Eco Yard-Keeping

By Jeremy Walther
Illustration by Hillary Weber-Gale

Sustainability in the home landscape is more than just a set calendar of seasonal tasks, especially in variable-draped Central Texas, where some years see total rainfall measure below 20 inches followed by years with almost 60. This unpredictability might be nature’s hint to us that large monocultures of nonnative turfgrass lawns just aren’t the way to go. The hottest, sunniest areas of a lawn are better used for plants that do more than just drink water and look green, which explains the trend of larger vegetable gardens, wildlife-loving native plant beds and shrinking lawns.


Still, nobody should be faulted for wanting that little patch of soft green lawn (especially if it’s watered with rain collected from runoff). Choose a turfgrass best suited to the site. For example, native grass mixes like Native Sun and Thunder Turf from Native American Seed are great for low-traffic sites in full sun with weed-free and thin or rocky soils. Zoysia can be a good choice for areas with a mix of sun and shade if the soil drains fairly well and has enough fertility. Regardless of what your green spot contains, here's a chemical-free affirmation and a few suggestions for maintaining a healthy and sustainable lawn and landscape based on, however contradictory the term may be, a “normal year” in Central Texas.

WATER

Automated sprinkler systems are convenient, but they are horribly inefficient. Even a well-designed, fully functional pop-up spray-head system is only 50 percent efficient—for every gallon of water that makes its way to plant roots, one gallon is lost to evaporation or runoff. To reduce water usage by as much as 30 percent, swap the traditional spray nozzles for multi-stream rotary nozzles like MP Rotators (Hunter brand) or Multi-Stream PRN Nozzles (Toro brand), available at local irrigation suppliers like Ewing, Horizon and John Deere Landscapes.

For those without automatic sprinkler systems, try to match a patterned hose-end sprinkler with the shape of the area you wish to water. Or even better, find a hose-end sprinkler that is adjustable to areas of different sizes and shapes. Local hardware stores like Breed and Co. are good sources for these. Of course, drip irrigation systems in beds are always a good way to increase water efficiency while delivering water exactly where it needs to be.

Keep it simple and follow the basic rule of thumb of a one-inch watering once each week during the hot months. For most systems, this means running sprinklers for a total of 30 to 45 minutes, or however long it takes to add 1 inch of water to the lawn. (A simple way to measure water application in inches is to place flat-bottom shallow dishes, like empty tuna cans, in different places on the lawn while watering and wait for them to fill.) And space watering times on different lawn zones over several hours—each time running one zone for only 10 to 15 minutes. This will help the water penetrate deep into the ground instead of running off our clay and rocky soils.

MOWING

Regular mowing helps discourage annual weeds that rely on seeds to proliferate, keeps woody species from developing and encourages grassy species that typically spread by runners. It’s best to avoid mowing too often, though, which can lead to soil compaction. During the vigorous growing season, this could mean weekly mowing. But during the deep winter or driest summer months, consider mowing only once a month and only mulching fallen leaves, which helps accelerate their decomposition and add nutrients.

Mow on the highest setting, and try to avoid removing more than one-third of the grass blades at one time. Longer grass helps shade soil, regulate moisture content and protect turf roots. For a greener process, consider using a quality electric mower like the cordless Black and Decker 19” Self-Propelled Rechargeable Mower with Removable Battery, available for around $400. The battery lasts about 30 to 40 minutes on a single charge, but extra batteries (to cut larger yards without waiting for a recharge) are available for about $150 each. Or try a human-powered reel mower, though they are high maintenance and not for everyone. 

FEEDING

Be thoughtful when it comes to fertilizing. City of Austin studies have linked even organic fertilizers to water pollution in relatively pristine creeks in the Austin watershed. For established lawns, the only feeding required might be simply the free nitrogen supplied by the presence of post-mow grass clippings on the surface.

For lawns in transition, a little more input might be needed. Topdressing the lawn with a quarter of an inch of compost in late April can be an effective treatment in many ways. Compost serves not only as a fertilizer, but as a soil amender because of its ability to break up clays and improve water retention in soils. It also inoculates soil by introducing beneficial microbes. Consider going with a quality compost from a reputable soil yard.

Compost as a topdressing is especially effective if an aerator is used to remove plugs of soil just before or right after the compost treatment—allowing the compost to penetrate deeper into the soil. Since handheld devices do not easily penetrate compacted soil, the best way to ensure deep plug removal is with a mechanical aerator, available for half- and full-day rental from most tool-rental shops, like Top Gunn. Be sure to give the lawn a good soaking the night before aerating, to allow the machine to do its job effectively. Depending on your lawn, it might be cheaper to have a local landscape-maintenance company handle this annual task—most will charge roughly the same as what it costs to rent the machine. Round Rock’s Douglas Landscapes, for example, offers this kind of service starting at around $90 for a typical lawn.

Beyond annual compost topdressing, consider a monthly application of this liquid fertilizer: a blend of one gallon of compost tea (available at Microbial Earth, the Natural Gardener or Geo Growers), three to four tablespoons of seaweed, fish emulsion and humic acid mixture (John Dromgroole’s Recipe from the Natural Gardener or Medina HastaGro are both excellent), one to two tablespoons of liquid molasses and one gallon of water. This is a great soil stimulator. One gallon usually covers about 5,000 square feet, requires only a one- or two-gallon pump sprayer to apply and costs about six dollars per treatment.

TREES AND MULCH

Although xeriscaping is the current poster child for sustainable landscaping, it just doesn’t work for every landscape in Austin. Gravel and cactus do very well in years when we receive 15 inches of rain and experience a mild winter. But just as likely are years that get 60 inches of rain and winters with eight-degree arctic blasts. During those years, the wet summers cause weed infestations that are nearly impossible to control in gravel beds and the cold winters kill off most of the succulents that can survive the hot summers.

Trees, on the other hand, are relatively easy to care for and the shade they provide helps understory vegetation survive our extreme seasons. They also reduce what’s known as the heat island effect, when urban temperatures are several degrees higher than those in surrounding rural areas.

Maintain a healthy layer of mulch in beds and around trees. The best mulch is the kind you can get for free, like dead leaves. And most tree-trimming companies will gladly deliver the contents of their chippers for no charge. The only downside to this type of mulch is that it has not been aged, so it will not be uniform in size and texture. For a professionally blended mulch, Organics by Gosh carries some of the cheapest mulch in town—$17 per cubic yard for their double-processed mulch, which is not too fine so as to become compacted, and still has a dark brown color and consistent texture.

LOVE YOUR WEEDS

Most annual weeds are pioneer species. These are nature’s frontline soldiers that live short but heroic lives by growing quickly only to perish when the weather changes—adding nutrients to the soil and paving the way for the more long-lived grass species. With some exceptions, the weather and later-succession grasses will take care of most weeds on their own, as long as they’re given the proper inputs at the right time.


There are no easy answers when it comes to gardening and landscape maintenance in Central Texas—a fact that can be both frustrating and liberating at the same time. But with the proper perspective, sustainable landscape maintenance is easier than most people think.

LANDSCAPE MAINTENANCE SCHEDULE

Typical Landscape in Austin

Month

Cuts

Mulch

Compost Lawn

Water

Sprinkler Check

Aeration

Triple Shot Feeding

January

1x

   

1x

1x

   

February

1x

1x

 

1x

1x

   

March

2x

 

1x

2x

1x

 

1x

April

2x

   

4x

1x

1x

 

May

4x

   

4x

1x

 

1x

June

2x

   

4x

1x

 

1x

July

1x

   

5x

1x

 

1x

August

1x

   

5x

1x

 

1x

September

2x

   

4x

1x

 

1x

October

2x

   

2x

1x<

   

November

1x

   

1x

1x

 

1x

December

1x

   

1x

1x

   

Times per Year

20

1

1

34

12

1

7

 

Resources
Native plants

Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center
Plant Resource
wildflower.org/plants/
512-232-0100

Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center
Supplier
wildflower.org/suppliers/
512-232-0100

The Great Outdoors
Supplier
gonursery.com
512-448-2992

City of Austin Watershed Protection Grow Green Program
Plant resource
austintexas.gov/department/grow-green-resources
512-974-2581

It's About Thyme
Supplier
itsaboutthyme.com
512-280-1192

The Natural Gardner
Supplier
naturalgardeneraustin.com
512-288-6113

Garden-Ville
Supplier
garden-ville.com
512-329-4900

Organic soils & soil amendments


Geo Growers
geogrowers.net
512-892-2722

The Natural Gardner
naturalgardeneraustin.com
512-288-6113

Garden-Ville
garden-ville.com
512-329-4900

Microbial Earth
microbialearth.com
512-870-8062

Green Thumb Compost
greenthumbcompost.com
512-369-0998

Rainwater for Irrigation


Texas Water Development Board (TPWD)
twdb.state.tx.us/publications/reports/rainwaterharvestingmanual_3rdedition.pdf
twdb.state.tx.us/innovativewater/rainwater/faq.asp
512-463-7847

Texas A&M AgriLife Extension
rainwaterharvesting.tamu.edu/rainwater-basics/
361-265-9203

Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA)
lcra.org/water/save/rainwater.html
512-473-3200, Ext. 7471

Lawn & Yard Services


Douglas Landscapes
douglaslandscapes.net
512-563-9730


Bio-Gardner
bio-gardener.com

Hummingbird Ecocleaning

hummingbirdecocleaning.com/home-service
512-368-2268