Zilker Neighborhood Gardens

Commentary by a National Wildlife Steward who helps Zilker neighbors establish native plant gardens

Tag Archives: landscape design

Gardening for Birds and Butterflies – mid-day Classes

Mark Klym is offering a course of  8 classes on Gardening for Birds and Butterflies​, beginning Sept. 16.  They will be from 1:30 to 3:30 P.M. Tuesdays at Christ Lutheran Church at 300 Monroe Street East, Austin, TX 78704, USA in south central Austin, 78704.  The fee for the whole course is only $20, through Lifetime Learning Institute of Austin.  There are still some places available.  For more information and the registration form, see www.lliaustin.org
Mark is coordinator of the Texas Hummingbird Roundup and Texas Wildscapes programs at Texas Parks and Wildlife.  He is coauthor of Hummingbirds of Texas by Texas A&M Press and is an excellent instructor.​

Adding a Pocket Prairie to the Urban Landscape

There’s no doubt we live in an urban area. Lots ‘o concrete – which is so hot in the summer! I love the cooling effect plants have on the ecosystem and the human body (and wildlife bodies). Our house had lots of rock landscaping and grass when we bought it in 2009. A few years ago, we unfortunately had to remove 5 agaves from the hell zone strip near the street. In doing that, I added wildflower seed that love the harsh climate in that area. The wildflowers bloom from February – July and then dry out. I usually cut them back in September, and they soon start growing again and present as small green plants for most of the winter. In any case, let’s move on to my last “rock zone” that I replaced in the last year.

This rock zone had an agave on it near the street (which we removed) and added, in replacement, a Texas Red Bud. We added a vegetable garden, but I found that I was not a great vege gardener or that the creatures got everything first. As the years went by, the area became a bermuda grass rock haven that we had to weed whack since there were so many rocks. I decided to kill the grass with my solarization method (I used black plastic) between December 2012 – March 2013. When we removed the plastic, we had dead bermuda grass and still a lot of rock.

Picture of yard area with dead Bermuda Grass

Side of yard with dead Bermuda grass after solarization for 3-4 months

We put out a call to neighbors who wanted rock. People came and shoveled it into their trucks, and we got rid of it. I hired some guys to dig up the dead Bermuda (you think it’s dead but it seems to come back to live with the least water and a tad of a root). I made them dig deep to pull out all the dead grass. After they left, I went through it AGAIN myself and got more of the dead clippings and roots. At that point, the area looked like this:

PIcture of area with no grass.

Grass removed by hand, ready for seed.

There was still a bit of rock in the soil, but that’s certainly OK for native plants and grasses. I bought a Pocket Prairie seed mix from Native American Seed for this area. This has so many different types of seeds, you’ll have great plants in your garden year-round. I spread these seeds in March 2013 which is not optimal. It would have been better to do it in the Fall but alas, that is not when I was ready. So I did it anyway. And it worked just fine! When you spread the seeds, I just threw the seeds around on the ground, then hoed very, very lightly so about 1/4″ of dirt gets moved on top of seeds. Then I watered it for about 15 days until I saw sprouts. Then I just left it. I’m not sure I even watered it. First, the grasses grew, so I had nice grasses this past fall. Now, the flowers are growing. The best part: I haven’t seen any bermuda grass (I hate to even write that down but it’s true for the moment, anyway). I had a few weeds this spring but dug them out easily. In addition to the Texas Red Bud, there’s a Mexican Plum (provided by the City of Austin) and a non-native Loquat tree that was here when we bought the house. View the slideshow the current show that’s happening.

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Rain garden workshop 4/5/2014

Here’s a great opportunity to learn how to build a rain garden. It’s a great system to collect run-off rain and slowly drain into the ground while being absorbed by native plants and grasses that like “wet feet” (i.e., they don’t mind be in sloggy water for a day or two at a time.) If you can’t make the workshop, be sure to click on the links for the Austin Grow Green website that has more information available there for free!

Learn how to build a rain garden at your home, school, or community garden! A rain garden is a low area that absorbs and filters rain water runoff that comes from roofs, sidewalks, and driveways. Rain runs off the hard surfaces, collects in the shallow depression, and slowly soaks into the soil.
Rain gardens are planted with colorful native plants and grasses, and, where the water collected is free of contaminated run-off, food-producing plants can be used, as well! Join the City of Austin’s Watershed Protection Department and the Sustainable Food Center for an interactive, outdoor, hands-on introduction to rain gardens at the J.P.’s Peace, Love and Happiness Foundation Teaching Garden at Sustainable Food Center.
Registration: $35 at http://sustainablefood.nonprofitsoapbox.com/calendar/event/241
Learn more about rain gardens: www.austintexas.gov/raingardens , more gardening tips at www.growgreen.org
Date: Saturday, April 5, 2014
Time: 9:00 a.m. – noon
Location: Sustainable Food Center, 2921 E 17th St, Building C, Austin, TX 78702

The plastic soil solarization approach

It’s time for another round of soil solarization. If you recall, last year at about this time, I used the newspaper + mulch method to kill the grass to create a planting bed. Well, that approach was not very successful with our St. Augustine grass. It worked out OK but I had to go through and weed grass out of the beds twice before the fall when I finally planted plants in the beds. It seems most of our St. Augustine died and Bermuda grass volunteered in its place. So, now we are trying to kill Bermuda grass which is a bad, bad invasive.

So this time, we are using plastic instead of the newspaper and mulch approach. Following are pictures of the steps we took. There are varying views on if you use black or clear plastic. In my reading, I finally came to the conclusion to use black plastic in the cooler months (winter, spring) because it will also keep out the light that could help grass grow. In the hottest months, you should use clear plastic because it will allow all the sunlight through and create an inferno under the plastic. Whereas, black will reflect back some of the light and thus, not get as hot during the summer. So, ultimately we chose to use black plastic for the next few months.

Step 1: Draw out your design. First, draw it in your mind, then on paper, and then on the land. I used landscaping spray paint I bought at home depot ($5). That red line you see is paint. I am creating a semi-formal design so you can see the new bed on the right will mirror the bed I created last year on the left side. Using a measuring tape, I created the mirror image bed’s shape. Due to our lot size, sidewalk, and house placement, the right bed will be larger than the left bed. I decided to plant the oak tree in the round middle area in line with the house’s front window so you could see it from inside. Planting it dead center on our grass didn’t seem right (the grass on the far left is our neighbor’s). So you have to make some decisions like that. You don’t have to go out and buy paint – you could just use plain old baking flour and dust it along your shape. You could also use a hose to arrange the shape. Since I was not going to do all the steps on the same day, I didn’t use flour because it would blow away by the time I got to Step 2. The paint is permanent but quickly fades and would be mowed away within a few weeks if you changed your mind.

design your planting bed

Step 2: Scalp the grass. Next, we mowed the grass in this section as low as the mower would go. Then, we used a trimmer to scalp the grass down to the dirt. We tried to get every morsel of grass out of there (which is impossible) but the more, the better. It’s a dusty job – wear a mask if you can! When you are done, there will be a lot of grass shaving to brush up and put in your green waste bucket. If it is Bermuda grass, give it to the city’s green waste rather than your own compost. You don’t want that grass in your compost. We also took rakes and raked all the grass shaving out of the area to be swept up. I don’t recommend using a blower as there’s a lot of dirt now, and you’ll just create a big dust storm. Just use a broom to collect it and put it in green waste.

Scalping the grass

Scalp the grass










Step 3:Water the area deeply. Next, you want the area to be very moist. When you put the plastic on top, the moisture and the heat will allow it to become hotter and the heat penetrate more deeply. We turned on our irrigation sprinklers. After 15 minutes, I stuck a screwdriver down into the soil to discover that it was not wet at all. So we followed up with a local sprinkler to get just this area. Once adequately moist, it’s time to add the plastic.

Water more

Water the area deeply










Step 4: Lay down the plastic. As discussed already, we chose to use black plastic. I bought a role of 3.5 mil black plastic at Home Depot for $10. I thought it would be large enough for our area, but it was not. Luckily, we had some black plastic bags that we cut and duct taped to the rest of the plastic to finish the job. You really need two people to do this, and do not try it on a windy day (especially if you have only 1 person!!!). We cut a trench using our edger along the grass side so there was a slight trench into which could add the plastic. The deeper a trench you can create, the better to prevent whatever is on the other side of the new bed from penetrating into it.

We laid the plastic down and my husband shoveled up rocks we have available and we mounded those along the edge. Make sure the plastic is as flat and tight as possible to the ground. This helps heating as well as prevents wind from damaging the plastic or blowing it away. You should not have any holes in the plastic or the whole point will be sabotaged. Once we had our plastic in place, secured with rocks, I cut any extra plastic from the edges off with a scissors. Just after we were done a large, gale force wind came along, and our plastic passed the test!

Plastic in place

Step 5: Wait. Now we wait for several months for the grass to (hopefully!) die. If it doesn’t die off, we may recover with clear plastic in May when it gets hotter and see how that works. We suspect we will still have to do some digging to rid the area of deep grass roots that may persist. We will also put in metal edging to prevent grass from entering the area after our bed is created.

If you create a bed, know that you will always have to do a little weeding in it. There’s no 100% solution to weeds (a weed is anything you don’t want in your area). Even xeriscaped areas with rock will have weeds. But, I have to admit that I am LOVING my small gardens we’ve put in so far. I can’t imagine how happy I’ll be when the rest of the garden is done.

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