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Learn about gardening firsthand at Austin library

Carolyn Lindell Special to the American-Statesman
Katie Duffy, conservation program coordinator with the city's Watershed Protection Department, tends to the garden at Austin Public Library Howson Branch. [Carolyn Lindell for Statesman]

Garden enthusiasts can usually find information about their hobby on the shelves of local libraries. But at the Austin Public Library's Howson Branch in Central Austin, such enthusiasts don’t have to step inside to learn more about planting and growing.

A demonstration garden outside the library on Exposition Boulevard offers an up-close look at landscaping with native and adapted plants, such as leadwort plumbagos, Martha Gonzales roses, coneflowers, red yucca, mountain laurel and more.

The appealing outdoor space, in front of the library and wrapping partway around the side, shows off splashes of color — pinks, bright yellows, corals and more. As well, a roughly 500-gallon cistern, subtly incorporated among the flowers and foliage, can be filled with rainwater to be used for hand-watering in the garden. Some signage helps visitors identify plants.

This demonstration garden, roughly 3,200 square feet, displays the “earth-wise” practices promoted by the city of Austin’s Grow Green program so people can see some of the best ways to put them into use.

“What better way to do that than to literally show them?” says Denise Delaney, environmental program coordinator with the city of Austin Watershed Protection Department. The garden is intended to be a place “where people can come be inspired.”

At Howson, plants of various heights and shapes are interspersed alongside a curving pathway, made of porous material so “water can soak into it. It’s mostly … to keep as much water on the land and not in the street,” Delaney says.

This demonstration garden is one of several around Austin that are part of the Grow Green program, which promotes sustainable gardening practices. It's a partnership between the city of Austin and the Texas AgriLife Extension Service.

Some key features of these practices include the use of rainwater collection systems, porous pavements and use of native and adapted plants.

Each of the demonstration gardens focuses on a different style of landscape design. At Howson library, the garden is based on a “classic design.”

“It’s more of a general term, meant to be a basic design … practical and accessible,” Delaney says, so that a person visiting could say, “Yes, I could do this.” It’s low-maintenance, too. This small-scale garden might be less intimidating, she said, than a botanical garden where someone could “get overwhelmed by (a) huge place.”

“Design is about light, color, texture and knowing your plants,” Delaney says. “A good design has all those aspects.” The garden at Howson library was intended to look “naturalistic without being messy but still work in an urban environment.”

On a recent day, Katie Duffy, conservation program coordinator with the city’s Watershed Protection Department, was out weeding, pruning and raking in the garden. Duffy tends to the garden for about four hours every two weeks, she says, while “deadheading” some of the plants.

On her regular rounds, she says, some people stop and ask her questions about the plants. “Mostly people express thanks. … (They) really appreciate it.”

Benches — the result of an Eagle Scout project — make an inviting spot to stop and look at the view.

The landscaping outside the library looks much different than back in 2004, when this site was primarily covered with St. Augustine grass and a few plants, according to a Grow Green brochure.

Now the land at the library flourishes, though some Bermuda grass, which is an adapted plant, also grows there.

“It matches the neighborhood a bit,” says Kathleen Kanarski, managing librarian at Howson.

“I’m not really anti-turf,” Delaney says. “I’m pro-soil,” which means amending soil with compost, have a soil base of 6 to 8 inches deep and using good-quality soil mix, if needed.

On the upcoming to-do list for the Howson garden is replenishing the mulching, Delaney says. “Ideally you’d have about 3 inches of mulch. … Weed seeds need light to germinate, and the mulch keeps that from happening,” she said.

A sign by the library’s door reads that this type of garden reduces the use of landscape chemicals; “saves water, resources, money and time”; and supports “beneficial wildlife.”

“We see a lot of butterflies,” Kanarski says.

The other demonstration gardens are located in places such as Austin City Hall (contemporary design), One Texas Center (drainage solutions and deer-resistant design), Zilker Botanical Garden (low-maintenance shade and sun and color design) and the Austin Parks and Recreation headquarters (wildlife habitat design).

Free literature from the Grow Green program is easily available, with nearly 60 places such as recreation centers and nurseries that distribute the guides, Delaney said.

“We want people to be successful,” Delaney says.

At the Howson library, feedback from librarygoers has been positive.

“People walk through and look at the different plantings," Kanarski says. “People say, ‘This is so beautiful. I love this garden.’”

Those who also want to make a stop inside the library can still take in a view of the garden from windows along the children’s book area.

And, of course, “garden books are always popular,” Kanarski adds.