When we think of an Austin landscape what comes to mind? Perhaps a neatly trimmed line of bushes around the house, some annual color along the pathway, graceful live oaks or pecans shading the yard, even some planter beds curving around the house full of the usual evergreen shrubs. But the one thing that we always expect to see is a large and lush green lawn. But what happens when it stops raining?
Here in Central Texas we are used to droughts. It is part of life in this area. In fact, droughts have been recorded all the way back to when the Spaniards first came through the area. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca found a population of farmers near present-day Presidio where it hadn’t rained in two years. In 1756 things got so bad the San Gabriel River dried up forcing missionaries and settlers to leave. The settlers under Stephen F. Austin suffered in 1822 when drought destroyed their crops. One of the worst was in 1884-6 causing farms to fail and a mass exodus back east. For every decade there has been at least one period of drought in Texas. The worst started in late spring 1949 in the Concho River Valley, had spread west by fall of the same year and to the whole state by the summer of 1951. By year’s end in 1952 the water shortage was critical with Lake Dallas, for example, holding only 11 percent of its capacity. In the Trans-Pecos corridor only 8 inches of rain fell throughout 1953 and slowly worsened through 1954-56 with rains finally coming in the spring of that year. The same thing occurred in the early 1980’s where a blistering heat wave settled over the area enforcing water rationing. Some towns even ran out of water.
So perhaps even this historic drought in which Central Texas finds itself is no surprise. But how will this effect Austin landscapes? As we saw in the summer of 2011 that lush green lawn can soon turn brown and die. In some cases the yard was down to bare dirt. Grasses like St. Augustine with its high water requirements and shallow root system suffered in the extreme and with continuing water restrictions in place, replacing that lawn in near impossible.
But there is a solution: Xeriscaping. The concept is not new but its promotion in Central Texas is timely. The major problem is trying to change people’s attitude toward their landscape. Folks just like to see a nice green lawn, after all. But when that becomes untenable the choices and perceptions have to shift, and indeed they have. People are realizing that it is possible to replace most of the lawn area with sculpted flower beds filled with shrubs, perennials, and groundcovers that can take the dreadful Texas summer heat and still provide a plethora of blooms through most of the year. They are also realizing that a targeted drip-system irrigation is far more efficient than traditional spray irrigation – most of which were only designed to be ‘passive’, relying on rainfall to make up the difference.
So, as the Austin landscape changes so do people’s attitudes, and as we continue into uncertain times with rising populations and increased water demands, a more considered approach to landscapes is inevitable.