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Texas residents conserve water through landscaping
Grass Guzzling

Xeriscaping, or landscaping with drought-tolerant plants, often conjures up visions of cacti and rocks. But cities across Texas have been hard at work turning this image into a bed of roses.

At San Antonio's Botanical Garden, cottages flanked by native plants line the garden's WaterSaver Lane. Visitors learn that each uniquely designed yard is as water-conscious as it is beautiful.

Wild strawberries, Larkspur and roses greeted guests to the garden as live jazz music hummed in the distance at "Garden Jazz Party 2006" in May, San Antonio Water System's (SAWS's) most recent attempt to educate the public on water-conservative landscaping.

"We were thrilled with the turnout," said event organizer Dana Nichols, a SAWS Conservation Department planner.

Nearly 2,000 guests walked through stations demonstrating different aspects of Xeriscaping, the official term for landscaping in arid climates. Coined by Denver Water in 1981, the trademarked term involves seven principles: planning and design; soil improvements; efficient irrigation; zoning of plants; mulches; turf alternatives; and appropriate maintenance.

The word, from the Greek "xeros," meaning "dry," translates into an easy-to-maintain and cost-effective landscape in Texas, where droughts are common. Some also use the term "smart landscaping."

Several cities across Texas offer rebate programs for residents who convert water-guzzling grass into native, pre-approved plants, shrubs and trees. El Paso, San Antonio and Austin lead the pack in smart landscaping, according to the WaterWise Council of Texas.

"I don't think Xeriscaping is any harder than other landscaping, except that you have to educate yourself before you do it," said Austin resident Helen Cox. "But there are many, many books, some even free, about it, so it's interesting to do it."

According to the Texas Cooperative Extension (TCE), urban areas of Texas use about 25 percent of their water supply for landscape and garden watering, and much of this is used to hydrate high water-demanding landscapes. By using efficient irrigation, TCE estimates customers can save 30 to 50 percent on their water bill.

Street-wise help
As Garden Jazz Party visitors crunch down WaterSaver Lane, curious ones ask what's beneath their feet. A volunteer explains that the shiny bits of green and brown tumbled glass mixed with gravel are known as hardscaping, and it doesn't need water.

"These volunteers work all day teaching Xeriscape to thousands of people in exchange for a T-shirt, free bottled water and a thank you," said Karen Guz, director of the SAWS Conservation Department. "Without them, we could not operate this type of event in a cost-effective way."

Nichols agreed.

"Volunteers are the key to our success," she said. "While people do listen to SAWS advice, there is nothing like advice from your neighbor."

But many neighbors across Texas are partial to St. Augustine-dominated landscapes. St. Augustine is a turf grass that uses twice as much water as buffalo grass, according to TCE.

St. Augustine isn't necessarily a problem, though, according to Dick Peterson, the former Xeriscape program coordinator with the city of Austin Water Conservation Program.

"Buffalo grass only saves water when the homeowner conserves," he said. "I make my St. Augustine grass drought-tolerant by holding back on water until absolutely necessary. Then I give it a drink."

Management is key, said Marilyn Good, an administrator with the WaterWise Council.

"There are areas in Texas in which St. Augustine is the appropriate turf," she said. "Consumer education about how to manage the grass is the key factor."

Sometimes, overwatering is just a matter of habit, Guz said.

"To be successful at outdoor water conservation, you have to convince people to change habits and keep reminding them to keep their attention on the issue," she said. "People can have the right plants, the right soil and the right irrigation system and still manage to overwater by 200 percent."

Austin action
In Austin, Zilker Botanical Garden's "Green Garden" showcases nine area designers' water-conscious landscaping. Patches of monkey grass, Dwarf Palmettos and Twisted-leaf Yucca sprout among other environmentally friendly plants and trees.

"Our goal [at Green Garden] was to get people to understand and appreciate the beauty, variety and earth-wise aspects of native and adapted plants," said Kathy Shay, the city of Austin's water quality education manager.

The city also offers WaterWise landscape rebates. Qualifying customers who replace large areas of turfgrass with drought-tolerant native plants are eligible for rebates up to $500.

Many new homes in Austin are already smart-landscaped.

"We are pleased to see more and more new-home builders incorporating drought-tolerant plants and reduced-turf areas into their landscape plans," said Tony Gregg, Austin Water Utility's Water Conservation Division manager.

Gregg said the city's water conservation program, which includes the landscape rebate program, is responsible for decreasing water usage. In fiscal 2004-05, customers used 756,164 gallons of water each day, compared with 827,910 gallons of water each day in fiscal 2000-01. El Paso: dry and dedicated
Since El Paso receives an average of only eight inches of rainfall each year, according to El Paso Water Utilities (EPWU), the majority of residents have adapted their lawns to the harsh desert conditions.

"Most existing homes built after 1980 have rock landscaping in front and grass in the back," said Scott Kesner, president of Century 21 "The Edge" in El Paso.

Still, EPWU offers a rebate program for homes built before March 2001 that convert established grass areas into environmentally sensitive, water-conserving landscapes.

"We still have numerous neighborhoods, industrial parks and commercial establishments with sloped areas or narrow strips of grass," said Anai Padilla, EPWU's water conservation manager.

Customers must receive prior approval from EPWU to be eligible for the rebate, but once approved, they can earn $1 per square foot when grassy areas are converted, pending certain restrictions.

"The program has been very successful," Padilla said. "On average, residential customers convert about 1,000 square feet of grass, resulting in approximately 40,000 gallons per year of water savings. This represents an 85 percent reduction in outdoor water use."

Can I do it myself?
"The reasons people don't do [Xeriscaping] when they have this [rebate] option are varied," Cox said.

Some lack knowledge and aren't willing to learn, and some don't like the look of Xeriscape plants, she said.

But WaterSaver Lane proves there's a look for everyone. At the Wildscape cottage, buffalo grass sprouts among nectar, seed and berry-producing plants to provide a wildlife-friendly haven for butterflies and hummingbirds. Down the road lies the Spanish Courtyard Garden, an example of an outdoor room or living area extension with a paved patio.

After Garden Jazz Party visitors walk through the exhibits, they picnic next to a plant-filled pond and shade-friendly trees. Xeri-wise visitors tote home purchased plants and complimentary copies of SAWS' Landscape Care Guide, sweating under the hot Texas sun--a perfect reminder of the dry summer to come.

Laura Zvonek