Gardening for Wildlife, Dogs and --Babies?

Gardening for Wildlife, Dogs and --Babies?

Specimen tree, in situ.

I could have titled this "first steps in a tightly-packed housing development," or "starting the low maintenance family-friendly yard," or "native plants with strong dog resistance," but as usual, I went for something a little more provocative. Hope it worked!

First, let me once again sing the praises of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin. While not completely comprehensive (their database currently contains about 7000 plants), it's the best source I've found for consistently giving me the straight-up dope on native plants. Which is a really good thing, when you find yourself outside your normal gardening zone/soil.

Once you head to the site, click on Native Plant Information Network, and then click on the map graphic for a Recommended Species List. On the next page, you'll be able to select your state (or, in the case of Texas, your region), and this will pull up a "master list." Of primary importance to me is the ability to search on multiple data points-- soil moisture, growth habit, bloom time, light requirements--all of which make it much easier to advise friends or family quickly when they have plant issues. You can even select for bloom color, if you favor a scheme not filed under "everything under the sun." In the project you are about to read about, the only blooming plant in the backyard (that would be staying) is crape myrtle, which blooms in summer--these particular specimens have a deep pink bloom. Not that I worry too much about "matching" my colors when the goal is being non-toxic to dogs and kids!

Buffalo grass and desperate soil.

Our challenge was to introduce some new textures and colors into a backyard of mostly (native!) buffalo grass


Bouteloua dactyloides

which would be inhabited by two dogs and a young family with a new baby. Also important to the couple was some shade for the patio area and, above all, some privacy. Though a fence surrounds the property, neighbors to the west are higher on the slope, allowing them to see over the six-foot fence with ease, should they be so inclined. For the entire project, the smallest specimens available were selected--one gallon pots for the grasses, 1 quart or less for the "color" plants, and a 7 gallon tree.

Mixing in mushroom compost to existing soil.

The summer of 2010 the Dallas/Fort Worth area saw 30 days in a row of temperatures above 100 degrees. Anything going in the ground here would have to be heat tolerant, drought resistant and low maintenance. Extenuating circumstances include the house structure, which creates shade at different times of day for different areas of the yard, and a six-foot fence surrounding the backyard, which creates shade in the early to late afternoon depending on the location of the plant. The soil is clay/loam/silt...kind of a sticky mess with low organic matter, except in two corner beds in which crape myrtle had been planted with some surrounding Indian hawthorn that had kept the soil covered, creating good insect habitat. We found multitudes of wood lice, earthworms, a fence lizard and some geckos hiding out in these areas.

Stirring in a bit of compost at the bottom of the hole.

We were shopping for plants with little time, in October. Big Box nurseries are trimming down their stock, and other nurseries have mostly larger pots for sale. Smaller specimens usually have the best establishment records, so we didn't want to invest in anything bigger that may not get the attention it needs, since babies come first! Also, the entire project would not be able to be completed in one go because of the dual constrictors of budget and time. That said, the first "must" was a specimen tree to screen the bedroom window from the neighbors and provide some spring color. We decided to search for a redbud native to the area --the Texas redbud. Once we started looking, we ended up finding not the Texas redbud, but varieties of the Eastern redbud and also the Oklahoma redbud. The Eastern variety, everywhere we found it, looked dreadful. Where I come from, we call this a Sign. A bit more research and the decision was made--Oklahoma redbud.

Cercis reniformis

is a moderately fast grower to about 25' tall and 20' wide. Perfect for providing privacy out bedroom windows, at least in the months that the tree will have leaves. Just like the Eastern variety, its leaves are heart-shaped, but they are thicker and slightly glossier than the Eastern version. This tree is a legume, so it should help to fix nitrogen in the soil, benefiting even the buffalo grass. It is hardy in zones 6B to 9A, and makes a terrific urban tree, since there is little debris beyond the seed pods (purple!) to worry about. Redbuds attract birds and native bees, are harmless to dogs, and parts of them are even edible for humans. So enjoy!

All grasses needed root pruning.

The rest of what was to be accomplished was some drudgery--removing the Indian hawthorn (native to China), pruning the crape myrtles for better shape and privacy, putting some new colorful plants in those beds and then adding some grasses at the back fence for texture and wildlife value (specifically, birds). Mushroom compost was blended with the existing soil to create better airflow for the roots of the new plants.

I know you're thinking--why keep the crape myrtles? Time and privacy. One of the two is a pretty good choice, all things considered, and is a healthy plant. Pruning and a little love will go a long way towards using it as a screening in the northwest corner of this property. Yes, it's non-native (China, Japan and Korea), but it is not invasive, and it does attract beneficial insects and bees. A friend of mine reports his is typically covered with hummingbirds as well--would love confirmation on that. Now the other specimen is


a healthy tree (rootbound), and is slated to come out the next time I'm in Texas to be replaced with an honest-to-goodness shade tree--probably a Shumard oak. But back to the grasses!

Muhlenbergia capillaris

"Pink Muhly" grass, as it is commonly known, is a 1-3 foot native grass that needs almost no attention, once established. Also called Gulf Muhly,

Muhlenbergia capillaris

 does like moist soil, but the root structure isn't much deeper than your average buffalo grass lawn. Average lawns surrounding structures in Texas that require the foundation to be watered are assured at least a little weekly water. Given the soil structure found beneath the grass in this particular yard (clay/silt nastiness), we felt pretty certain that the muhly would receive sufficient hydration, especially since they would be planted at the base of a fence on their western side. Also, this plant needs only a little trimming every year to look good--or even just rake out the dead parts. Once a year is all. So, in addition to the low-maintenance aspect, the more critical things for these homeowners was a plant that was a) non-toxic to dogs and b) not easily destroyed by dogs.

The view from the bedroom window. 

Dogs like to patrol the edges of their property, so it's best to leave them space to do so, either as a mulched path, or as a mixed border that allows them space to reach the fence. In yards spacious enough to allow it, a "dog run" can be set up at the fence perimeter, with the majority of plantings towards the interior of the yard serving as screen. Both you and the dogs will enjoy this!

In the photo at right, you can see where the tufts of muhly grass were installed, centered in the fence panels. Next steps include adding crossvine at the base of the fence posts, guiding it up via zig-zaged wire to runners at the top to encourage growth that actually reaches above the existing structure. This will add another foot or more of "privacy panel," and the crossvine is evergreen--so that extra privacy will not be compromised by a deciduous habit.

It looks delicate, but it's pretty tough!

Finally, we installed some Autumn sage and a couple of Autumn Joy sedum at the base of the two crape myrtles. Autumn Sage (

Salvia greggii

) is a tough little plant from the mint family with rich red flowers that draw in the people and the hummingbirds. It reaches about three by three feet in height/width, and remains evergreen in warmer climates. In the Dallas/Fort Worth area, it may drop some of its leaves during winter. This little plant can keep blooming for a few months, when it is so inclined. I encourage you to try the link for this plant below--really wonderful photo of the plant in full bloom.

Crape myrtle at southwest corner.

Autumn sage does require good drainage. In this instance, we were fortunate in the soils surrounding the crape myrtles, which were truly "light and fluffy" for a good six inches. Also, the location at the back of the yard means that heavier rains should run right off, due to the slope. While the smaller plants installed look totally inadequate right now, by June they should have filled out enough to look quite pleasing, and by the fall the sage at least will have reached close to full size.

A note on the mulch. The homeowner selected cedar wood mulch to partly remediate the anticipated dog exploration of the new beds. Were this not the case, I would have recommended a pure bark mulch, probably hardwood bark, since that would continue to encourage the insect activity necessary to the soil health. While the cedar provides "shelter" just as bark would, the volatile oils in the cedar wood will probably inhibit insect activity until the oils dissipate.


Wildflower: Autumn Sage


Wildflower: Muhlenbergia


Forest Service: Redbud

Monarch Surrounded

Monarch Surrounded

Restore the Leviathan!

Restore the Leviathan!