Native Plant Feature for February: Mexican/Lindheimer’s Silktassel – Garrya ovata ssp. lindheimeri
Family: Garryaceae/Silktassel family
Written by: Guest Contributor Elenore Goode
Lindheimer’s Silktassel is a valuable evergreen plant to enliven the winter landscape and help wildlife through the leaner seasons. Silktassel is often found in robust, shrubby colonies, but can also grow into small, wiry trees. They tend to grow more slender and tall when in the forest understory, and may be more shrub-like when in the full sun. This subspecies of Garrya ovata is endemic to the Edwards Plateau and grows most frequently in association with the limestones there.
Even during droughts in the shallow rocky soils of rough, steep hill country landscapes, this species proves hardy and dependable for producing berries in the fall that benefit a variety of wildlife. It can tolerate both very dry and wet conditions when in its preferred limestone soils, and loves to grow in forests and their margins, but can be found growing anywhere from along creeks, to the hillsides and cliffs above creeks or moist canyons, to dry hilltop forests or savannahs, and seep areas with shallow calcareous soil.
The berries of Silktassel are a great resource for wildlife in some otherwise stark and eroded landscapes that are often lacking many species of native fruiting shrubs and flowering trees due to historic overbrowsing from livestock, modern vegetation removal, and a lack of decent soils. Silktassel’s slightly fuzzy leaves are a bit more deer-resistant than some native shrubs, leaving more evergreen cover to protect and hide smaller wildlife year-round. Their needs for soil, moisture, and light combine very well in plantings with other native evergreens, such as mountain laurel, yaupon, agarita, and evergreen sumac, which together make some especially beautiful winter cover.
Silktassel’s soothing light green leaf color also contrasts well with the darker greens of these other species, and they have some lovely and intriguing wind-pollinated blooms in the spring. Species of the Silktassel genus are also regarded as having medicinal value. Lindheimer’s Silktassel is becoming more and more common in nurseries, and is an overall wonderful, hardy, and easy-maintenance understory tree or shrub for the native landscape.
October 2019 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode
Plant: Asters/Symphyotrichum genus species
Focusing on a few of the most common species for central Texas: Fall Aster/Symphyotrichum oblongifolium, Drummond’s Aster/Symphyotrichum drummondii var. texanum, Tall Aster/Symphyotrichum praeltum var. praealtum, White Heath Aster/Symphyotrichum ericoides
Fall flowers are a soothing reprieve after the stifling summer heat, and a vital necessity for many creatures that are preparing for migration or winter.
Drummond’s or Texas Aster
Fall Aster is perhaps the most well-known and ubiquitous of this genus in central TX, and with it’s manageable and small woody shrub-like form and happy demeanor, it is an essential garden plant for the hardy native landscape. Fall Asters spread well through their roots to form wide colonies, though not as vigorous a spreader as Tall Aster, and a bit hardier. Their habits, needs, and their radiant bunches of little purple flowers compliment very well with other fall blooming native plants. Their roots are also easy to transplant to make a whole new patch, and their above-ground structure is often better able to infiltrate rainfall into the soil than some asters – some of the other species are really meant to grow in a prairie-like matrix with the surface structures and roots of many other species filling in the gaps for the other, as well as providing physical support. Every species has its strong points, and by combining as many plants of complimentary growing habit together as possible, we can allow for stronger roots systems that soak in more rainfall, feed a more diverse group of soil micro-organisms, and create a more resilient and complex layer of nutrient-rich humus comprised from the various qualities of all the different types of leaves.
September 2019 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode
Goldenrod/Solidago spp., Solidago canadensis/Tall Goldenrod
Late summer in Texas is a tough time for a plant to begin to flower, and the many perennial species of Solidago that grow across the state are some of the most dependable plants for wildlife to find blooms on at this time, despite any heat and drought. Growing everywhere from wetlands and prairies to drylands and cliff faces, Goldenrods are a very adaptable and diverse genus of plants that have much to offer humans and wildlife. The different species also have a variety of growth habits, from small clumping species, to some that will spread quickly through their roots, and go as far as they can reach.
Their bright yellow hues are a welcome sight for pollinators at the end of a tough summer. Goldenrods can be counted on to tough out the worst and still show their best colors. Solidago blooms are often super loaded with a great variety of pollinator species buzzing around them, since they provide a vital surge of rich pollinator forage at a time when many insects and other plants may be trying to recover from a harsh summer before winter.
Goldenrod’s flowers and leaves have also long been recognized as having useful medicinal qualities, and remain popular as a hardy wild remedy plant in many pollinator gardens.
The drought endurance, ability to grow in poor conditions, and rapid-spreading habit of some species may also make them too vigorous for companion planting in vegetable and herb gardens. However, these same qualities make those species ideal for re-vegetating ecologically-degraded areas with beneficial plants for wildlife, and are a great choice for areas with poor soils and low species density. Even in gardens, they can be carefully introduced (especially in more depleted soils that need organic matter) and used to suppress other plants like Bermuda grass, or to provide just enough shade for herbs and veggies in late summer, when not allowed to smother them.
These hardy but aggressive species of Goldenrod are great as support plants, and excel in wildflower borders, hedges, and tall grass prairie settings. They do best when they are allowed to grow in dense colonies, or with other tallgrass prairie plants for structural support.
August 2019 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode
Escarpment Black Cherry – Prunus serotina var. eximia
Escarpment Black Cherry is a beautiful and unique regional variety of Prunus serotina that is endemic to the Hill Country and south central Texas. Prunus serotina var. eximia is a great tree for wildlife, and is delightful-looking year round and as it changes through maturity – from its narrow, tall form as a young tree, to its fragrant early spring blooms that are beloved by bees, the refreshingly lush green foliage, the small and edible cherries (black when ripe, but the pit and wilted leaves are toxic), the crisp yellow fall colors, and the intricate and changing patterns of the bark, which is also traditionally used to make medicine.
While mostly smaller specimens are left after centuries of deforestation combined with over-browsing of saplings, there are still great 40-50+ foot Escarpment Black Cherry trees here and there. These are remarkably hardy trees that will survive severe drought through dying back to their roots and going dormant. Though very hardy, in order to truly thrive to their potential they need slightly more moisture than the average hill country tree, and can grow into beautiful large trees that make dense shade when they have good soil, ample water, and close to full sun, but with the shade of other trees or a hill.
Almost all large remaining cherries are in a moist canyon or on a north-facing slope with good forest cover around them, creating deep shade, which helps to conserve moisture in the soil when it is most needed!
Once we’re in the midst of summer, we can fully appreciate the cooling value of the native forests of Texas, and so do all the plants and animals! Creek and rivers here greatly benefit from tall tree shade as well, since it reduces evaporation and keeps water temperatures at livable levels for aquatic wildlife. Historically, most of the Hill Country’s steep slopes and hills were forested in old growth woodland, and the individuals trees were much larger, with a tall expansive canopy that shielded many more sensitive understory plants and the soil from the intense heat. Due to the loss of soil health, depth, and its microorganism connectivity, it is much harder for slightly needier native trees like these to survive across much their historic range, so these cherries are often found as a small understory tree growing in the shade and nicer soils produced by oak trees, due to the lack of remaining suitable habitat. Tiers of canopy shade are a necessary part of the native ecology of the Hill Country, and are how most woody species here grew together, as described by those who saw this region before it was largely deforested by 1860. Many native trees do not like to spend their youth in the full sun, where the harsh sun rays cause them to spend most of their energy respirating, rather than use the energy to grow. They also do not like their soil and root area exposed to bake in the sun instead of growing in the deep, spongy, humus and moisture-rich forest leaf mulch they should have.
A common and unfortunate myth in Texas is that native grasses do not grow under trees – which has really only come about from the short-sighted observation that in overgrazed pastures where all the grass was killed and thus woody vegetation begins to fill the created void of life, there often will still be little grass once trees re-vegetate the area – because there wasn’t really much left before… Yet we can’t make such claims and scapegoat trees for centuries of poor land management if we spend enough time with the native grasses in their less-disturbed habitats.
Many great native grasses love to grow in at least partial shade, including eastern gama, bristlegrasses, indiangrass, setaria, inland seaoats, wildryes, etc. It would be beneficial for more ranchers to encourage and utilize shade pastures for summer forage, since the same grass in shade vs sun might still be green and growing vs dry and shriveling in the dryness of late summer. In many upland areas, the remnants of the big native bunch grasses (that are now mostly restricted to riparian areas and lowlands) cling on to life often only by the protection and partial shade of trees – just shielding plants from the later afternoon sun goes a long way in making it possible for them to survive tougher soil and moisture conditions.
Full sun is more bearable to plants in Texas when they have deep soils and good moisture – and the loss of these things from the erosion and dehydration of this region means that shade and trees, and the positive feedback loops they create towards a more moist environment, are more important than ever!
July 2019 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode
Inland Sea Oats/River Oats/Wood Oats, etc – Chasmanthium latifolium
Family: Poaceae (Grass)
Chasmanthium latifolium, like many native plants, has been severely reduced from its historical range by centuries of overgrazing due to its high palatability.
Dense mats of Inland Sea Oats can slow and infiltrate large volumes of water, and will catch and build soil in places that were previously eroding away.
June 2019 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode
Scutellaria ovata/Heartleaf Skullcap and its subspecies
The delicate blue flowers of Heartleaf Skullcap provide a refreshing sight in late spring and into summer. Their bloom time compliments well in the landscape with other wildflowers that stop blooming sooner, and this overlap helps to provide food for pollinators throughout the summer. When happy, these reliable perennial herbs spread quickly into large stands through their rhizomes, like many other species in the mint family. They are easy to propagate by digging and replanting the roots, and though they can spread into large clumps, they are not particularly aggressive when growing with other plants. Heartleaf Skullcap is one of various Scutellari species that grow in Texas, and prefers slightly more moisture, soil, and shade than the average hill country plant to truly thrive.
Yet, they are still very hardy and can survive a drought even in poor/shallow soil once established, though their growth will be reduced in those conditions. In deeper soils, Heartleaf Skullcap can more easily thrive in full sun, and it often prefers well-draining soils over heavy clays.
This wonderful woodland edge plant follows a cool season life cycle, and in fall it will begin growing out many different stalks from its roots, which then maintain themselves as a low groundcover over the winter. This growing habit is very useful to incorporate with warm season plants that go dormant in the winter, so that both groundcover and photosynthesis/feeding of soil microbes can be maintained over the winter.
Heartleaf Skullcap starts to grow its stalks out in early spring, reaching anywhere from 1-3 feet in height before they bloom, depending on their growing conditions. Depending on latitude, light, and moisture conditions, they usually begin to bloom anywhere from April to May, continuing into summer, and will continue blooming longer with wetter conditions. Heartleaf Skullcap loves the cool weather, and typically goes dormant as the summer heat settles in, unless prolonged by cooler weather and periodic rains, or if growing in a cooler and moist microclimate.
Scutellaria ovata is becoming more common in nurseries thanks to its various beneficial qualities and growing habits. The beautiful silvery-blue-green, fuzzy foliage and soft blue blooms create a pleasant visual contrast in the landscape. Like many other Scutellaria species, Heartleaf Skullcap also possesses useful medicinal compounds, and can be used similarly to Scutellaria lateriflora, though they have their differences.
April 2019 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode
Pictured: Penstemon cobaea, Penstemon triflorus, Penstemon baccharifolius, Penstemon tenuis
Family: Plantaginaceae (Plantain)
Written by: Kirby Fry
All Images © Woody Welch 2019
A permablitz is an event where a group of volunteers works together to install a permaculture (permanent + agriculture) garden for a friend, a neighbor, a school, and/or a community garden. The garden can be an annual garden made for annual vegetables, or it can be a perennial garden made for fruit trees and other perennial food crops such as asparagus, brambles, and grapes.
A permablitz can also include installing a rainwater collection system, a gray water harvesting system, and/or building a chicken coop, trellis, or espalier.
How did we find out about permablitzes, and when did permablitzes get started here in Central Texas?
The permaculture community in Texas may have first learned about permablitzes from Dilek Wise, a graduate from a Permaculture Design Course that I helped teach with the Austin Permaculture Guild in 2011 or so. Dilek found out about an organization called Permablitz Melbourne, in Australia, that was helping their community to install permaculture gardens. Permablitz Melbourne had by then installed scores of gardens, and did a great job of documenting their work. They’ve also made some very helpful videos about how to run your own permablitz – a few are linked below.
When I learned about Permablitz Melbourne’s community effort working together to conserve soils and grow food locally, it reminded me of the work I had done as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala. In the Highlands of Guatemala, north of Huehuetenango, we built and kept up 5 tree nurseries (each in a different village), implemented soil conservation methods, and planted woodlot trees in those villages, as well as 2 others. After getting out of the Peace Corps, it always seemed to me that we could and should be doing that kind of work here in Central Texas. Permablitz Melbourne demonstrated that indeed such a community effort was possible.
Then, during the winter of 2011, while I was helping to teach a class called Food Forests for All, at The Whole Life Learning Center, I shared with the students of that class what Permablitz Melbourne was up to. The students were enthusiastic and we had our first permablitz at Austin Ecoschool that very next January of 2012. Many of the people in that class have since had multiple permablitzes at their homesteads, and at community gardens that they were associated with.
Photos from our January 2019 Permablitz at the Multicultural Refugee Coalition’s New Leaf Farm
Since 2012 we have had well over 50 permablitzes, averaging about 9 per year, being held from September through May. In 2015 Earth Repair Corps was incorporated, in part, to help promote and run the permablitzes. If we have learned anything over the past 7 years, it is that we are not just building gardens, but communities that garden.
Since I was leading many of these events and heavily invested in them, there were at least six design elements that I tried to include in each and every permablitz.
- Soil and Water Conservation. As I’ve said during many of my talks and classes, soil and water conservation is the cornerstone of permaculture design – that which all else is built upon. Usually, whether we are planting trees or making annual gardens, we build some sort of earthworks on contour such as conservation terraces or raised annual garden beds. These earthworks serve to slow, spread, and sink surface water running off the garden site, make that water available to the plants in the garden, and catch any soil sediments and detritus that might also be running off of the site.
- Perennial Food Crops. Perennial food plants are the key stone of permaculture design – that which holds it up over time. A perennial food crop yields fruit, nuts, and berries year after year, unlike annual food crops that produce for 1 or 2 seasons and then have to be replanted. In Texas we have been planting mulberry, pomegranate, Asian persimmon, fig, apple, peach, plum, pear, pecan, pineapple guava asparagus, artichoke, grape vines, and blackberry brambles.
- Support Species of Plants. Another aspect of permaculture design that distinguishes it from organic farming is that we are creating agriculturally productive ecosystems, so not every plant we establish in a permaculture garden is a food crop. We use cover crops extensively, like clover, winter pea, rye grass, buck wheat, black eye pea, and millet to improve soils, and help vegetate bare soils. Farmers trees like black locust, acacia, golden ball lead tree, Eve’s necklace, and arroyo sweetwood are all native leguminous trees that offer dappled shade, have deep root systems that bring up minerals from subsoils, and many of which fix Nitrogen into soils. Lastly, deep-rooted herbs like comfrey, sorrel, and dock are added to some of our gardens for their soil-enhancing properties.
- Soil Amendments. Many of our soils in Texas have been eroded and do not have the available mineral content nor the organic matter in them available for agricultural crops to flourish. Bill Mollison was an advocate of adding soft rock minerals to soils to provide crops with needed elements, including soft rock phosphate, agricultural lime for calcium, pelletized sulfur, green sand for potassium and magnesium, and trace minerals. We also add a slow release organic fertilizer in the hole of every tree we plant which is inoculated with mycorrhizal fungi, and beneficial to the roots of most plants.
- Drip Irrigation. Fruit trees in Texas need supplemental water if they are going to flourish and be productive, even when they are perched on a berm just below a swale. The most efficient way to deliver this supplemental water is with drip irrigation. I have become a huge fan of Ewing Irrigation here in Central Texas. Each fruit tree needs about 4 gallons of supplemental water delivered to it every other day from May through early October, or for about 5 months.
- Mulch. At the base of each tree a heavy mulch should be applied annually. Wood chips from trees seems to be what is most readily available for us here in Texas, though if you look around to the north of Austin, from late spring through the summer, wheat straw is available. A good mulch cover will help to keep soil temperatures cooler than the ambient air temperature, suppress weeds, and slow down the evaporation of soil moisture which can be significant under the Texas sun and winds.
Photos from our September 2018 Permablitz at Proffitt Ranch in Marble Falls, TX
The costs for a permablitz can range anywhere from $700 to $4,000 and is usually paid for by the host site. A commitment from the host site is also needed to finish up any tasks that were not completed during the permablitz – finishing up the irrigation system seems to commonly be one of these tasks. The host site is also expected to provide volunteers with lunch during the work days.
Participating in a permablitz is a great way to meet like-minded people, learn more about sustainable design, and (after attending 3 permablitzes) have a permablitz at your home.
The permablitz schedule is announced on our calendar.
Earth Repair Corps is publishing a series of interviews with Permaculture Design Course graduates who have used the education & resources they gained from the course to further their careers in the world of sustainability.
Our hope is to convey what a life-changing opportunity the Permaculture Design Course can be, while learning more about what first attracted these former students to sustainable design and how they have applied those principles since taking a PDC. Learn More about the Permaculture Design Course and check out our upcoming Fall 2019 PDC.
We’re continuing this series with Jim O’Donnell of The City of Austin’s Wildland Conservation Division – read more below.
My degree is in education from The University of Texas. I was a teacher in Dripping Springs for 28 years. During the summer, I worked monitoring endangered species for different contractors. The Vireo Preserve in the 1980’s was home to the largest breeding population of Black-capped Vireos in Travis County. I was able to get the 214 acres of the Preserve set aside in 1989. So, we manage Vireo as endangered species habitat that also includes the addition of rare and unusual plant species.
For the past 10 years, I have been working for the city’s Wildland Conservation Division which manages 13,000+ acres to protect habitat for endangered species. I continue to monitor endangered species, but now with the addition of lots of restoration work. Volunteers are the key to our work and success. I love working with people who come out to Vireo to learn how to manage their land in a more regenerative way!
1. How did you become interested in sustainable design?
I grew up in the Bull Creek watershed in northwest Austin. As a teenager, I was able to hunt, fish, and camp in our Ashe juniper-oak woodlands. Even though the landscape had been dramatically altered by a history of clearcutting and overgrazing, there was still incredible beauty in this recovering system.
Observing our Hill Country landscape for over 50 years now, it is clear that some areas are so degraded that only a thoughtful and knowledgeable design can bring them back. Most land managers use fire and herbicide with the mistaken belief that the land requires such techniques.
Our approach on the City of Austin’s Vireo Preserve is to demonstrate that real regeneration begins with soil health, rehydrating hillsides, and adding diversity at all levels of the system.
We have been successful enough that we are beginning to apply our designs and techniques on to other properties within the City of Austin’s Balcones Canyonlands Preserve.
2. What were you looking to learn when you signed up for a permaculture design class?
Over the years, I have witnessed numerous re-vegetation projects that usually end in failure. I was intrigued with the permaculture design system that incorporated a holistic approach to interacting with the landscape to promote sustainability.
3. Who taught you your permaculture design course and when?
I finished my permaculture design course in 2014 at the Whole Life Learning Center. The instructors were Kirby Fry, Caroline Riley, and Taelor Monroe. I was very impressed with the instructors’ knowledge and commitment to earth repair and sustainability.
4. What other courses, if any, have you participated in to help you learn more about and implement sustainable design systems?
I have taken Elaine Ingham’s classes on soil biology.
5. Have you been able to apply what you have learned to your life and business?
I have been heavily influenced by the work of Dr. Elaine Ingham on how to build healthy soils. I am also collaborating with colleagues Dr. Brian Pickles and Monika Gorzelak, former graduate students of Dr. Suzanne Simard (University of British Columbia), to investigate the role of fungal networks in distributing resources among plants within forest ecosystems (“world wood web”). I am also supporting research by Dr. Moriah Sandy (University of Texas at Austin) on potential medicinal and ecological properties of endophytes on Ashe junipers. All of this research supports further knowledge on how to build regenerative ecosystems.
All Images © Woody Welch 2019
6. Have you had the opportunity to teach, mentor, or pass on information about sustainable design?
I have had the opportunity to work closely with several area Master Naturalist chapters to teach about design. The Capital Area Master Naturalists have been extremely helpful in recruiting volunteers for our project and giving us a platform to speak at presentations. I’ve also been a guest speaker at St. Edwards University and recently at the University of Texas. I am very excited to be a speaker at the Global Earth Repair Symposium in Port Townsend, Washington, in May. And finally, I want to express my deep appreciation to the local permaculture groups for all the knowledge that they impart, their good work, and dedication to community.
March 2019 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode
Tinantia anomala – False Dayflower
False Dayflower is a delicate perennial herb native to central Texas that loves to grow in the forest understory, in woodland meadows, slopes and edges, and in riparian areas and their margins. It grows very well in the rich soils made by the leaf litter of trees but is hardy and adapted to the various kinds of rocky limestone soils common in central Texas. They like to have some extra shade and moisture, but are also highly drought tolerant once established in a suitable spot.
Tinantia anomala will grow out its fine, grass-like leaves from fall through winter, eventually sending out stalks that can reach a height of up 1-2 feet, and then the small purple blooms begin to brighten the forest floor, usually starting around mid-March. This herb prefers growing during the cool season and will often go dormant once summer heat sets in. Tinantia’s cool season growth habit complements that of the warm season plants that emerge later, helping to maintain photosynthesizing plants and their roots in contact with the soil for longer.
While the most common flower colors seen are the varying shades of purple, they also occur in white and blue. Their soft flowers sprinkle the awakening forest floor with a soothing display, along with the blooms of many other small herbs of similar habit that Tinantia is fond of growing with, such as: Baby Blue Eyes/Nemophila phacelioides, Golden Groundsel/Packera obovata, Heartleaf Nettle/Urtica chamaedryoides, and the related Spiderworts/Tradescantia and Dayflowers/Commelina species.
All Images © Elenore Goode 2019
Tinantia makes a wonderful groundcover, quickly spreading through its rhizomes to send out new shoots. One small transplant can easily spread over a foot or more in one year without any nurturing beyond choosing a good spot. At the same time, it is a gentle plant that does not tend to overtake gardens, and is easily pruned if overgrown. It grows easily from seeds as well. False Dayflower is an excellent choice for habitat restoration projects where hardy plants that can reliably succeed from transplant without extra care are able to be utilized.
The finer, fibrous part of their root systems interweaves gracefully with the varied root structures of other plants to create greater structural complexity in the soil. Tinantia‘s roots, though delicate, are still wonderful at holding soil together and spreading to stabilize loose soils. Tinantia anomala is another wonderful native plant we can easily incorporate into landscapes to increase biodiversity and provide early season pollinator and wildlife forage.