Getting Started with Native Plants

Clarence Reed and Vickie Wilson, Native Plant Society of Texas
LMUD Open House presentation, May 22, 2024

When considering a new investment, most of us will weigh our options with a cost-benefit analysis: what’s worth our time and money? Yet, many of the things we habitually do are the largest investments of our time and money; your yard, for example, is an investment I’d like you to reconsider. With minimal upfront cost and effort, you can begin to transform your yard from an expansive grass lawn into a more sustainable option that will require less maintenance and resources over time, as well as provide enjoyment, beauty, and help support the natural world we all rely on. This is achieved by making space for native plants in your yard.

Image credit: The Great Pollinator Partnership poster has been reproduced as part of a cooperative effort of the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign to raise awareness of the importance of pollinators to our Nation’s future.

There are three basic categories of plants: native, adaptive, and invasive. Before planting anything, knowing which of these categories the species falls into is vital to the health of our overall ecosystem:

  • Native plants are those species that evolved naturally in a region without human intervention. They serve a specific purpose in their intended ecosystem, filling a specific ecological niche. They provide food and shelter for local wildlife, typically require less water once established, and often have a better chance of survival because they are well-adapted to their region.
  • Adaptive plants do not originate in the area or region where they are found. These species are introduced into an ecosystem, intentionally or by accident. While native plants are preferred, adaptive species are not necessarily bad for the ecosystem.
  • Invasive plants are non-native to an ecosystem and if left unchecked, can cause harm to native species, taking over environments, leading to a decrease or extinction of biodiversity in the area.

Douglas Tallamy, an American ecologist, professor, and author, has become one of the most vocal proponents of using native plants in suburban landscapes. He is credited with having changed the conversation about gardening in America with his book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, published in 2007 in which he discusses the unbreakable link between native plant species and native wildlife. If you were unsure about including native plants in your garden, you will certainly be convinced of their value by the end of this book. Another one of my favorite books by Tallamy is Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard, a New York Times bestseller, released in 2020. In this book, Tallamy includes specific suggestions you can incorporate into your own yard.

Why Native Plants are So Important

Small backyard gardens act like highway gas stations to pollinators, such as butterflies and bees. As they feed, pollen sticks to them, and they spread it from flower to flower. Seventy to 80 percent of our food is derived from this endeavor! In fact, the USDA estimates that crops dependent on pollination are worth more than $10 billion per year. But, imagine jumping into your car for a long road trip and not knowing when you’ll be able to stop next for gas. Having pockets of habitat for them to stop at along their route is really important. “Build it and they will come”.

A few other benefits of native plants:

  • Drought-tolerant, naturally conserving our precious water resources
  • Provide habitat and food for birds, butterflies, bees and other wildlife
  • Don’t need special pampering or fertilizing
  • Natural to their eco-system
  • Help us maintain biological biodiversity

Sustainable Yard Design

Traditionally, we focus the design of our yard on decorative value with the view being “it’s my property; I’ll do what I want with it.” Instead, try to view your yard with a more balanced approach: consider helping to protect nature’s balance in addition to your own needs. I think you’ll find native plants serve both purposes with the variety of colors, textures, and sizes they offer.

Using native plants does not mean you have to create a wild and untamed landscape. Think of the nature-inspired art of the French impressionist painters, like Monet seeking to capture the beauty of nature so other people could enjoy it. It does take some careful planning, but thankfully there are a lot of helpful resources available. Your only limit is your creativity.

San Antonio Water System’s Plant By Numbers Plans are designed like a blueprint with numbered areas that you fill in with corresponding plants.

2023 Native Plant Garden Tour: How to Replace Your Lawn

Lawns are no longer a sustainable option for our future. This video documents the process of a lawn removal converted to a native ecosystem, filled with native plants that help restore the State’s native habitat, reduce water usage, and create beautiful places for people to live and spend time in their gardens. The process includes:

  • Work Day 1: non-native and invasive plant removal. Remove as much of the root system as possible.
  • Work Day 2: sheet mulching. Carboard or paper rolls are laid down to block sunlight to prevent weeds from growing as well as encourage microorganisms to come up to the surface, making the top soil fertile for the perfect mixture for planting natives. You will need to get it really wet before adding mulch on top (this is the most water you will use for the start of your native garden) to initiate the process of breaking down the paper. Apply mulch – a super fine mulch is preferred – at a depth of two to three inches on top of the paper. You will need to continue to water the area at least once a week for 20 – 30 minutes, keeping the paper moist. In about two to three months it should be broken down enough to start planting.
  • Work Day 3: planting. Pull mulch aside and dig out the space you want for your plants. Fill the hole with water and then once it drains, add the plant. Opt for a garden that grows with you over time by installing small, 1 gallon plants since they allow the roots of the plants to grow naturally into the soil rather than being in a large container before planting. Surround the plant with mulch leaving space around the base of the plant to prevent fungal problems. During rainy season, hand water infrequently, then during the first summer, water every six to eight weeks until the plants are established.
Source: Theodore Payne Foundation

Creating Space for Native Plants in Lakeway

When selecting native plants for your garden in Lakeway, know that some species of native plants will tolerate a range of landscape condition possibilities while others are more specific. A few aspects to consider when selecting plants:

  • Soil Type: Look for varieties that thrive in soil that primarily consists of clay loam over limestone, stony clay, or silty clay. Supplementing with compost when initially planting is suggested to provide needed nutrients while they get established.
  • Sunlight: Consider if your planting bed is primarily in the sun or shade. Know how much full sun the area receives throughout the day before selecting plants for the space.
  • Deer Resistance: We have a lot of deer in Lakeway, so if you are planting in your front yard or an area with a low fence, you will need to consider how resistant it is to being eaten by deer. I have developed a list of plants that I have in my own front yard in Lakeway that have proven to be deer resistant. In general, deer tend to avoid prickly and fuzzy foliage or plants that are heavily fragranced. You may find them munching on many of the native plants, but I find that the plants will come back.

Now is a great time to be planning your native plant garden. Fall season is the best time to plant, followed by spring (after the last frost). Purchase your plants at one of the several local plant nurseries in the area that carry a wide variety of native plants and are supported by knowledgeable staff. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is another great local source for native plant inspiration. Lakeway MUD has been working on their own native and adaptive plant demonstration garden at their office with help from us (Texas Native Plant Society members Clarence Reed and Vickie Wilson) as well as Lakeway residents Mimi King. Started in April 2023 with plants slowly being added, this garden will be a helpful resource for the community!