Watersaver Lane at San Antonio Botanical Garden

Conserving water is integral to “green” gardening in central Texas. Although Austin receives an average of 32 inches of rain a year, much of our rainfall is concentrated in spring and fall and in heavy showers that run off quickly rather than soaking into the soil. Yet while water restrictions have become a sign of the times, the buzzword “xeriscape” still turns some people off and makes others think only of cactus gardens.

Watersaver Lane at San Antonio Botanical Garden, which I recently visited, seeks to dispel this misconception. Xeriscape gardens in five styles offer inspiration and an alternative to the ubiquitous and thirsty St. Augustine lawn with mustache hedge and water-guzzling annuals. Built around six miniature cottages, the gardens (Cottage, Wildscape, Texas Hill Country, Spanish Courtyard, and Manicured Xeriscape) contrast with the “control garden,” the Traditional Landscape, and illustrate that conserving water in the garden can look beautiful.

Let’s look at the Traditional Landscape first. Unappealingly but accurately rendered as a St. Augustine lawn bordered by disease-prone red-tipped photinia, it also includes stalwart but unimaginatively used boxwood, liriope, and annuals. (Even the house is painted a boring taupe color. Note the finishing touch of the plastic flamingos.)

To many people, this is the American ideal for the suburban yard. Most gardeners, however, would agree that it’s utterly boring. Don’t get me wrong—a boring yard is not the worst thing in the world. A more-ambitious but poorly executed or maintained garden can be more of an eyesore. But this garden’s main failings include high water consumption, high energy consumption (in the form of lawn mower use), and a total lack of regional or personal character. Where is this garden located? Anywhere, USA. No regional clues exist to tell us; these exotic but traditional plants appear in gardens all across the country. Who lives here? No personality is evident; all we know is that he or she has a fondness for kitschy yard ornament.

For those who like the tidy, traditional look of a lawn and foundation hedge, the Manicured Xeriscape garden shows how to do it by using less-thirsty, better-adapted plants in a traditional design. Katie’s dwarf ruellia provides perennial color at ground level, and dwarf Southern wax myrtle replaces boxwood as a foundation shrub. Turk’s cap—not poorly suited hydrangea or azalea—grows in the shade of the trees.

If you like a Cottage Garden, Watersaver Lane shows you how to do it with old-fashioned but tough favorites like cleome, heirloom roses, star jasmine . . .

. . . and orange cosmos. A curvy, gravel path, bench, window boxes, and flowering vine framing the door provide the finishing touches.

Gardeners in San Antonio and other southwestern cities might find Spanish Courtyard more to their liking. Drought-loving plants like Pride of Barbados, silver ponyfoot, palms, and yuccas partially screen a decomposed-granite courtyard.

Texas Hill Country is one of my favorite gardening styles for Austin. The Hill Country is famous for its limestone outcroppings, rolling hills, and fields of spring wildflowers. If you already live on thin, limestone soil, why not play to your strengths? Instead of trying to keep a traditional landscape going, opt for this colorful, rugged garden style. Here a decomposed-granite path edged with chopped limestone winds its way to the door, bordered by tough natives like gaura, salvia, pavonia, muhly grass, yucca, and cenizo, and accented with a Texas redbud tree. Notice the lack of turf grass in this garden, but native buffalograss can fill that need.

Columbine and sotol make a striking combination near the house.

I like this trio of (front to back) Autumn sage (Salvia greggii ), spineless prickly pear, and Texas sage or cenizo (Scrophulariaceae ) in bloom.

Perhaps you like to garden to attract wildlife. The Wildscape Landscape shows you how to use plants with seeds and nectar, roosting places and larval food, all suited to Central Texas’ conditions without the need for chemical pesticides or fertilizers that could harm wildlife.

Each demonstration garden includes a sign with information about how to create that garden style, as well as maintenance requirements. Very handy. The website contains even more information about each garden.

Austinites interested in seeing xeric, or water-saving, demonstration gardens can visit the Green Garden at Zilker Botanical Garden or the Home Owner Inspiration Garden at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

But what I like about Watersaver Lane in San Antonio is that it not only educates visitors about xeric plants and green-gardening practices, but it also teaches them about different garden styles. For instance, you can view the cottage garden and then stroll on into it ; afterward you can stop and read the sign for a brief history of the cottage garden and what kinds of plants and hardscaping you’d typically find in one.

For new gardeners, this could be the inspiration that gets them digging.

15 Responses

  1. Frances says:

    This is the best garden blog I have ever read. Your new camera takes great scenic as well as close up shots. Yours has become the “first read” of the blogs in my favorites file. Thanks for the recent updates, beautiful pictures and intelligent writing.

    Well, gosh, Frances! I’m very flattered. Thank you for the compliments! It’s great to hear that you enjoy it and find it interesting. —Pam

  2. Carol says:

    I love what they have done to show the different styles of gardens. At first I liked Cottage Garden, then I saw Texas Hill country, and liked that one better, and then I saw Wildscape. I could be happy with any of those! Wonderful pictures!

    Carol at May Dreams Gardens, green with envy…

    Thanks, Carol. Yes, they did a really nice job of showcasing the different styles. It makes me want one of each. ;-) —Pam

  3. As I scrolled through the photos, the one that really popped out for me was the Texas Hill Country garden. However, I think I’m just far enough east of Balcones Fault that my garden looks a bit more like the Wildscape Landscape.

    The San Antonio Botanical garden is doing a great job of education. And, of course, San Antonio is just a little bit warmer and a little bit wetter than Austin so they can grow more tropicals. Plus they have a fine tradition of Spanish/Mexican architecture and garden plantings. What about garden bloggers? Have you discovered any in your searches?

    I looked up average rainfall totals for Austin and San Antonio, and actually San Antonio gets less than Austin : only 28 inches. They must run the sprinklers for those tropicals. ;-)

    I haven’t heard from any San Antonio garden-bloggers. Anybody out there? We’d love to hear from you. —Pam

  4. Ki says:

    They did a wonderful job presenting the different landscape styles. Must be difficult keeping up some of those gardens. I agree with MSS that the Texas Hill Country garden looks very good.

    Yes, it’s one of my top picks too. —Pam

  5. The wildscape grabs my attention. Pam, I felt like Frances, when I first found your blog too. You really do a great job.

    Thanks a bunch, Robin! —Pam

  6. Julie says:

    Dear Pam,

    I really liked all of them even the one with the flamingos (the photographer is adept at putting everyone in a good light). This post is an especially appealing one to me, since it shows, as a smart friend of mine says, “There are a lot of ways to do soemthing right.”


    Your friend is right about that, Julie. Regarding that first house, you know, there are a lot of people who like that tidy, evergreen look. That’s why the manicured xeriscape is such a good option for them. —Pam

  7. What an interesting idea, Pam – and the first yard looks an awful lot like ours when we got the key to the house! Add a few Arizona Ashes and live oaks and it would be even closer. We’ve moved the liriope edging, added lots of other plants, including native trees, shrubs and flowers, but it’s still pretty traditional in front.

    It may be equally as interesting to see what these miniature landscapes look like in winter … well, in Austin winter anyway. Does San Antonio freeze in winter? I don’t like photinia, but I appreciate my boxwood during the 4 months when most of the other plants are dormant.

    There are lots of San Antonio gardeners on the Texas board at GardenWeb, but if there are any SA garden bloggers, too – they’re sure keeping a low profile.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    I don’t object to boxwood or liriope per se; only when they’re used so predictably in combination with other predictable plants. Boxwoods can make for beautiful bones in a garden. I would prefer to see a mix of plants at the foundation rather than a tired mustache hedge.

    Looking back through the photos, I think these gardens would have sufficient winter interest. I notice a number of evergreens in each garden, like star jasmine, wax myrtle, sotol, prickly pear, muhly grasses (these turn brown in winter but are still interesting), rosemary, cenizo, palms. It would be interesting to go see, though, wouldn’t it?

    And yes, San Antonio garden-bloggers, if there are any, are really laying low. —Pam

  8. This is my first visit to your blog. I think it is very well presented. We don’t have worry about water here, just bad winters.

    Welcome to Digging, Digital Flower, and thanks for commenting. —Pam

  9. Matthew says:

    The gardens look great, but who chose the door colors?

  10. chuck b. says:

    I love demonstration gardens; these were great!

  11. Needa Reed says:

    I loved your presentation! I have neglected my garden for severl years and am now re-working it. Your demonstration gardens are so exciting to me. I really liked every garden, but I particularly liked the Wildscape, however I think I could likely accomplish something more like the Manicured Xeriscape and I love it too. Thanks.

    I’m glad you liked seeing this demonstration garden. San Antonio Botanical Garden has one of the nicest and most helpful ones I’ve seen in Texas. —Pam

  12. […] __________ *Before leaving I explored Watersaver Lane, a demonstration garden illustrating different styles of xeric (water-conserving) plants. Read about it here. […]

  13. Cindy says:

    I love that Austin garden bloggers are so organized. I would love to try to coordinate something like your group for San Antonio. If you have any suggestions…

    I work at The Antique Rose Emporium in San Antonio and would love to invite your group down to see our gardens. April is a lush time of year for us but as a retail nursery working over the Edwards Aquifer we are very pretty and xeric all year long.

    We have a couple great meeting rooms so if you folks would like to make a day of it and bring your lunch…. we would love to show you around.

    Cindy Lawrey

  14. Abbey says:

    You’re right about San Antonio garden bloggers keeping a low profile. I live in San Antonio and started my blog a few weeks ago. I was hoping to connect with other local bloggers, but I have only found one blog (which hasn’t been updated in a year). I came across your post while doing a search for “san antonio garden blog.” It seems like Austin has a very vibrant garden blogging community. I hope you don’t mind if I peak in on your progress. Our growing conditions are very similar so I’m sure we can learn from each other.