Texas Treehugger | "The No-Maintenance Myth: 5 Tips for Thriving Native Plants" by Christy Ilfrey

The morning light on Purple Gayfeather. Photo by David Ilfrey.

One of the most common requests from new clients is a “low maintenance landscape.” This is easily granted because we focus on native plants that are genetically coded to thrive in our local climate. From Denton to Texas’ Coastal Bend, and just about everywhere in between, for nearly two decades we have successfully saved our clients' time and money by creating plans that require minimal upkeep. But what about a “no maintenance” design – is that possible?

The short and easy answer is an emphatic “no.” All plants depend on some water to become established – even natives. And with a little extra TLC, your natives can also appear more lush and colorful and vibrant. Here are some suggestions for developing a beautiful and functional space with as little “sweat equity” as possible.

Let Nature inspire your design

Before a visit to your local nursery or plant sale, take a stroll through a nature preserve or native areas of a park. Note the plants that are growing “naturally” (e.g., without irrigation, fertilizer, or sculpting into geometric shapes.) Also note which plants grow well together, and their preferred lighting and soil conditions. Do these plants grow in sun only or shade only, or do they appear to be growing in both conditions? Are they growing in a marshy or wetland area, in a hot and dry coastal prairie, or in deep sand on a barrier island? Or more than one plant community? Versatile plants are useful when planning a landscape design. Make a list of the plants that appeal to you, then start looking for local sources for plants.

Make your bed

Contrary to conventional thinking, in many ways larger planting beds are easier to maintain than smaller beds. Larger beds allow plants to grow into their natural shape and size (see #3, below) and are easier to access for watering and weeding. Larger beds also displace more lawn, or turfgrass, which reduces routine lawn maintenance. After you “make your bed”, amend the soil with compost from a reputable source. This will provide a natural fertilizer and will loosen the soil to promote root growth.

Photo by David Ilfrey
Select the right plant for the right place

In addition to considering lighting and soil conditions, and plant “companions”, it is important to allow your plants sufficient room to mature into their natural shape and size. This creates healthier plants with little effort on your part.

Water and weed, consistently and efficiently

Natives, once established, should survive with ambient rainfall and supplemental watering, as necessary. To escort your plants from new to mature plantings, water at the base of each plant for approximately 30 seconds per plant. Do this every 2-3 days for a few weeks and then taper to every 3-4 days for a few more weeks. Water approximately 1” per week thereafter. Seemingly time-consuming, this investment of time during the first few months will encourage stronger, healthier, and more beautiful plants for the future. Remove and dispose of weeds as they appear.


Mulch helps to reduce maintenance by insulating your plants with moisture and suppressing weeds. By using a composted mulch, such as double-shredded hardwood mulch like that available at Aransas County Transfer Station, you are also feeding your new plants and the soil surrounding them.

Christy Ilfrey and her husband David own and operate NativeDave.com. Their mission: "To make positive changes in our community by way of sustainable landscape design and consultation services, speaking engagements and writing projects. We strive to educate, entertain and empower audiences to conserve, preserve, restore and celebrate Nature."

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