“Depending on where you are — on the Gulf Coast, in Maryland, California, wherever you are — native becomes something different just over a couple of hundred miles,” says world-renowned master gardener and author Felder Rushing. For example, Texas bluebonnets are native to the state but don’t typically bloom in Houston, Rushing says, because that area gets too much rainfall. But travel 50 miles north, and bluebonnets abound.
Native isn't always best
You don’t need to be tied to the idea that you can only use native plants. If the climate is suitable, native plants don’t always have to stay where they originated to thrive, Rushing says. Instead of calling them native, he refers to those as “locally adapted plants.”
Rushing recommends native plants from Africa for growing in hot, dry climates, for example. “Okra is a vegetable that will grow with no care at all,” he says. “Rather than choosing native plants, look at the plants that do well . . . and use those as your backbone plants.”
Rushing recently visited the Royal Horticultural Society’s Bridgewater garden in Manchester, England. Eighty percent of the plants in its larger displays were native to the Southeastern United States, he says.
“They’re using them because they work well and they have extra benefits,” he says. “It’s like growing a plant because it’s an heirloom. We don’t grow plants because they’re heirlooms; we grow plants because it worked well long enough that they become heirlooms. ‘Native’ and ‘heirloom’ are artificial construct words. We’re looking for good, durable plants that just happen to have a history of doing well.”
Local grass and how to water
In the Western United States, where irrigation is the norm, native grass will perform better, says master gardener Mike Hauser, who works with the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension.
Specific to Arizona, galleta, sand dropseed, Indian rice grass and grama grass are better for growing during a drought than fescue, rye and Kentucky bluegrass, Hauser says. In addition to what type of grass you choose, water conservation can come from learning how often your lawn needs to be watered.
“People too often just put their sprinkler timer on and let it go,” he says. “The question is: How do you know when the plant needs water?” Because many people don’t have a soil probe lying around, Hauser recommends taking a long-shafted screwdriver and sticking it in the soil. If the screwdriver slides in “like a hot knife in butter,” the soil is still holding moisture and doesn’t need to be watered. When the screwdriver shaft doesn’t go farther than an inch before hitting dry soil, it’s time to water.
“That’s the key,” he says. “When you water and how much you water is only half of the equation. The other half of the equation that people very, very seldom engage in is: How much water is my plant using, so that I know when to water it again?”
Hauser has found that people will give their lawns a quick watering in the morning and evening, but that can be a wasted effort that wets the soil’s surface and doesn’t get to the roots. With the screwdriver method, you’re watering less, but “you’re giving it a good, deep soaking,” he said.
Particularly in drier climates, the soil surface dries out first. So if you’re only watering the first half-inch of your lawn, the roots will be in the first half-inch. However, if you’re watering down five or six inches, that’s where the roots will be, and they’ll be safer from the dryness caused by dry climate damage.
If you’re watering with a sprinkler system, don’t forget to adjust your timer. Plants don’t need as much water when the weather cools off, but the typical homeowner doesn’t adjust their timer throughout the year, Hauser says. Doing so not only helps your lawn or your plants, but it also decreases your water consumption.
Forgo a blanket of grass
In northern Arizona, where Hauser lives, precipitation is between about 12 to 14 inches a year, with half of the rainfall in the winter and half in the summer months, so continuous ground cover isn’t common.
“If you’re using city water, it’s fairly expensive. . . . Most all of the ground cover that people have here is a little bit of a lawn in their front yard or their backyard; there’s not a lot of landscaping for ground cover.”
Some homeowners have chosen to forgo grass entirely, he says, leaving exposed soil or choosing to landscape with shrubby or decorative rocks.
Speaking at an event in West Texas recently, Rushing recommended that people put one sprinkler in the middle of their yard. Then, wherever the water hits, “that’s all the lawn you need,” he said. “You can have a lot of beauty in a lawn that’s not much bigger than a carport if it’s surrounded by whatever naturally covers the ground in the countryside, which could be gravel or sand, native plants. Limit the size of the lawn, and make it where it’s a shining gem, and then accessorize it with plants that do well in that area.”
Here are tips for creating a garden or lawn that looks great but doesn’t require a lot of water. And don’t forget: You can also contact your local extension office. It’s a great resource, usually with a free list of locally well-adapted plants.
Don’t look to your neighbors for guidance. Get out of the suburbs. Rushing recommends driving around your area and finding old farmhouses or visiting cemeteries. If a plant grows in a cemetery, it will grow anywhere, he says. By “looking outside of suburbia,” you can find trees, shrubs and flowers that grow well with little to no care.
“Don’t look in the suburbs for ideas, because suburbs have a lot of irrigation,” Rushing says. “See what’s doing well in gardens that don’t have irrigation systems.”
In cemeteries, you’ll often find a tree, two or three shrubs, and four of five perennials throughout. Pull those together in one spot in your yard, grouping similar shapes and sizes close to each other, and “it looks like you know what you’re doing,” Rushing says.
He adds: “It’s like a bouquet. It’s like Rumpelstiltskin, weaving golden garments out of common straw.”
Less is more. Groups and combinations of accent plants can go a long way.
“Don’t feel like you have to have wall-to-wall plants,” Rushing says. “You don’t have to have a green mustache of worms hugging your foundation. A few accent plants here and there create a focal point without you having to do unnecessary water or pruning or fertilizing. You don’t have to have all of those plants that Grandmama put around her house.”
Rushing adds that having plants all around the base of your home is a style from the 1930s and doesn’t work in hot, dry climates.
If you’re just starting out, Rushing has this advice: “Think home cooking. Anybody can make a home-cooked meal, but we start out thinking it’s got to look like something a chef made. Think home cooking and not fine dining, and you can do it.”