Feeding the Earth

Trying to garden in poor soil is a never-ending battle, the antithesis of what a sustainable landscape should be. Rich soil makes for healthy plants, including turf, which means fewer diseases and pests and consequently less need for chemical intervention. Michael and Michele's native soil is "black gumbo," an elastic clay that swells in the rain and shrinks during dry spells. But many plants thrive in it, provided enough organic material is mixed in so it drains.

Amending the soil is particularly important after construction, notes Roger. "Plants can't grow in some of the junk that's left behind," he says. "You need to till compacted areas and add organic material to get the soil back into shape."

Mulch and compost can play a major role in protecting the earth. By shading the soil, mulch keeps moisture from evaporating and deters weed seeds from sprouting. In the couple's yard, Kirkpatrick opted to use pine-straw mulch, which feeds plants with nutrients as it breaks down.

In the vegetable garden, he built two tall compost cones out of metal stakes wrapped with wire. Fruit and vegetable scraps and leafy yard waste go in at the top; nutrient-rich compost "tea" seeps out into the garden underneath—or the couple can take compost from the bottom to spread in the rest of the yard. It's a tidy approach he hopes will encourage the couple to keep up the organic recycling.

Minimizing the Lawn

Lawns warrant special attention in a sustainable landscape because they tend to demand more water, fertilizer, and care than other planted areas and because they don't offer much in the way of wildlife habitat. Yet many people still want a green lawn, whether as open space or for recreation. Michael and Michele didn't want to eliminate theirs entirely, but they did make it smaller, to serve almost as a walkway, with deep planting beds around the edges.

Besides amending the soil with compost, there are four keys to making a lawn as sustainable as possible: watering efficiently, mowing appropriately, using only slow-release organic fertilizers, and planting the right variety of turf grass. In Austin's hot climate, buffalograss is the most sustainable option; it needs watering just once a month and mowing only once or twice a year. But it doesn't stand up to foot traffic, and it can take up to two years to fill out and mature. So Kirkpatrick recommended St. Augustine grass, which is also a good choice for their shady site. The couple plans to mow it high and leave the clippings on the lawn to encourage deep root growth, which helps keep the soil porous.

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