BY SCOTT OGDEN / Austin, Texas, USDA Zone 8
TO DO IN THE GARDEN
Plant a Community
March and April are excellent months to set out warm-season grasses, the dominant plants in most Texas prairies, and to plant native brush or chapparal species such as acacias, cenizos, yuccas, and cacti. Even small plants will make rapid progress at this season. While new spring growth is just beginning, established clumps of grasses and perennials may be divided and set out bareroot. Nursery-grown plugs or containers of grasses, perennials, or brush plants may be set out anytime. Mulch around new plantings and irrigate weekly through the first summer to encourage rapid establishment. Avoid watering newly planted succulents such as agaves or prickly pears.
Like many baby boomers, I grew up in a suburban world where plants seemed to grow in panels. Farmers’ fields of sorghum and cotton, regiments of holly and privet at the mall, clipped lawns, sprawling ivies and jasmines making groundcover, sunflowers, or, more often, Johnson grass filling vacant lots…all seemed to grow in uniform solitude. Even flowers sacrificed individuality: blobs of impatiens, masses of daylilies, and sheets of wax begonias framed subdivision entries. Not until I strayed from my synthetic neighborhood did I find other models; in remnant corridors of prairie along the local creeks, I glimpsed plants mingling as empowered members of dynamic associations.
Most naturalistic or meadow-style landscapes spring from an understanding that wild plants often occur in distinctive mixed groupings. Duplicating these, at least in spirit, within a planting allows several varieties to contribute to a shared space. Such designs also bring with them some of the potency and resilience of natural communities, while creating relaxed, textural compositions that subtly or overtly allude to wild places.
Prairies afford ready models for Texans, as much of the state qualifies as grassland or savannah and these communities prosper in the changeable climate. A beautiful grass of coastal prairies, gulf muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) carries panicles of frothy, rose-colored blossoms in autumn over wiry leaves that make thick evergreen tussocks. These provide ideal foils for the airy, white or pink blooms of Gaura lindheimeri and narrow-leafed coneflowers (Echinacea pallida) whose pinkish ray flowers dangle like tentacles of a jellyfish. These make a striking association for seasonally damp soils, whether clay or sand.
On thinner, drier ground, little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) offers clumps of bluish or bright green foliage through summer, feathery, late-season flowers, and a glowing bronze winter color. Twist-leaf yuccas (Yucca rupicola) might bring architectural relief with olive green, yellow-edged rosettes and tall spikes of ivory blooms, while Texas ironweeds (Vernonia lindheimeri) could add hoary tufts. Straw yellow Hymenoxys scaposa and milky Melampodium leucanthemum, small daisies that flower almost continuously, might peek from the matrix, and before the grasses wake in April, the composition could be overlain with magenta spires of Penstemon triflorus and navy mounds of annual bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis).
Semiarid brush communities, too, can be worth repeating in gardens, with dramatic textures year round. The glossy green of the formidable blackbrush (Acacia rigidula) makes a memorable, if prickly, combination with sprawling bushes of orange- and yellow-flowered prickly pear (Opuntia lindheimeri) and clumps of dark green Spanish bayonet (Yucca treculeana).
Most alluring are those mingled plantings that recall a specific locale or experience. On cliffs of the Sierra Madre Oriental in northeastern Mexico, Agave celsii plasters its succulent leaves against north-facing slopes, along with leathery fronds of ladder brake (Pteris vittata), pendant, silver-felted velvet creeper (Tradescantia sillamontana), and gray-green rosettes of Sedum palmeri. Panel plantings may still rule much of the world I witness, but having pieces of nature such as these in my garden makes a great antidote. H
PLACES TO VISIT
Big Bend National Park
Texas is a big state, but most (94.3 percent!) of it is in private hands. One of the largest and best-preserved pieces of public land remaining is Big Bend National Park, located in far southwest Texas, along the Rio Grande. This 800,000-acre park includes an array of plants and plant communities characteristic of Texas, and many curious representatives of Chihuahuan desert flora. On the Lost Mine trail, visitors can see the hard gray rosettes of century plants (Agave havardiana) nested among glistening meadows of Mexican feather grasses (Nassella tenuissima) and scattered bushes of scarlet-flowered Salvia regla. This and other associations await adventuresome gardeners looking for ideas to bring home.