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SAWS reports drought sparks interest in water-saving yards in San Antonio

Wildflowers brighten landscape at San Antonio Botanical Garden.jpg
Brian Kirkpatrick
Texas Public Radio
The San Antonio Botanical Garden is a great place to visit to get design ideas to create a water-saving yard

The San Antonio Water System reports the drought is sparking interest among customers about how to install a water-saving landscape.

The city-owned water utility offers education, water-saver coupons, and other rebates to make it easier to replace thirsty lawns with native or drought tolerant vegetation and do away with automatic sprinkler systems.

For many residents it seems to grow more impractical and more expensive because of higher water bills to keep a big yard green, whether its St. Augustine or Bermuda grass, through San Antonio's spring and summers that seem to be getting longer and hotter each year.

Karen Guz, the senior director of water conservation for SAWS, says San Antonio's yard of the future is looking more native, more drought tolerant, and more balanced.

"Maybe have a third of it that is functional turf, you're using it for something, a third of it might be outdoor living area, patio scape that's pervious and then a third living plant material that's going to give you something to enjoy every season of the year," she said.

SAWS does not promote rock gardens and neither do homeowners' associations, Guz said, which usually have a say in any major yard makeover. She suggested customers consult with their homeowners' associations first and present them with a detailed design plan.

"Sometimes the HOAs think it's going to be a weedy mess and you can show them a design that you even downloaded from our website. We've had customers do that. Take it to their HOA and say I'm going to put this in this area. And they often get it approved. HOAs tend to frown on rock scape, so if you're picturing a swath of rocks all over the front yard, yeah, your HOA may not be a fan," Guz said.

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She added gardenstylesa.com is a SAWS website that can help you get started with designs. SAWS also has in-house educational opportunities or speakers.

If you think you are ready for a water-saving yard, SAWS offers financial incentives to retire automatic irrigation systems based on size and water use, from $200 to $700. Customers with large irrigation systems can use 70% more water than neighbors without them during the summer. Just ask SAWS for a free irrigation consultation.

Guz said SAWS offers coupons to customers to help them pay for the costs of replacing lawn space with native or drought tolerant plants, which are largely available at local nurseries or home improvement stores or online.

"You can apply for a $100 coupon for 200 square feet that you want to get rid of the grass and go shopping for the plants that are in that design and then you put them in and go forward."

She said SAWS offers a lifetime total of six $100 dollar coupons to customers to replace lawn space.

The water utility also offers coupons to purchase heat-hardy plants and grasses based on a point system, awarded for attending educational programs about water-saving landscaping.

Customers can earn in one year a $30 coupon, a $50 coupon, and a $70 coupon. That's the most customers can earn annually, but it resets the following year.

The San Antonio Botanical Garden is one of several organizations that SAWS partners with to help educate local residents about water-saving landscaping.

The garden's horticulturist Andrew Labay said they have a water-saving wildflower garden that shows how part of a yard could be covered.

"We have bluebonnets — a major planting in this area. We have both seeded and transplanted. We have monarda species, we have gaura, a lot of salvias. There's Indian blankets and it's really looking good this time of year, even with...the high heat that we have," Labay said.

Up a hill and winding path at the botanical garden is another water-saving garden that features 100 native and non-native drought resistant flowers and plants that can thrive in San Antonio in temperatures in the 90s and 100s.

Labay names some of his favorite hot weather flowers and shrubs.

"Our native salvia gregii or the autumn sage is a wonderful one. I also love the Darcy's Mexican sage or salvia darcyi, it produces red flower spikes that are very long-lasting. So, in addition to that, we also have the flame miscanthus, which is a wonderful small shrub plant that also invites hummingbirds into our gardens. And we have for kind of a small, ornamental shrub or small tree, the esperanza or the Tacoma, it is a great option," he said.

There's also many grasses that are quite decorative for use here.

"The muhley grasses are a good grass to look at. Lindheimer's muhley is a very large ornamental grass. The gulf muhley is a very beautiful, smaller grass that throws up pink blooms in the fall. So, those are a couple. We also have, in this particular garden, we have a ruby crystal grass, which is a non-native, but it's a beautiful, smaller grass that has ornamental blooms in the fall," Labay said.

Grasses are sort of a anchor plant for any water-saving yard.

"Form a design perspective, grasses are wonderful to work in with your different perennials and flowers and such, they provide different texture, more of a finer texture that looks...very appealing. And also they'll also tend to go longer into our fall and winter and provide what we call kind of a backbone in the landscape, so there is still some interest into the fall and winter with a lot of our ornamental grasses, whereas some of the flowers and such may have died down," Labay said.

He encourages San Antonians to use the botanical garden and its many resources, including tours and classes to create a beautiful water saving landscape.

The botanical garden's website can be found at sabot.org.

Imagine a future yard with less lawn and watering, and more native and non-native drought tolerant plants, nicely mulched in and with a nearby patio scape and footpaths connecting it all, and who knows, a few hummingbirds may show up too.

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