The best way to keep your garden looking nice and knowing about the elements you are dealing with. ACC’s Sustainable Agriculture Department shares expert tips to keep your garden growing.
Written By: Hunter Eichman, Sustainable Agriculture Department Professor
Which region of Texas is easiest on gardeners and why, which region has the most obstacles?
Technically, I would say the best region for producing is going to be The Valley, in USDA Zone 9B/A&M Gardening Zone V. This is due to the fact that there is very little occurrence of hard freezes or other cold weather events, with temperature lows only reaching 25 to 30 degrees F. This will lend itself well to gardeners and the like. However, little land area is available for production, and the area itself is in a transitory zone of USDA zones, so mileage may vary.
Instead, the next best region for a garden in Texas, in my opinion, is going to be the area between San Antonio, Austin, Waco, and Houston. Going off of USDA planting zones, this would be the northern portion of 9a, a good portion of 8b, and a little bit of 8a. If using the A&M Agrilife Gardening Zones, this will be a good chunk of Zone 3. While it is very possible to have a garden in a majority portion of the state, I’d say that this region is going to be the easiest to grow in. There are a few reasons for this:
- There is a wide variety of soil types, depending on where in this area you are living. This is where the Blackland Prairie ecoregion comes together with the Oak Woods and Prairies, as well as the Cross Timbers and Prairies. As such, there are both sandy and clayey soils available in the region. There is some variation, but because of the historic presence of natural grasslands, there is a high quantity of organic matter already available in the soil. This lends itself well to gardening philosophies that use compost/organic amendments to work with microbes and soil biology.
- Rainfall is adequate but not so much so that excess moisture will be an issue. Areas in this region typically receive around 25 to 40 inches of rainfall per year, which is an adequate amount to reduce reliance on irrigation. Of course, there is nuance, like drought years, but generally, this is a great amount for gardening.
- Sunlight is a bit difficult to measure, but this region receives 100% of the national average for solar radiation, so plenty of sunlight is available for growing plants.
- Temperature in this zone typically experiences only a few hard freezes per year, and the average low is about 10 to 20 degrees F. This lends itself well to perennial garden plants that can handle a freeze or two, and allows for enough seasonality between growing times to grow both cool- and warm-season gardens.
The most difficult region to garden, in my opinion, will be far West Texas and Southwest Texas in USDA Zones 8a and 7b (A&M Gardening Zone 2). This is simply due to the high annual temperature, low rainfall (5 to 8 inches per year), and extremely high levels of solar radiation, up to 130% of the national average in some cases. These arid environments also have soils that are prone to salinization, degradation, and are typically of poor quality in comparison to what else we have available in the state.
What negative effects can result from planting non-native invasive plants in a landscape?
There are a few things. To understand this, we have to understand how an ecosystem works. I’ll do so briefly (though I could say much more).
An ecosystem consists of all living and non-living factors that are present in an environment and how they interact. Each and every thing plays a role, has a job, or serves some purpose. When we remove one of those things, a void is created, and nature fills voids. Commonly, when making a garden or building a development, etc., land is cleared and those players of the ecosystem that existed are now removed, creating a void.
When we then fill that void with invasive, non-native plants, such as turfgrass species or landscaping plants not from the region, these non-natives tend to grow very vigorously. They have no natural checks and balances that exist because they are not in the natural system they evolved to live in. As such, they can run rampant and grow wild, taking over areas of the garden (or outside of the garden, and into the greater environment). Once they have escaped the garden, they become ingrained to the natural landscape, outcompeting the plants that have not evolved alongside the non-native.
A good example of this is Ligustrum japonica (Japanese privet): This plant was utilized in landscapes extensively over the last few decades, and is now an extremely invasive plant throughout large areas of Texas. Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon) — originally native to Africa — is another example, probably an even better one as we all know how hard it is to pull Bermuda and how vigorously it spreads.
What impact does landscaping with native plants have on the greater environment?
I always say that natives should always be the answer if a homeowner ever has the option between a native and a non-native! There are a few reasons that native plants are a better option:
- Natives use less water and typically require fewer nutrient additions. Because these plants have already gone through millennia of evolution in this location, they are adapted to the conditions present; meaning they have already figured out how to survive on the amount of rainfall we receive every year. They have adapted to the level and proportion of nutrients available in our soils as well as the textures and pH of our soils. Because of this, they require less resource input and are an overall plus for the environment.
Bonus: This means they can be used in xeriscaping. Xeriscaping does not have to mean rocks, gravel, and cacti. There are many gorgeous xeriscape gardens and landscapes that use natives, and don’t look like the desert.
- Natives have formed ecological relationships with wildlife and other living factors of the environment. For example, native pollinators in our area have evolved to consume the nectar and pollen of our native species. Of course, any floral resources we make available to them are going to benefit their dwindling populations. However, if we capitalize on relationships that already exist, we may see a greater result.
- As we talked about with the non-native species, these plants are often outcompeted by invasive plants in natural environments. Because evolution has not created a way for these plants to fight off invasive species, growing natives in our gardens and landscapes allows more native species to survive and combat the threat of invasive plants. This conserves their genetic diversity and protects against the loss of plant populations.
What is the most important factor when choosing the right Texas Native for your landscape?
I would say the most important factor, first and foremost, is if the plant will grow in your type of soil.
For example, something adapted for a sandy type of soil is not going to do as well in the clayey soil of the Blackland Prairie or vice versa. It may survive but would not be at full potential. Additionally, other soil factors such as pH play a role. Some plants prefer slightly acidic pH, most prefer neutral pH, and matching pH requirement to the plant’s preference is important for things like the availability of nutrients.
Speaking of nutrients, that is another factor associated with soil — some plants are very heavy feeders, some plants do not require as much. I’d say most natives won’t require much of a nutrient input, but some cases do exist.
The next most important factor I would say is sunlight requirement. A plant that naturally grows on the understory of a semi-forested region would not do well in a full-sun environment, and vice versa. Honorable mention would be moisture/rainfall, but that can be supplemented via irrigation and watering.
Regardless of the requirement, information on these factors is usually available via internet or on the plant label at a nursery. Using these resources you can find plants that will match the conditions of your garden or landscape.
What type of soil is most common in each region of TX? Which of these is best for planting, and which is the worst?
It is a bit too difficult to answer this question in terms of specific soil types. In soil, individual types can be hard to distinguish and may be very similar with only one or a few traits being different at the most specific level. However, instead, I will answer in terms of soil orders. This is a classification of soil types that is a bit more general but still specific enough to distinguish from one another. There are 12 soil orders found across the globe, and seven of them are found in Texas.
With that said, I would say that mollisols and/or alfisols are the most prevalent across most of Texas. These will be found throughout A&M Gardening regions 2, 3, and 4. Alfisols are typically high in fertility, and have accumulations of clay in the lower regions. Mollisols are characteristic of areas that are or were grasslands, and have a very dark upper region of the soil, due to the high level of organic matter deposited via plant matter from said grasslands. Mollisols are also very fertile for this reason.
In Zone 5, there is a mixture of alfisols, entisols, inceptisols, and mollisols. The description above for alfisols and mollisols is also true here. Additionally, inceptisols are geologically young soils, with little development, and are not as fertile for plant growth as alfisols or mollisols. Entisols, then, are also a soil that does not show a lot of development but can be extremely variable in how fertile they are.
Zone 1 mainly consists of aridisols. These are going to be dry most of the year, and have high levels of calcium carbonate, silica, other salts, and gypsum. These are typically not very productive, as they are found in regions where water for plant growth is only available about 90 days out of the year.
Out of all of these soil types, I would suggest that mollisols and alfisols are going to be the most fertile. Due to their accumulation of organic matter, the biology of the soil is typically very active and the use of sustainable practices only enhances their ability to produce. This can also be seen in a map of agricultural production throughout the state, where a lot of our crop production occurs over mollisols and alfisols.
I would also suggest that aridisols, found in Zone 1, will be the worst for a garden or landscape, due to the low availability of water throughout the year as well as the buildup of salts and calcium in the soil.
ACC’s Sustainable Agriculture program allows students to learn about sustainable agriculture, soil and water conservation, soil science, product marketing, horticulture, animal science, and small farming. The college offers two unique degree plans: the Associate of Applied Science in Sustainable Agriculture and the Associate of Science in Sustainable Agriculture. There also are short-term certificates and awards available through ACC’s Continuing Education Division. Students enrolled in the programs have access to the college’s 17-acre sustainable farm located at ACC Elgin Campus.
For more information, and to register for courses, visit austincc.edu/agriculturesciences.
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