Planting What Grows Naturally

Shrubs, perennials, grasses, and other plants that are native to a particular region are naturally adapted to the climate and soil, so they require less prep and upkeep. They are also in sync with local wildlife, so one may bloom just as migrating hummingbirds arrive and need nectar, while another opens when a specific native bee is most active.

Michael and Michele's old yard already had a handful of natives, including a couple of hollies (Ilex vomitoria and I. opaca), Texas wisteria (Wisteria frutescens), and a pecan tree (Carya illi noinensis). Kirkpatrick added many more, including American beautyberry (Callicarpa Americana), which has neon-bright violet berries that birds love, and Texas betony (Stachys coccinea), which attracts hummingbirds.

Just as important as planting native species is removing nonnatives that can become invasive. When a plant adapted to one environment is put in another, there's always a gamble that it might wind up growing unchecked because there aren't the limiting factors—temperature highs and lows, animals that feed on the plant—that exist in the old environment. Michael and Michele's old landscape, for instance, included waxleaf privet (Ligustrum japonicum), which gardening books generally describe as suitable for topiary or bonsai. But in Austin, it grows to tree size and drops limbs. Birds have carried the seeds to streams, where it's shading out native vegetation. Sadly, the fruit doesn't even give the birds the nutrients they need. "We now have acres of silent forest because invasive plants nudged out the species that sustained the birds," Kirkpatrick says.

He ripped out both waxleaf privets in the yard and replaced one with a loquat tree. Near the other, he found a Texas redbud growing in the same area. Though it's barely a stick, he expects it to fill out now that the bully plant is gone. (Kirkpatrick did include some nonnatives on his plant list because they were proven to be tame species that had adapted to the local climate but wouldn't spread aggressively.)

Adding plants that provide food to birds and animals is another way to keep the local ecosystem in balance. So Kirkpatrick also included dwarf Barbados cherry (Malpighia glabra), whose berries feed birds; southern wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera) and inland sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), with seeds that mice and rabbits like to eat; and purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), which attracts butterflies.

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