Moseying: Living La Vida Llanero
Graduate-level drought adaptive gardening at April 5th plant sale
March 19, 2008
Lauren Springer, formerly with the Denver Botanical Arboretum, in her book The Undaunted Garden, celebrates the maturing sophistication of horticulture design and plant selection in the Great Plains and western states. Until the 1980s all available gardening books were published either on the East Coast, or the West Coast, where gardening is very easy with plentiful rain and rich soils. Since the 1989 publication of Sally Wasowskis book Native Texas Plants: Landscaping Region by Region (with many photographs from Midland gardens) regional publishers have issued several dozen books about xeriscaping and water-wise gardening for folks gardening in our arid, hot, windy (and sometimes cold) heartland.
A number of landscape architects in the region (Midlands Kelly Cook is one) have been becoming well versed in creating gardens, as well as institutional and park landscapes, that flourish under our tough conditions. For twenty years the now disbanded Llano Estacado chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas promoted many species of drought adapted plants, and for over 10 years held of sales at the Sibley Nature Center. In recent years the local Master Gardener group has been holding a plant sale at the Horseshoe that includes a significant percentage of adapted plants.
Under the able guidance of the present board of directors, the Sibley Nature Center recently built a greenhouse and began propagating adapted plants that are not for sale at local nurseries. On April 5th, at 9 a.m., the Sibley Center will hold a sale at the greenhouse. Besides the six species of plants that horticultural specialist Mark Webb and volunteer Landon Bell have been producing, another twenty-five species will be available. One-gallon plants will cost $7 and five-gallon plants will cost $24. With only 800 plants available it is strongly advised to be waiting at the greenhouse gate (behind the Midland Womens Club) at 9 a.m! All proceeds from the sale will benefit our trail development project (and literature discussing the new developments will be available.)
Many of the species may not be familiar to gardeners that visit commercial nurseries. All of the species for sale have been tested for many years under Midlands conditions. Many of the species have survived under extremely rigorous testing, surviving (after being established) on less than six irrigations a year, with no fertilizers or pesticides applied. The sale focuses on hardy trees, shrubs, and ornamental grasses, along with some selected perennials. A new homeowner with a cleared lot could create a complete turfless landscape with the species offered. (Lawns account for the majority of the water used in home landscapes, as well as causing the added costs of frequent maintenance, including fertilizer and pesticide application.)
Part of choosing the very best plant for a garden is to learn where a species naturally grows. Live oaks are a common landscape plant in Midland, but the species sold is the Virginia Live Oak. During the severe freezes in the 1980s many old specimens suffered freeze damage. With its high rate of growth (for an oak) it almost always is loaded with aphids (which create a gooey mess on cars parked underneath!) The Sibley Nature Centers sale will feature Escarpment Live Oak, a species found growing wild as close as fifteen miles west of Sterling City. Adaptation is genetic Escarpment Live Oak withstands poor soils, drought and freezing temperatures much better than Virginia Live Oak .
The plant sale will also introduce another tree that can grow to shade an average yard. Chinkapin Oak grows in the Davis and Guadalupe Mountains. During the Depression historian Barry Scobee (who along with Midlander and native plant enthusiast Jean Reid promoted the preservation of the military buildings at Fort Davis) promoted its use in home landscapes, as famed Sul Ross University botany professor Barton Warnock did in his books published in the 1970s. It has large leathery deciduous leaves and forms a large open tree. It does not suffer from oak wilt that has often struck the Shumard Red Oak commonly sold in West Texas. Although the species grows east of the Mississippi, the seeds for the plants for our sale were collected in West Texas, replete with the genetics of adaptation to our conditions.
We are also introducing several large multi-trunked and evergreen trubs (plants that reach 15 to 20 feet in height and up to 15 feet across.) Sorry about the horrible word I invented, but there is not an English word for an underutilized landscape ornamental form. The lower branches of these species can be pruned away so sitting areas of dense shade can be created in a yard. Chisos Rosewood and Nuevo Leon Rosewood are closely related. They have long narrow leaves that arch gracefully down and create a distinctly tropical appearance. Visitors to Big Bend National Park that have walked the Window Trail might remember the beautiful Chisos Rosewood specimens at the head of the trail. In May the plants are covered with sweet white blossoms. The late Dr. Warnock had a beautiful specimen in his yard just east of the university in Alpine. The plant sale will also feature Mexican Elder with its white blossoms and edible blue berries. Mexican Elder is a passalong plant found in every town in West Texas, but it has rarely been available for sale.
We will also have Screwbean Mesquite for sale. Some folks have noticed the specimen in Beal Park with its bizarrely shaped beans that hang on into the winter months. It has fewer and smaller thorns, smaller leaves, and a much more upright form than our local Honey Mesquite. Visitors to Rio Grande Village in the Big Bend National Park may remember the large specimens in the campground. Folks that have gone to see the geese and cranes at the Bosque Del Apache Wildlife Refuge near Socorro, New Mexico will have seen splendid specimens there, as well.
Some folks may shake their heads, but we will also have Creosote Bush for sale! Homeowners in El Paso, Las Cruces, Tucson, and Phoenix have learned that it is a beautiful graceful evergreen shrub when left unpruned, but they have also discovered it can be hedged formally so it will appear like a large English Boxwood. Every resident in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico know that it creates the smell of rain. Its pleasant resinous odor is released during a rain after which small yellow flowers, then tiny white fuzzy seeds appear.
Next weeks column will describe the smaller flowering shrubs, the ornamental grasses, and a few perennials that the Sibley Nature Center is introducing (or further promoting) to local gardeners at the plant sale on April 5th. Midland has come a great distance in recent years in learning (and then planting) the many glorious ornamental plants (adapted to our tough conditions) that can be grown in home landscapes. We hope to serve Midlanders by continually bringing attention to more wonderful species that celebrate the ecology and history of the American Southwest and Northern Mexico.