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Water-Saving Gardens

encore date: March 10, 2016

original air date: February 6, 2016

Want gorgeous gardens that conserve water? Author Pam Penick shows how in her latest book, The Water-Saving Garden. On tour, Austin Neal’s first Austin garden taught him water wise notions in his front yard courtyard. Daphne picks structural, drought defiant sotol as Plant of the Week and explains how microclimates affect our plant choices. Trisha flavors up our recipes with water thrifty herbs.

Episode Segments

On Tour

Austin Neal Garden Drought Tough Courtyard

When Austin Neal moved to Austin, he dug in feet first into new garden territory. Starting from scratch in a barren lot, he livened things up with a front courtyard filled with food and drought defiant plants for wildlife, framed by a hand-made fence with neighborly portals. Ipe and decomposed granite paths set the stage among artistic touches that wind up on a multi-level deck to sip a cold one to the sounds of a two-level steel-framed water runway.

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Question of the Week

What is a microclimate?

Our question this week comes from Central Texas Gardener’s Facebook page, where viewer Curtis Fesser asked about microclimates: What are they, and can he create one?

Microclimates are areas that have a different environment than the area surrounding them. You most often hear about them when horticulturists have to explain why a normally tender plant is somehow surviving, and even thriving, outside of its normal range.

At one point when I was an Extension agent in El Paso, there was a news story about someone who was not only successfully growing a banana tree in their yard, but also producing edible fruit. And I don’t have to tell you that a banana should not survive in the high desert of the southwestern U.S.

To create a microclimate, you need to recreate the environment that you’re looking for. For example, to create a warmer, more humid space for a tropical species, create a small, protected area, complete with walls, bright sunlight, and ample moisture to evaporate into the air. The walls, closely spaced, would be important in this situation, protecting the area from drying winds and creating a greenhouse effect to keep warmth and high relative humidity. In fact, a greenhouse is the best example of a microclimate, but you can also create a microclimate indoors by using a tray of pebbles under container plants, or by using terrariums or bell jars.

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Plant of the Week

Sotol

Sotol

Dasylirion spp

Sotol, in the botanical genus Dasylirion, has a number of great species to choose from. All are low-water, desert species, with an architectural structure and aesthetic that most gardeners either love or hate. If you have anything but the rockiest, most well-drained soil, you’ll need to amend the planting area to create a very xeric environment; mostly consisting of decomposed granite and other coarse planting substrate. You might even consider building berms for your sotols, further removing the roots and crown from any potential of rot. All are evergreen and should be planted in full sun, in the hottest, most brutal section of your landscape; areas where most other plants would fry and shrivel up to nothing. The various species are often called by the same common name indiscriminately, including blue sotol, green sotol, and desert spoon. All have very long, linear leaves that are very fibrous, with razor-sharp edges. They also have a mostly rounded appearance overall, appearing almost spherical when seen from afar. Species berlandieri is one of the largest and most upright, growing to about 7 feet tall and 4 feet wide at maturity, with striking blue-green foliage. Each leaf may be 5 feet long, but, lacking an internal support mechanism, they bend and fall over about halfway, creating a drooping, pendulous effect that is quite unique. Species wheeleri has light green that get a bit frazzled at the top. Its leaves don’t droop and have slightly toothed margins that make them extra sharp. It also stays rather contained, getting only 4 to 6 feet tall and about 3 feet wide. Another noteworthy species is acrotriche, which gets about 6 feet tall and five feet wide, with rather thin, light green leaves that have a slight bluish tinge. Like wheeleri, the foliage gets a bit frazzled on the tips, giving it a bit of a wispy look. All produce towering flower stalks in mid to late summer, similar to their relatives in the Agave family, but unlike Agaves, Sotols do not die after flowering. Our viewer pictures this week come from Williamson County Master Gardener Viki Strauss and her husband Sam, who removed their lawn in a shady backyard for a serene wildlife habitat. Of course, Augie and I especially love the picture of their gorgeous Irish setter Theo photobombing one picture!

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