Nature Notes: Native Plant Society Guide Is a Companion for Cultivating a High Desert Garden

The Big Bend Gardener’s Guide is available now online
The Big Bend Gardener’s Guide is available now online

Native Plant Society Guide Is a Companion for Cultivating a High Desert Garden

By Andrew Stuart

The high, arid land of Far West Texas is a demanding, if sublime, context for life. Yet throughout its extent, plants and animals, of a hardy beauty, have adapted to its demands, to survive, even flourish.

Adaptation is key for humans here as well. It’s a lesson gardeners in our region learn – often the hard way. Applying techniques and traditions developed in wetter regions can end in frustration, or hopelessness. Yet by respecting local conditions, and particularly by embracing the rich native flora, gardeners can succeed, and nurture landscapes that resonate with surrounding ecosystems.

The Big Bend Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas has published the second edition of its Gardener’s Guide online. The original print edition spurred interest in native-plant gardening here. On Sept. 14, at 10 a.m. in the Alpine Library, the guide’s authors will be on-hand to introduce the new, expanded edition, and answer questions.

The Big Bend native plant society formed in 2002, and the Big Bend Gardener’s Guide was its first project. The idea was drawn from notes compiled by Beth Francell of Fort Davis, from her two decades as a landscape designer here.

“We were building a membership that was very curious,” Francell said, “and that we realized had very little knowledge about, first of all, the conditions, which are rather formidable for gardeners, and then the variety of environments, from down south all the way to people who live up at the observatory, close to 8,000 feet.”

The guide uses the expertise and knowledge of many local experts to fill that gap.

There are multiple plant lists – including an extensive list of natives, with special note of plants that attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Another list identifies the types of food produced by various plants, the seasons those fruits, seeds or nectar are present, and the categories of wildlife they attract, from small mammals to songbirds.

Deer can do significant damage – especially in Fort Davis and Alpine. Fencing is the surefire protection, but the guide lists trees, shrubs and flowers less likely to attract deer.

Soil types vary across the region, and the guide includes an essay on identifying soil composition, amending soils and composting.

There’s advice on pest management. The use of natives is itself an aid here, Francell said.

“If you have nothing but exotic plants, you have exotic bugs,” she said, “and the native birds are not accustomed to eating those, and so the insects do more damage to the plants. And you’re not really feeding the birds correctly, and if we don’t have birds, we don’t have a lot of things.”

Limited water is the inescapable West Texas reality, and the guide includes essays on rainwater catchment and xeriscaping. A calendar is woven through the guide, with monthly lists of gardening tasks. There are sections on planting and pruning trees. Throughout, the text is complemented by fine drawings by local gardener-artists.

Francell said that the guide provides tools new gardeners need.

“We have such a wonderful diversity of native plants,” she said, “and people need to get to know them, and ways of growing them, and also which do better in which parts of the Tri-county area, and which ones do better in different kinds of soils. I think that’s the strength of our guide.”

Two-thousand-and-11’s catastrophic Rockhouse Fire was a “wake-up call” for the region, and the guide has a new essay on how to reduce wildfire fuel around homes, as well as a list of native plants for “firewise” landscaping.

For years, Alpine’s One Way Nursery provided area gardeners with native plants. Since it closed, the native plant society has worked to meet the need through its annual sale. There’s also increasing interest in collecting and propagating seed from the wild. The guide includes a new essay by botanist Michael Eason, on collecting plant material.

An awareness of the vulnerability of ecosystems, and appreciation for native plants, have deepened since the guide’s first edition. The decline in bees and other pollinators threatens the global food supply – native plants support pollinators. Having a new, free guide can empower West Texans to do their part, Francell said.

“I hope that, with this being online, it can be even more broadly utilized in the area,” she said, “and just continue this growth of knowledge about native plants and their importance to the environment.”

Area residents can learn more about the guide Saturday, Sept. 14, at 10 at the Alpine Public Library.

Nature Notes is supported by the Shield-Ayres Foundation and produced by Marfa Public Radio with the Sibley Nature Center. The program can be heard each Tuesday and Thursday, at 7:45 a.m. and 4:45 p.m., Central time, on KRTS Marfa, 93.5 FM, and KXWT Odessa/Midland, 91.3 FM. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.