Earth Friendly: Go green with native plants

Texas lantana (lantana urticoides)

By Meridith Byrd

Spring has sprung, if the calendar is to be believed. Last weekend's cold snap has me scratching my head, though. While I am grateful for the sunshine, when will the weather warm once and for all? I am ready to retire my closed-toed shoes until October or November.

Whether or not I am convinced, it is obvious that the trees and flowers are celebrating. My mountain laurel is full of gorgeous purple flowers that smell like grape Kool-Aid. Just a sniff can send your glucose levels through the roof. Even my Louisiana irises are blooming despite my care, which can be described as sporadic at best.

All of this inspired me to write about earth-friendly gardening. Of course, gardening in itself is wonderful, but there are ways to "green up" your lawn and flowerbeds. Think compost to enrich the soil rather than chemical fertilizers and native plants to reduce the amount of water required. Bagged compost can be purchased at nurseries and at the city's Garden-Ville compost facility, located at the landfill.

Much has been written about the benefits of incorporating native Texas plants into your landscape, including the benefits to wildlife and the plants' resistance to droughts and freezes. For many people, the mention of drought-tolerant plants brings to mind images of a desert landscape, complete with bare ground dotted by the occasional cactus. While cacti and other succulents, such as aloe vera, are certainly drought tolerant, a number of native shrubs, grasses and flowers are available locally that can flourish with little rain.

If you like shrubs, ask about cenizo, also known as Texas sage. It is a mid-sized shrub with small, silvery-green leaves that produce gorgeous purple flowers. American beautyberry is another shrub popular with native gardeners; in the summer clusters of purple berries appear along its branches. For those who enjoy flowers, native varieties can be found in every color of the rainbow, from Turk's cap (red) to mealy blue sage (blue) to milkweed (orange) to purple coneflower (pink-purple).

If you want to spruce up your lawn, ask your favorite nursery about drought-tolerant grasses. St. Augustine grass, or carpet grass, is exceptionally heat-tolerant, but requires about 43 inches of rain per year just to stay alive, not to mention the additional water needed to keep it healthy. Victoria only averages 40 inches of rain per year, so explore your options for grasses that require less water to look their best.

Planting trees? Live oak and pecan trees seem to be favorites around here, but you can explore other varieties such as redbud, Mexican plum and the aforementioned Texas mountain laurel.

In addition to requiring less water, native plants are great for our local wildlife. I got ridiculously excited when I found last-year monarch butterfly larvae on my milkweed and hummingbirds feeding on my cigar plant. Wildlife-attracting plants are easy to find, and any local nursery can steer you in their direction. In addition to the different types of milkweed, a ton of butterfly-attracting plants are available, including esparanza, passionflower, blue mistflower, lantana and black-eyed susan.

Looking to bring hummingbirds to your yard? In addition to putting out a feeder (skip the red food coloring, though), think about putting some "hummingbird plants" in your yard. Plants to consider include flame acanthus (also known as hummingbird bush), red yucca, horsemint and cedar sage.

Go native and reduce your watering needs while attracting birds and beneficial insects to your yard.

Meridith Byrd is a marine biologist and invites read ers to contact her at meridith.byrd@gmail.com.