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Anne K Moore
Photographs courtesy of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Deep in the heart of Austin, Texas is an extraordinary series of gardens contained in the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. On hand are a dedicated group of gardeners and scientists whose mission is to conserve, restore, and create healthy landscapes.

There is a monster lurking outside your front door.
It slurps up water, fertilizer, and pesticides at alarming rates. Mark Simmons, PhD and the Ecosystem Design Group he leads has introduced an alternative to this all-consuming fiend, the city lawn. Their award-winning research has resulted in Habiturf® — mixes of regionally native turfgrass species that perform better and require fewer resources than traditional non-native turfgrasses.

Nearly eighty acres of research plots at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center test, among other things, the hardiness and adaptability of native turfgrasses.

Think of the freedom a lawn that only needs mowing once or twice a year would give you! Where could you spend that saved time? Then there is the water, which in many communities is rationed and in some places outright forbidden to be used on grass. What if your grass could survive drought and go dormant when the rains are sparse, only to revive and green up again when the rain returns?

This native grass mix is now available in Texas and is suitable for Southwest plots. “We selected these four species that all have similar leaves and are quite friendly,” Mark said. “For things like mowing, fertilizer, herbicides they win out.” No more several times a week watering and no more fertilizing with the attendant run-off into the streams and lakes. Is there really such a thing as a no-care lawn? This could be it.

With water restrictions, homeowners can lose their lawns, which is an expensive proposition. Mark did some research on his own native grasses lawn at his home to see how it would cope, without watering, during August. “Sure enough, it went dormant for about 4-5 weeks. I have water from a well, so let me see how long it takes to recover. In two weeks it will green up again, it doesn’t die. So if you are under water restrictions, you are not going to lose your lawn and that was a big issue here.”

Some Homeowner’s Associations restrict what can be planted in the front yard. They want uniformity in the look of their neighborhood. Texas may be on the cutting edge of allowing homeowners to use native, water-conserving natural turf.

The Texas legislature has passed a law that HOA’s (Homeowner’s Associations) cannot bar homeowners from having a natural lawn.** These associations must approve all ‘reasonable’ requests from Texas homeowners to xeriscape their properties without being legally scrutinized by their homeowners association. The new law prevents HOAs from prohibiting xeriscaping, which is a method of landscaping to conserve water with drought-resistant plants.

“Our mission is to conserve, restore and create healthy landscapes. Part of that mission is to educate authorities.” That is something Mark and his cohorts are doing now, trying to educate these planners. He explains how using natives in the landscape can have multiple rewards. “There is another way to do this and you will actually save money. You not only will reap all of these ecological benefits but biodiversity benefits as well.” To effect change, people have to get involved and demand changes in the environment, both at home and in the public places. Money plays some part in change, but public outcry is an even stronger encouragement. “We have to develop a usable space so if the public demands it, it’s a big deal.”

“People are planting Bermuda because it is readily available and there are few alternatives. The turf and seed supplier industries need to be brought on board to make alternative grasses available,” According to Mark, “But they are not going to do that unless they perceive there is a market.” One way to drive the market is to get cities on board planting natives. Then people notice and ask retailers for what they saw growing in cities or along highways. Sellers, in turn, ask growers for the products their clients are requesting. “We are currently trying this approach in both Dallas and Austin.”

“In Texas we have around 5,000 vascular species,” Mark explains. “State wide you can probably buy only 150 of them. Victorians were very good at creating markets back in the day.” They would hunt for plants all over the world and people clamored for the new and unusual. The market thrived.

It just takes a bit of getting used to a new look. “If you look at lawns (in general,) they usually do have acceptable weeds in them like little daisies or clovers and nobody minds about that.” If enough people want it, and insist on it, they can have their grass back.

“We’ve moved a little bit away from traditional gardening. If we really want to change the use and the function of our cities we have to be a little bit more aggressive about it. I’m a scientist but I have to get into marketing,” Mark explained with a chuckle.

About Mark Simmons, PhD: He is the Director of Research and Consulting, ECOSYSTEM DESIGN GROUP, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin.


For more information on natives and Mark Simmons, go to the GardenSMART episode write-up:

Posted March 13, 2015


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