Monika Maeckle

With the Spring Equinox approaching, March 20 at 5:14 AM, it’s time  to rethink your lawn.

SAWS  lifted Stage One water restrictions this week, a dubious decision, but one that gets the attention of those who garden.  That means automatic sprinklers can run any day of the week 8 PM – 10 AM for the first time since last April.  As we wander outside to assess the aftermath of our historic drought and mild winter, we encourage lawn lovers to reconsider their St. Augustine, which guzzles 40 -50 inches of water per year.

Former St. Augustine lawn in Alamo Heights: a vibrant garden and edible landscape
In Alamo Heights: a vibrant garden and edible landscape…

“Lawns do have their place, but if we’ve learned anything from this drought it’s that it’s smart to cut the amount of turf grass down,” says David Rodriguez, Bexar County Extension Agent for Horticulture of Texas Agrilife Extension.  Rodriguez says his office is receiving plenty of calls from people wondering how to handle degraded lawns and  opportunistic weeds.

A general recommendation, he says, is a turf-to-bed conversion that cuts your yard or garden into three equal pieces: turf, hardscape and planted areas of flowers, vegetables or shrubbery.  Even better, convert all or large parts of your yard.

St. Augustine grass begs for a flower garden in Alamo Heights
…formerly a lawn of water-guzzling St. Augustine.

When it comes to preparing the new space, resist the use of Round-Up or other weedkillers and consider the chemical-free approach of solarization.  Solarization is easy, inexpensive and requires no special gear or skills.   With a big pile of newspaper, water and a load of mulch, you can turn turf and weeds into a vibrant garden that requires less water and maintenance and yields more flowers, greenery, creatures–even fruits and vegetables.  My butterfly garden in Alamo Heights, once an expanse of St. Augustine, was transformed into a robust pollinator station in two short years.

In late 2011, I moved to Austin and temporarily traded my big yard in 78209 for a small patch in front of a  quadriplex in 78704.  The landlord agreed to give me gardening rights and within months the degraded Bermuda grass at 1907 Kenwood Ave. was converted into a flower-yielding, herb producing butterfly garden.

Travis Height in Austin:  from crummy Bermuda grass and weeds to....
Travis Heights in Austin: from ugly Bermuda grass and weeds to….
....To this in five short months. Native plants rule.
….joyous native plant garden in five short months.

Upon moving back to San Antonio into the Lavaca neighborhood last December, I negotiated the same deal with my landlord Hilary Scruggs.  The St. Augustine front yard there was parched and pitiful;  Scruggs agreed to allow me a small stretch for butterfly plants and an edible landscape of herbs, artichokes, and soon, tomatoes.  The transformation is in progress.

You can do it, too.  Solarization offers a low cost, low tech, low impact, chemical-free approach to weed removal and bed prep.  It also exploits the free solar power that shines on our part of the world an average 300 days a year.

In Lavaca: former St. Augustine yard en route to butterfly garden
In Lavaca: former St. Augustine yard, now a butterfly garden in process

The idea of solarizing the soil or killing turf  in this manner is to smother, almost pasteurize the earth, killing most weeds and undesirable live organisms by raising the temperature and “cooking” your yard–much like in a compost pile.  Piling mulch on top of layers of newsprint ensures darkness and insulates the ground, increasing the temperature–as high as 140 degrees, depending on the time of year. According to several studies, solarization kills pathogens, nematodes, weed seeds and seedlings and speeds up the breakdown of organic material, resulting in more soluble nutrients for future plants. The process can take as little as three  – six weeks.

Solarization: Don't scrimp on the mulch and newspapers
Solarization: Don’t scrimp on the mulch and newspapers

With so many drought damaged landscapes in Central and South Texas, maybe it’s time to think about solarization and converting your yard.  Here’s how to do it.

Solarization How-To

1.  Thoroughly water (but don’t soak) the area you’re planning to convert from grass or weeds to butterfly beds.

2. Take a pile of newsprint destined for the recycling heap (I prefer the Wall Street Journal because they still publish their pages in large format), and lay down  six, preferably 10 layers of newspaper over the well-watered turf.  Cardboard, feedbags, and other compostable paper products can also be used, but my preference is newsprint. NOTE:  Many solarization directions call for black plastic to turn up the heat on the soil.  You can use plastic, but then you will have to remove it later.  As a lazy gardener, I prefer materials that will simply decompose.

3.  Water down the newsprint with a good spraying so it doesn’t fight with the breeze and will stay in its assigned place.

4.  Load  4-6 inches of native Texas mulch (for the two 15 x 10 areas straddling my walkway, I used about 40 bags/or $90 at Home Depot) on top of the newspapers.   Then?

5. Water again thoroughly and wait.   Let the Texas sun do the rest.

You can begin to install transplants immediately.   Simply carve a hole in the mulch, install transplant with organic fertilizer, return soil and mulch.  Make sure that the mulch covers up any openings.  If you have a gap in your newspaper/mulch cover, weeds will find a way to germinate and find the sun.

The single downside to solarization is that it’s challenging to plant seeds.   The mulch and newspaper make it difficult for seeds to germinate (which is the point of deterring weeds in a new bed).  You can plant seeds in containers and transplant them later once they mature enough to be moved.

For more information, contact your local garden center or the Bexar County Master Gardeners Hotline at 210.467.6578.  Other good resources: www.plantanswers.com  or www.aggiehorticulture.com.  Please share your garden transformation stories and photos with on our Facebook page or on Twitter.

Monika Maeckle writes about gardening, butterflies, conservation and the Monarch butterfly migration at the Texas Butterfly Ranch.  You can reach her at monika@therivardreport.com

Monika Maeckle

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...