over rich, well-drained soils, in the shade.  Otherwise, its a brass handrail on the Austin Titanic.  If you must have a lawn in full sun conditions, then you must flex your compromise muscles.   The below options will only work in low-traffic sites, and if you’re willing to bend the idiotic notions of pristine suburban lawns and forgot all about St. Augustine.

Full Sun Lawn – Option 1 – Native Grasses by Seed

We have successfully established lawns using a mix of native grasses  (Buffalo, Blue Grama, Curly Mesquite) started from seed, which is now available as a standard mix called Thunder Turf from Native American Seed in Junction.  These folks are, to me, the best native seed supplier in the state.  But, there are two huge hurdles that you’d have to overcome to make this work:

1.  Water.  Seeds need a constant soil moisture to germinate, which means daily watering for at least two weeks in the form of rain or your sprinkler system or garden hose.  If you plant in spring, it will take the entire summer under ideal conditions to get the grass to establish.  After two weeks of daily (or even twice a day) watering, you can start to back off, but still, you will have to water at least once a week during the entire summer.  If you let young grass seedlings dry out once, it’s all over and you have to reseed again, and these seeds aren’t very cheap.

2.  Weeds.  Even though the Thunder Turf mix can eventually be the turf grass option that requires the least maintenance, it takes years for it to become that way.  Once established, it requires very little water, no fertilizer, and very little mowing to stay happy.  But before then, and during the first three months especially, you will have to spend an insane amount of time weeding all of the opportunistic jerks that love the freshly prepared soil and constant water that you are giving the native grass seeds.  Weekly weeding all summer will be absolutely mandatory.  The amount of effort required will depend on how weed-infested your current lawn is now and what the soil is like, but a reasonable expectation is at least 1-2 hours per week through the summer, then gradually tapering off.

Cost to do it right ranges from $1.25/2.50 per square foot, depending on current level of weed infestation and how committed you are to chemical avoidance.

Full Sun Lawn – Option 2 – ‘Density’ Buffalo Grass from Sod

We have also successfully used a variety of Buffalo Grass known as ‘Density’, grown at a farm in Poteet south of San Antonio.  It will cost something in the ballpark of $2.25 per square foot to install it properly.  Density still requires regular water to get it established, but will have fewer weed problems than starting from seed.

But it will still require weeding to make sure Bermuda or other noxious weeds don’t take over, and uncommon attention to make it perform the way you want.

Full Sun – Option 3 – Trees or Beds or Vegetables

It’s possible that your lawn just needs a little protection from afternoon sun to survive the summer without supplemental water.  There are plenty of non-irrigated St. Augustine lawns in Austin that did fine last summer with the help of some shade trees.  So plant some trees!

Or, maybe you don’t have kids that like to run around barefoot, or maybe you live close enough to a park where they can run wild and free on the public dime.  Maybe a lawn is just a silly notion that you forgot to let go of when you moved out of your parents’ house.  There are options.

Convert that dead lawn into a heat and drought loving native bed, filled with a diverse set of plants that might not look pretty when the going gets tough, but at least they’ll survive and recover when the rains come back.  When they’re happy, they’ll even feed the birds and butterflies and bees.  Just be sure you plan for those New Orleans/Miami years; the low-maintenance xeriscape in dry years is a very, very bad maintenance hangover in wet years.

If you’re gonna use the water in a landscape, then make those drops count.  Convert your dead lawn into a mini-farm and grow veggies instead.  At least you’ll have something to show (and eat) for those water bills.

Of course, trees and new beds and veggies will need a different kind of lovin’ than traditional turf grass, so like the other Full Sun Options, they are not Get Out of Jail Free cards.  You will either need to put on your experimental hat or hire a pro to help overcome the learning curve to make these options work.

Dappled Shade or Full Shade

Some lawns have managed to stay on the fringes of survival in this drought.  Super weedy, thin and crappy looking, but with the benefit of shade.  In some cases, its best to just work with what you have, instead of tearing it all out and starting from scratch.   Applying 1/4″ of compost over the entire lawn can significantly increase the organic content of soils, as well as improving nutrient levels and soil drainage.  A monthly feeding with liquid seaweed, compost tea, fish emulsion, and liquid molasses can help wake up the soil and stimulate root growth.  Proper mowing and occasional but deep watering can do wonders too.  Sometimes, you’ve gotta work with what you’ve got.

Too shady for St. Augustine?  Then do what nature does under a thick canopy of Ashe Juniper, and mulch it deep.  If you must have some green in your duff, try out some native Sedges.  Or maybe some Horseherb mixed with Twist Leaf Yucca, or Tropical Sage for color.  And that’s just for those who can’t deal with the simplicity of plain natural mulch.

Rain Water

Until recently, the main purpose for engineers was to make sure 14″ of rain over a 24-hour period exited the property as calmly and quietly as possible.  That’s changing in Austin as we re-think the value of rain water, and now most commercial developments in Austin implement ways to capture that water, and keep it on site as long as possible for the benefit of plants and water resource conservation.

Rain gardens, rains water collection systems, and other creative paradigm shifts in precipitation strategies are all the rage in Austin for good reason.  And they don’t have to be complicated or expensive.  We can help design and build 2,500-gallon rainwater systems for about $2,500.   That’s enough capacity to keep a typical garden irrigated for at least 6 months without turning on a tap.

No Easy Answers

Ugh, and this is just the simplified version.  Every landscape is different, every users perspective is different, every year sees a different weather pattern.  What works on Holly Street might not necessarily work in Hudson Bend, so it takes a customized plan and a flexible approach.  We don’t have all the answers, but at least we’re thinking about them.

Desert Grasses as Alternative to Traditional Turf Grass

Desert Grasses as Alternative to Traditional Turf Grass

Full Sun Site Prepped and Ready for Thunder Turf Seed Mix

Full Sun Site Prepped and Ready for Thunder Turf Seed Mix

Irrigated Veggie Boxes

Irrigated Veggie Boxes in a Drought Affected Landscape

Fonda Update – Transition Time

Cristina Pulling Weeds at Fonda

Fonda San Miguel’s garden is transitioning into spring. The giant squash, the prolific cherry tomatoes and the Mexican herb, papalote, were felled and frozen by the hard December freezes. Taking their place though are versatile cold hardy spring plants like broccoli, turnips, radishes, arugula and carrots which we planted from seed. The rains were helpful for their establishment. Unfortunately the rain also contributed to weeds galore, so weeding by hand is necessary. After the previous summer without rain, our motto is “we’ll take what we can get.”

In full swing as I write this are Swiss chard, strawberries, lettuce, wild onions and calendulas and some self seeded broccoli from last year’s crop, all of which handled the cold like a polar bear feathered in crisp, non-polluted snow.

This spring we’re looking forward to adding a variety of native Texas wildflowers to the garden. Being a Certified Wildlife Habitat, the added buzz from pollinating insects and birds will add to the community of rhino beetle larvae and earth worms already digging through the organic nutrient laced soil.

Tree Sale, Winter Pruning, Cash for Crew

TREE SALE!

It happens every year.  We get all gushy thinking back on another year of hard work, great clients, good times, and want to celebrate.  But instead of breaking out the 60% ABV Dutch brew, we’re gonna do something much more productive and announce our annual Tree Sale!   All native trees come from local Austin growers, all fruit trees come from East Texas.  Prices include purchase, delivery, installation, a little compost for the fruit trees, and a big mulch ring, but not sales tax.

Monterrey Oak, aka Mexican White Oak – Big shade tree, semi-evergreen.  Our favorite oak for its manly resistance to oak wilt and its ability to woo the ladies with its pinkish new growth in spring, plus the bonus of its childish ability to grow like a corn-fed 10-year old.  It might be a legal Mexican but just like Newt, we love it so much that we’ll just call it a native.  3-gallon, $35;  7-gallon, $55; 15-gallon, $95.

Montezuma Cypress – Big shade tree.  Arborists love this tree for its symmetrical upright shape, and its tendency to hang on to its limbs.  It’s a Mexican cousin to our Bald Cypress, which makes it fonder of peppers, breasts, Mary, truck murals, and hot dry weather.  It also grows about 3 times faster than any oak too, so its like, the perfect tree.  3-gallon, $40; 10-gallon, $100.

Texas Mountain Laurel – Evergreen understory tree, 15-20′ Sun or Shade.  One should be careful when describing TMLs.  What if it’s true that plants are way more evolved than humans, and that they really have total control over us?  Nobody would want to be on record for saying anything that sold the king of the natives short when the reign of power is transferred from inferior humans back to the plants.  Texas Mountain Laurel, booya.  10-gallon, $110; 30-gallon, $230.

Texas Kidneywood – 12-15′ Sun or Part Shade.  Don’t call it a shrub to its face unless you want to get knocked out.  It can take the drought like a cactus, only it’s much softer and the bees love it.  A nice tree to plant along the fringes of the shade line of bigger trees, to eat up just a little more St. Augustine from full sun lawns for those of you heading in that direction anyway.  5-gallon, $30; 10-gallon, $90.

Palo Verde ‘Desert Museum’ – Small tree.  This is my favorite weed on the planet.  It usually grows with Retamas and Baccharis all over the nastiest, most disturbed places imaginable.  When the human population is wiped out by the Overpopulation Plague, this will be the most common tree in the New New World.  Some plant nerd in Arizona made a version of Palo Verde with no thorns, and I hope that man is the richest horticulturist that has ever lived.  Give it a little sun, super crappy soil, and either desert or swampy conditions and it will be happy.  10-gallon, $175.

Mexican Buckeye – Small tree happy in sun or shade.  Austin native takes drought like a champ, eats up alot of space that St. Augustine won’t grow in, and is the first tree to bloom in spring with the Redbuds.  5-gallon, $30; 10-gallon, $90.

Bigtooth Maple – Smallish tree.  This one is the wild card for the year.  Mitch grows them, and Mitch is pretty awesome so its good enough for me.  These are the trees that make Lost Maples what it is.  3-gallon, $35.

Fruit Trees – Some will need more than one variety in order to fruit: Apples, Pears, and Plums.  Others self-pollinate so you only need one:  Peaches, Figs, Persimmons, and Apricots.   But the more you have, the better chances of getting fruit after the birds and squirrels have their share.  We will choose the best varieties of each tree for the Austin area.  All trees are bare-root, 2-3′ whips, so they look like sticks until they leaf out in the spring.  They all grow fast, and should start fruiting within the first 1-3 years.  $60/each; $50/each for 3+.

WINTER PRUNING

Some tasks to think about in the landscape for the next few months:  1) plant trees; 2) make your irrigation system more efficient; 3) don’t prune perennials.  It’s been a weird year.  Plants are pretty stressed out right now, and a few of them have already gone to sleep for the winter, only to flush out a little after these teasing spits of rain.  Don’t be tempted to cut them back just yet.  With the warm temps and a little rain, cutting them now could potentially encourage more growth, which would end up getting nipped hard during the inevitable freezes heading this way.  And after such a brutal summer, it could be the last straw for some already stressed and confused plants.

So for now, enjoy the winteresque landscape and allow those perennials a little break for as long as possible.  The skeleton can actually help insulate roots a little, maybe buying a few degrees of warmth during cold snaps.  Let the leaves build up as an extra blanket, and wait until mid/late February to cut back the dead winter growth.

CASH FOR THE CREW

Remember when it was 104 for the 89th time this summer?  And your hard-working landscape crew still showed up on Tuesday afternoon just like they always do, to take care of the unpleasant business of weeding those beds and mowing that grass, without pausing to complain, or without cutting a corner to get out of the heat as quickly as possible?

One could argue that a prompt monthly payment is thanks enough, and I would completely agree.  I have no problems with that argument, I think its a fair and sustainable financial strategy for most folks.  But if you happen to find yourself with a little abundance, and you feel that the guys gave you a little something extra this year, please feel free to show your gratitude by sending a little extra kiss in your November payment.  Just like every year, this extra money is distributed to the 4-man maintenance crew just before they take their one week of paid holiday vacation.  It’s nothing we expect, and nothing we take for granted, but it’s always appreciated.