A pollinator garden in San Antonio's Arsenal neighborhood provides an alternative to turf. Credit: Monika Maeckle for The San Antonio Report

The drought of 2011 served as a wake-up call for many San Antonio gardeners. Following the historic dry spell, more local homeowners and gardeners are reconsidering grass lawns and turning to native and pollinator plants in an effort to make their yards and gardens more sustainable.

One of the primary forces behind this landscaping shift is our municipally owned water utility, SAWS. Because the utility has to supply water to taxpayers whether rain comes or not, SAWS has taken steps to provide resources to support sustainable gardening.

“I’m glad to say we are not unique on the sustainable gardening focus,” said Karen Guz, SAWS’ conservation director.

Guz will be in Tucson this weekend to represent San Antonio at a conference on sustainable water management hosted by the American Water Works Association. She’ll join utility representatives from Oklahoma, Colorado, Oregon, and California to share lessons on how cities are promoting sustainable landscapes and discouraging water-guzzling grass lawns during an era of drought and unpredictable weather.

SAWS’ conservation department launched the Garden Style San Antonio website in 2014, a few years following the drought. The site promotes the use of native plants and sustainable garden designs, shares recommended plant lists, and offers how-to videos on everything from pruning crepe myrtles to detecting leaks in irrigation systems. SAWS also publishes a full-color hyper-local plant guide, Top 100 Plants for San Antonio, and stages Spring Bloom, a native plant sale that took place March 9.

While public utilities are tackling water conservation related to landscaping in various ways, they share a common theme: encouraging people to use regionally appropriate plants so as not to waste water, Guz said. About 70 percent of water used during the summer is tapped for landscape irrigation. Native plants, well-adapted to our particular climate, require much less water, fertilizer, and general attention.

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin reported a growing interest in sustainable gardening, specifically in pollinator and native plants. The number of visitors to the native plant garden jumped 30 percent in the last four years, from 140,000 in 2014 to 200,000 in 2018, said Lee Clippard, the center’s director of communications.

Bea Caraway, longtime board member of San Antonio’s chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas (NPSOT) remembers when the organization had a couple dozen members and meetings attracted about 10 people. Now the chapter boasts 224, a membership on par with Houston and North Texas. Recent meetings have drawn more than 100 people. Caraway said she believes the drought, bee decline, and controversy over the Vista Ridge water pipeline project has contributed to local awareness of the need to conserve water.

Native and pollinator plants like this cowpen daisy help attract bees to garden, which helps vegetable yields. Credit: Monika Maeckle for The San Antonio Report

Vegetable gardens have always been popular and studies show that planting wildflowers and native plants near your tomato or pepper patch results in higher vegetable and fruit yields. Wildflowers and natives not only attract bees, they can foster beneficial insects that keep pests in check and help gardeners avoid pesticides. For example, ladybugs eat aphids.

The challenge remains to connect people with plants native to their eco-regions, Clippard said, “and to get more locally grown natives into nurseries and big box stores so that homeowners have access to the right plants for their gardens.”

Retail nurseries have been slow to fill the native plant void, citing lack of availability from commercial growers and lack of demand by consumers. Pollinator gardeners often have to find offbeat pollinator plants at pop-up plant sales staged by organizations like the Lady Bird Johnson Wildfower Center and NPSOT.

But that’s changing. Brandon Kirby of Rainbow Gardens, which has two locations and is one of the largest retail nurseries in town, said he’s been reaching out to commercial growers to cultivate natives specific to San Antonio in response to consumer demand.

“We have seen an increase in both new and experienced gardeners looking for pollinator plants in our nursery,” said Kirby. “Newer gardeners typically are looking for butterfly nectar plants, while experienced gardeners are looking for rare, unusual, or native choices.”

Native plants, also known as wildflowers, can help your garden by bringing in local insect pollinators. Credit: Monika Maeckle for The San Antonio Report

Wendy Meyer at Shades of Green nursery also cited an increasing interest in pollinator and butterfly plants. A recent visit showed masses of milkweeds, daisies, mealy blue sages, and racks of herbs in the Alamo Heights nursery’s inventory. An April 13 workshop on attracting pollinators to the garden  was highlighted on the nursery’s event calendar.

In past years, Gregg’s mistflower, a purple blooming groundcover that tolerates gravely soils and requires little water, was a “slow mover,” said Kirby, using retail parlance for inventory that doesn’t sell. Not anymore. Now it’s become one of the nursery’s top-selling perennials for shadier spots.

Increased interest in pollinator plants in San Antonio has led Rainbow Gardens to feature a table dedicated to pollinators, said Kirby.

“We keep this table stocked with our favorite native and non-native nectar and host plants,” he said. Response to the pollinator table so far? “Very good.”

San Antonio Report co-founder Monika Maeckle writes about pollinators, native plants, and the ecosystems that sustain them at the Texas Butterfly Ranch website. She is also the founder and director of...