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The Constant Gardeners

From the highways of Texas to the San Jacinto Battleground, state agencies now aim to maximize the use of native grasses rather than opting for whatever was cheapest or fastest-growing, as they did decades ago.

Bill Neiman, owner of Native American Seed, at his seed-cleaning facility in Junction, TX, Jan. 18, 2011.

Bill Neiman got into the landscaping business in 1973 at age 19, determined to create beautiful gardens for his high-end, suburban clients. Seven years later a terrible drought struck, followed by a deep freeze that wiped out his North Texas nursery.

He stayed in the gardens business but began changing his approach, and in 1995 he moved out to the Hill Country, where his family-run company, Native American Seed, sells only seeds from plant species native to Texas and surrounding states, which are naturally equipped to survive the extremes of weather here — unlike the Japanese boxwoods and Pakistani crepe myrtles that he had once touted.

“Why are we using these weird landscaping plants that’s burning up all of our drinking water?” Neiman said during an interview at the company’s worksite, near Junction.

Neiman’s story is emblematic of a change across Texas. State agencies now aim to maximize the use of native species, rather than opting for whatever was cheapest or fastest-growing as they did decades ago. Some water utilities, like those in Austin and San Antonio, also offer homeowners rebates for using native plants in their gardens to save water.

“Wildlife managers, wildlife biologists, ecologists — we’ve changed over the years,” said Andy Sipocz, a natural resource specialist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He is restoring hundreds of acres of prairie grasses at Sheldon Lake State Park in Houston on land that has been farmed for generations. 

Sipocz is also working on the nearby San Jacinto Battleground, where Sam Houston’s men bested Santa Anna’s forces and helped secure Texas independence. The battlefield looks “shaggy,” he said, with prairie grass intermixed with brush, but he hopes to return the site to what it looked like in 1836. Neiman has assisted with both projects.

The Texas Department of Transportation also now uses mostly native grasses to reseed its construction sites.

“When I first started here it was just, ‘We’re going to go out and plant Bermuda grass.’ Period,” said Dennis Markwardt, the agency’s vegetation management section director. About a decade ago, the agency began a big push for native grasses, he said, and now, about three-quarters of the species used in the agency’s seed mixes are natives, and the percentage will likely increase.

But working with native plants can be difficult. They often cost more than non-natives (although the price of the seeds is generally marginal to an overall project). They also grow more slowly — a potential problem for the transportation department, which must worry about controlling erosion and complying swiftly with the Clean Water Act.

The weather must also cooperate — one of several factors that has slowed progress at the San Jacinto battleground. “A couple of years ago, when we were ready to seed, it was way too wet,” said David Riskind, the natural resources program director for the parks department.

Just harvesting seeds from native grasses in the first place is also challenging. They are often found in patches, on small and scattered prairie remnants. Neiman sometimes flies a small plane to scout for new prairie lands, and he also grows native plants on his 262-acre Junction property. 

During a recent visit to his seed-cleaning mill, a tall brown heap containing seeds for little bluestem (a classic prairie grass) and other species lay on the floor waiting to be processed. Workers from Native American Seed had harvested them from the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge in Eagle Lake, and they will be used for San Jacinto, Neiman said.

“It’s not easy,” he said. “This isn’t something that’s produced in mass quantities, like guard rail or rebar.”

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