One effect of the changing climate that we are already experiencing is that we are apparently in line for more dramatic rainfall and more scorching heat and drought — the feast or famine weather pattern. Gardeners can’t change that, but we can change our attitudes and approaches to designing and maintaining our gardens.
For decades, gardeners have picked plants that appealed to them and then worked to make those plants grow happily in their gardens. That often meant the application of a lot of fertilizer, pesticides, fungicides and especially water. Time was, we got all our garden design ideas from magazines published in the Northeast, Sunday supplements with flowering shrubs that grow happily in Tennessee, and PBS’s wonderful gardening show "The Victory Garden" telling us how to deal with six months of frozen earth.
Times have changed. We now have books, magazines and TV shows that relate specifically to Texas gardens, and we need to look around and make sure our gardens are changing as well. There are several ways to respond to the floods we saw this spring and the drought we’ll undoubtedly see this summer. We need to find ways to capture all that water that falls from the sky and protect our soil from both too much and too little rainfall.
If you live on a slope or see rushing water from your yard into the gutter during or after a rain, you should consider putting in a rain garden. Runoff from hard surfaces, roofs and lawns is not only wasteful but also damaging to surrounding waterways. Pollutants such as dirt, chemicals, trash, fertilizers, bacteria and oil wash off surfaces and into the storm drains and eventually creeks, rivers and ponds. The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that pollutants carried by rainwater runoff account for 70 percent of all water pollution. A rain garden can capture and clean up to 90 percent of the pollutants.
What is a rain garden? It is a depression you build in your lawn where runoff is directed by the slope of the land. It isn’t a water garden; it is a temporary repository for water during and right after heavy rains. Planted with native shrubs and flowers, it will be an attractive addition to your landscape where precious rain is kept out of the street and in your soil.
There are many benefits and almost no downsides to having one or more rain gardens in your yard. They improve water quality, are good looking, preserve native vegetables, attract birds, butterflies and beneficial insects, provide localized stormwater and flood control, and are easy to maintain after they become established.
There is a lot of specific information about building and planning rain gardens online, and the city of Austin has a rebate program for adapting your lawn to capture rain. See city of Austin websites.
Probably the oldest water supply method, catching and saving rainwater can be as elaborate as the huge and lovely system in place at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center or as simple as a pot or barrel under the eaves of the house. Many early Texas homes and ranches had rainwater cisterns that served to provide water for humans and animals. The historic home Sebastopol in Seguin is a lovely limecrete home built in the mid-1850s that has a rainwater collection system on the roof that not only saves water but cools the inside of the house.
If we are going to have periodic floods, it is really a shame not to catch some of that water and use it when the rains stop. Not only will your garden be happier, but your wallet will be as well when you skip water bills.
Rainwater collection systems can be as simple or as complicated as your desires, skills and wallets can accomplish. Many people build their own systems. Others hire someone to do a turnkey installation. Still others put barrels out and catch as much as possible with no investment. Whatever your choice, rainwater harvesting is a good long-term, economical solution to reduce flooding, washing away of topsoil and the rising cost of water.
Every gardener knows that mulch makes for an attractive garden and cuts down on weed problems, but it does so much more.
Mulch grabs and holds onto water much better than bare soil can. It keeps the soil below at a level temperature — cooler when the weather is hot and warmer when the weather is cold. This in turn keeps the soil creatures healthy by neither freezing nor cooking them. And those soil creatures work hard to make your soil more fertile and more permeable.
Instead of bouncing off the surface and running into the street, rainwater is held in the mulch to trickle down into loose, absorbent soil below. When the rain stops, the mulch will keep moisture in the soil longer and keep the soil from hardening and drying the roots of your plants.
Mulch can be any organic material — shredded bark, leaves, straw (not hay, which has too many seeds), pine needles, pecan shells, coffee grounds, compost — you name it. If it was once alive, it can be mulch. The additional benefit is that the material is slowly breaking down where it is in contact with the soil, composting itself into good, nutritious plant food. That’s why you need to renew your mulch regularly— one spring application won’t last until next spring. Keep a healthy layer of several inches on any bare soil in your garden, particularly areas susceptible to flooding and standing water.
Bare soil is not much more absorbent than the driveway. Any improved soil — soil rich in organic material — will hold water better and longer than unimproved soil. Keep working on your gardens, your flower beds and your yard, and enrich the soil regularly.
One of the best ways to save water in the garden when the hot, rainless season comes is to choose native plants that require little water to happily grow, flower and look good. Whether you are looking for shrubs, trees, vines or flowers, there are native plants that will thrive in Texas weather. Native plants not only stand the heat, but they also can stand periods of rain. Having been in Texas for decades, they have adapted to extremes and are much more likely to tough it out than other, more delicate varieties.
Don’t assume native plants are coarse and unattractive. They are as varied as any other plants and offer many beautiful colors and forms. Shop around at local nurseries and you’ll be amazed.
The time to make a plan is now. Don’t wait until the floods come to plan your rain garden or build your collection system. July and August are pretty slow times in the garden, but they are perfect times for deciding what needs to be changed to improve your yard for the next big event.