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Grow green with native Texas Hill Country plants

Mary Kay Pope displays Copper Canyon daisy plants at Backbone Valley Nursery in Marble Falls. The flower attracts butterflies and bees but not deer, which makes it an especially good choice for unfenced areas. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

Irrigating lush lawns is a thing of the past, says horticulturist Mary Kay Pope of Backbone Valley Nursery in Marble Falls.

“We have limited resources in terms of water,” she said. “We need to educate people. I just don’t think we are going to be able to sustain the lawns that we have in the past.”

To save water and money — and promote wildlife and pollination — Pope recommends native or adaptive plants that thrive in the hardscrabble landscape of the Texas Hill Country.

Determine why you need a lawn, whether because of pets or walkways, and then ask yourself how much you need, she said.

Put a rock border around that area and use the rest to plant trees, understory, perennials, and ground cover with lots and lots of mulch, which conserves water and prevents weeds. Native and adaptive plants, in turn, promote pollinators and wildlife.

“With these big lawns, we are taking away what wildlife would have had before we built our houses,” Pope said. “We need food plants for caterpillars. The flora and fauna all need native plants. They don’t need lawns.”

Pope offered several suggestions for colorful native and adaptive plants beginning with understory, the smaller trees and bushes that can be planted under larger trees like oak.

Favorite understory are the Anacacho orchid tree, agarita, Mexican buckeye, redbud, goldenball leadtree, mountain laurel, and Eve’s necklace.

Raspberry salvia greggii is a fast-growing autumn sage with fragrant foliage. It needs six hours of direct sun but some shade during the day. It is another good pollinator plant for which deer don’t seem to care. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

Perennials are another important addition to a native garden. Pope suggests planting these in front of trees, shrubs, and bushes, layering from tallest to shortest, front to back.

Popular perennials include four-nerve daisy, Copper Canyon daisy, raspberry salvia greggii, skullcap, and any number of sages.

Ground covers that spread rapidly and attract butterflies include frogfruit, horseherb, and ice plant, all of which flower.

Even with natives, irrigation is necessary, especially during a drought. Pope suggests grouping plants by water needs in irrigation zones and then setting different timers for each zone.

While mulch cuts down on weeding, some pulling of weeds will be necessary. Part of moving a lawn from thirsty grass to native plants involves changing how you look at your yard and what you can tolerate. Pope tolerates weeds, she said, because she does not tolerate chemicals.

“You have to change a little bit about the way you look at your yard, learn to tolerate things you haven’t tolerated before, and realize this is how we live now,” she said. “You can have a small yard but still enjoy it, and it’s good for wildlife.”

As for cost, whether you plant natives or exotics is about the same. The difference is in long-term maintenance.

“Natives are no more expensive than non-natives, but the savings you have from paying for water or using water, in the long term, it’s much cheaper,” she said. “And you have plants that are much more sustainable. So many people lost their lawns in the drought last year.”

For easy reference to the types of plants that thrive in Central Texas, Pope uses a catalog put out by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and the city of Austin. Titled “Native and Adapted Landscape Plants, an earth-wise guide for Central Texas,” it can be purchased for $2 at Backbone Valley Nursery or downloaded for free from (Just type the title in a search engine.)

“You’re much better off going with the natives,” Pope said. “You’re not going to have to replace them after a drought or a horrible freeze. They are adapted to our winters and summers. It’s between surviving and thriving. Introduced plants will not survive.”

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