What is native, anyway?

I’ve always wanted to be able to take a long shot of my yard, filled with cottagey flowering shrubs. This bed is now officially one year old, and the natives and adapted natives are happy, despite our drought.

Larkspur, Trailing Verbena in Pink and Purple, Laura Bush Petunia (returning on its own from last year), Lambs Ear, Pink Skullcap, Lion’s Tail, Society Garlic, Variegated Agave Americana, Flash the Wonder Cat, Gomphrena, Four Nerve Daisy, Zinnia, Bog Sage, Yellow blooming Ice Plant, and a bit of a Coneflower are all in this photo. Not pictured, but also blooming in this sunny bed, are Salvia Greggii, Dwarf Pomegranite, dwarf daylilies, Mystic Spires, Blackfoot daisy, Iris, Winecup, Guara, Knockout roses, and a new replacement lantana.

Not bad for early May!

This bed was greatly amended prior to planting anything, and 8 inches of organic compost was incorporated into the topsoil below the St. Augustine grass. This new soil has obviously been of significant benefit to help these plants needing well-draining soil to flourish.

Which begs the question that I’ve been pondering for some time now. If these plants are “natives”, then why do I have to amend my soil?
I’m not talking about adding nutrients; I understand about nutrient depletion from city watering and urban runoff. I’m talking about clay, non-draining soil that naturally occurs in a big part of Central Texas.
In my back yard, I do the cheaper “amend as I go” method. (Though ultimately it may not be cheaper, as I end up losing plants and having to purchase new plants to replace them, or having to buy more to fill in a space as the plant doesn’t grow as well.)

Anyway, the back yard beds aren’t as nicely amended, and nothing grows as prolifically as the front yard pictured at the top of this post. I did amend one bed for my Irises, which were thrilled with the new – well draining – soil I created. Everything else is… meh.

A handful of plants are truly worthy of the “native” designation, at least in my yard. Copper Canyon Daisy is planted in part-sun and crappy clay, and it grows huge each year, as does its neighbor plant, Fall Aster.  Rose of Sharon is just happy to be alive, no matter where it’s planted, it seems. It’s about to burst totally into bloom, and I’m looking forward to the show.

Artemesia Powis Castle is another worthy native, creating a new plant from every cutting that I stick in the ground, no matter how dry, dense, or depleted. Cast Iron plant is just that, tough as nails no matter what. Purple Heart grows everywhere, but does die in our colder winters.

Agaves, popular as they are, can’t be native to the gummy blackland prairie in central Austin.  Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine calls it “rich, black, waxy, alkaline, calciferous soil.” Agaves must have fast draining soil to survive. Perhaps they might be native to the Edward’s Plateau. The Edwards plateau soil of central Texas is yellow clay, has a limestone base, and often has caliche mixed into the top layer.

So I guess my yard is considered filled with natives, adapted natives and “others” that thrive in soil amended so much to be unrecognizable as naturally-occurring in my part of Austin. I just can’t consider it native if I have to completely bring in new soil from elsewhere in order for it to live.


6 thoughts on “What is native, anyway?

  1. Hi Robin.

    The natives would still grow in unamended soil but would struggle and be stunted (at least initially), taking a lot longer to establish and spread and probably never look as good as the “amended” scene you currently have going on. The super-tough plants I have in my Hell-Strip are a testament to survival, if they make it past the first couple of years they do eventually take-off even in the most horrific of soils and parched conditions, it just takes longer with a lot more deaths 🙂

    Your larkspur looks great, keep amending!

    Good to see you again this evening.


  2. A lot of your tough, beautiful plants are not native to central Texas but rather well-adapted to our climate: larkspur, ‘Powis Castle’ artemisia, cast-iron plant, lamb’s ear, lion’s tail, ice plant, pomegranate, daylilies, etc. Aside from the purple coneflowers, the natives you mentioned (Blackfoot daisy, salvia, agave, skullcap, four-nerve daisy, etc.) are native to the Edward’s plateau’s thinner, gravelly soil, not your gumbo clay. So that’s why they do better in amended, well-draining soil. That plus the fact that in many subdivisions healthy topsoil was scraped off by builders and replaced with “sandy loam” for lawns, which is not so hot for our Hill Country garden plants.

  3. Robin, you should join us some time at our plant swap in Buda. Have you ever been to one ? Please email if you would like more information. I am enjoying your website. So, I’ll sit here with my iced tea and have a virtual visit of your garden. 🙂

    patty soriano
    castroville tx

  4. I love the way the stock tank is integrated into your plantings. In an effort to make ours fit in a little better, I had ours painted and now think it was a mistake. Yours looks great.

  5. ESP, thanks for noticing my larkspur! They love the decomposed granite. It was great to see you again as well.

    Pam, I suppose I had an assumption that if it was in our city “Grow Green Guide” then it was considered native. Obviously not! Sweating all day after amending a bed was what prompted this post; I’m thinking “Why the heck do I have to do this, anyway?” Obviously, what passes for soil here leaves a lot to be desired.

    Patty, I’ll toast you right back!

    Patricia, I have another stock tank in my back yard that is all rusted and bent. I love it! Though painting one could be an interesting effect as well, would love to see yours.

  6. This is a great post! Plants, native or not, need just the right conditions to thrive. You’ve obviously found the secret. Yes, Grow Green includes plants that are not native. But per our discussion today, there are wonderful adapted plants. And a “native” plant is native to its site, which may be native to yours and not to mine. But you’ve found the great compromise, as I do in my garden.

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