San Antonio Lawn Makeover: Before Next Drought, Solarize and Say Goodbye to Water-Guzzling Grass

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Monika MaeckleWith the Spring Equinox approaching, March 20 at 5:14 AM, it’s time  to rethink your lawn.

SAWS  lifted Stage One water restrictions this week, a dubious decision, but one that gets the attention of those who garden.  That means automatic sprinklers can run any day of the week 8 PM – 10 AM for the first time since last April.  As we wander outside to assess the aftermath of our historic drought and mild winter, we encourage lawn lovers to reconsider their St. Augustine, which guzzles 40 -50 inches of water per year.

Former St. Augustine lawn in Alamo Heights: a vibrant garden and edible landscape

In Alamo Heights: a vibrant garden and edible landscape...

“Lawns do have their place, but if we’ve learned anything from this drought it’s that it’s smart to cut the amount of turf grass down,” says David Rodriguez, Bexar County Extension Agent for Horticulture of Texas Agrilife Extension.  Rodriguez says his office is receiving plenty of calls from people wondering how to handle degraded lawns and  opportunistic weeds.

A general recommendation, he says, is a turf-to-bed conversion that cuts your yard or garden into three equal pieces: turf, hardscape and planted areas of flowers, vegetables or shrubbery.  Even better, convert all or large parts of your yard.

St. Augustine grass begs for a flower garden in Alamo Heights

...formerly a lawn of water-guzzling St. Augustine.

When it comes to preparing the new space, resist the use of Round-Up or other weedkillers and consider the chemical-free approach of solarization.  Solarization is easy, inexpensive and requires no special gear or skills.   With a big pile of newspaper, water and a load of mulch, you can turn turf and weeds into a vibrant garden that requires less water and maintenance and yields more flowers, greenery, creatures–even fruits and vegetables.  My butterfly garden in Alamo Heights, once an expanse of St. Augustine, was transformed into a robust pollinator station in two short years.

In late 2011, I moved to Austin and temporarily traded my big yard in 78209 for a small patch in front of a  quadriplex in 78704.  The landlord agreed to give me gardening rights and within months the degraded Bermuda grass at 1907 Kenwood Ave. was converted into a flower-yielding, herb producing butterfly garden.

Travis Height in Austin:  from crummy Bermuda grass and weeds to....

Travis Heights in Austin: from ugly Bermuda grass and weeds to....

....To this in five short months. Native plants rule.

....joyous native plant garden in five short months.

Upon moving back to San Antonio into the Lavaca neighborhood last December, I negotiated the same deal with my landlord Hilary Scruggs.  The St. Augustine front yard there was parched and pitiful;  Scruggs agreed to allow me a small stretch for butterfly plants and an edible landscape of herbs, artichokes, and soon, tomatoes.  The transformation is in progress.

You can do it, too.  Solarization offers a low cost, low tech, low impact, chemical-free approach to weed removal and bed prep.  It also exploits the free solar power that shines on our part of the world an average 300 days a year.

In Lavaca: former St. Augustine yard en route to butterfly garden

In Lavaca: former St. Augustine yard, now a butterfly garden in process

The idea of solarizing the soil or killing turf  in this manner is to smother, almost pasteurize the earth, killing most weeds and undesirable live organisms by raising the temperature and “cooking” your yard–much like in a compost pile.  Piling mulch on top of layers of newsprint ensures darkness and insulates the ground, increasing the temperature–as high as 140 degrees, depending on the time of year. According to several studies, solarization kills pathogens, nematodes, weed seeds and seedlings and speeds up the breakdown of organic material, resulting in more soluble nutrients for future plants. The process can take as little as three  - six weeks.

Solarization: Don't scrimp on the mulch and newspapers

Solarization: Don't scrimp on the mulch and newspapers

With so many drought damaged landscapes in Central and South Texas, maybe it’s time to think about solarization and converting your yard.  Here’s how to do it.

Solarization How-To

1.  Thoroughly water (but don’t soak) the area you’re planning to convert from grass or weeds to butterfly beds.

2. Take a pile of newsprint destined for the recycling heap (I prefer the Wall Street Journal because they still publish their pages in large format), and lay down  six, preferably 10 layers of newspaper over the well-watered turf.  Cardboard, feedbags, and other compostable paper products can also be used, but my preference is newsprint. NOTE:  Many solarization directions call for black plastic to turn up the heat on the soil.  You can use plastic, but then you will have to remove it later.  As a lazy gardener, I prefer materials that will simply decompose.

3.  Water down the newsprint with a good spraying so it doesn’t fight with the breeze and will stay in its assigned place.

4.  Load  4-6 inches of native Texas mulch (for the two 15 x 10 areas straddling my walkway, I used about 40 bags/or $90 at Home Depot) on top of the newspapers.   Then?

5. Water again thoroughly and wait.   Let the Texas sun do the rest.

You can begin to install transplants immediately.   Simply carve a hole in the mulch, install transplant with organic fertilizer, return soil and mulch.  Make sure that the mulch covers up any openings.  If you have a gap in your newspaper/mulch cover, weeds will find a way to germinate and find the sun.

The single downside to solarization is that it’s challenging to plant seeds.   The mulch and newspaper make it difficult for seeds to germinate (which is the point of deterring weeds in a new bed).  You can plant seeds in containers and transplant them later once they mature enough to be moved.

For more information, contact your local garden center or the Bexar County Master Gardeners Hotline at 210.467.6578.  Other good resources: www.plantanswers.com  or www.aggiehorticulture.com.  Please share your garden transformation stories and photos with on our Facebook page or on Twitter.

 

Monika Maeckle writes about gardening, butterflies, conservation and the Monarch butterfly migration at the Texas Butterfly Ranch.  You can reach her at monika@therivardreport.com

 

 

 

 

 

 


 




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  1. Melissa

    Looks wonderful. I remember when I had my first apartment, and I begged for garden rights also. Glad to hear I’m not the only one. Your new butterfly garden will no doubt encourage your landlady to give you much more space… it’s going to look fantastic!

  2. Evelyn Hadden

    Great article! Glad you are spreading the word about these easy ways to kill the lawn. Takes longer up here in Minnesota, but does convert the sod to great soil.

    To establish plants by seed, try adding an inch of soil over the top of your mulch after it has decomposed to the point where roots can penetrate, then scattering the seed in that top layer.

    You are not the first person I’ve heard saying their landlord (or HOA) agreed to let them try converting lawn to a low-care garden after hearing their reasoned proposal.

    Keep it up!

  3. Heather

    Last summer I converted by St. Augustine-covered front yard into a landscape of drought-tolerant plants. At first the neighbors thought I was crazy, but now think it’s one of the smartest and most beautiful yards in the neighborhood. I get tons of butterflies and hummingbirds. The yard has about 15% rock and the rest is mulch. The rock area has a weed barrier, but the mulched area does not and with the recent rains- I spend hours pulling weeds because I don’t want to use Roundup. Monika- would you suggest re-mulching as a way to stop the weeds from growing? Would that “choke out” the remaining weeds by denying them sunlight?

    • Monika Maeckle

      Congratulations on your garden! Yes, often neighbors don’t get it. The butterfly garden in Alamo Heights was returned to St. Augustine when we sold our house and in Austin my cranky neighbor angrily ripped out my native plants, friends tell me. That’s too bad.

      Definitely use mulch to deny weeds their sun. You might have pull or weed whack if they’re already well established, but don’t let them goto seed or they’ll just continue their progress. You can also do the newspaper solarization UNDER the mulch to help. It will eventually compost. Good luck and please share a photo on our Facebook page. Thanks for writing, Heather.

      Monika

      • Heather

        I don’t have a terrible weed problem in the mulch area… just to the annoying level. Do you think I can get away with just putting about 2 inches of mulch on top of the old mulch and not mess with the newspaper? I know that doing the paper/solar thing would be important when establishing a new bed. I guess I’m hoping that you will tell me that I can get out of the hard work of laying down newspaper and mulch… and just do the mulch. ;)

  4. Jim

    I wanted to mention that San Antonio residents can get all the mulch they could possibly ever use for free at the Bitters road Brush and Shrub disposal facility. For a small fee, they can also sell you the double-ground mulch, which is finer texture and looks a little nicer. A lot cheaper than paying $90 for bagged mulch at Home Depot.

  5. Lissa Martinez

    Just came in from raking the big 2000+ square foot bald patch we have created in our yard by solarizing it for about 100 days. This project is too small to do with mechanized gear, and too big to do by hand, I am learning. So we soldier on, working early and working close to sunset. Still, it’s sweaty work no matter what you do.

    When we bought the house in mid winter, this space was wide open, because three dead trees had already been removed. The winning proposal to rehab that forlorn yard was to install a “meadow” of native grasses that will not demand lots of mowing and watering like conventional turf.

    Honest, I never meant to leave the solarizing plastic on so long, but our house rehab got the best of me and here we are in crazy heat getting ready to seed a native mixed grass turf. On the plus side, the long solarizing time did it’s job, the exposed ground is devoid of growth and the soil texture is pretty good, for an old suburban lawn crisscrossed with old tree roots.

    Two days ago I bought the seeds and I now see that the native grass seeds are so much more elegant and lightweight than I understood. Each 5 pound bag is like a fluffy pillow, not the dense bag of “grains” I envisioned.

    Yesterday, we hauled all the bags of compost and placed them in a grid all over the bald spot. This morning we raked the area, this evening we will break open the bags of compost and continue the soil preparation. With some luck, I’ll be able to broadcast the seed and roll the area tomorrow, to provide the “full contact with soil” that all my native plant experts say is crucial. It’s such beautiful seed mix, this task will be a pleasure.

    Please rain, come back to Central Texas! On our way to establishing this drought savvy lawn, we will be obliged to water the newly planted seeds daily! I apologize in advance for all the water I will have to use to establish this native turf in the next couple of weeks. I’ll look forward very much to next year when I don’t need to use any water on this turf, and hope it sort of compensates for my present offense.

    So continues my first hand lesson in solarizing and suburban land restoration.

    regards to all


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