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Courting Nature

The new Houston parks director overhauls office courtyard to demonstrate benefits of native plants.

By Wendee Holtcamp

It was a daunting task: replanting a courtyard surrounded on four sides by an office building. The project required hoisting 13 uprooted palm trees over the roof, hauling 300 wheelbarrows full of soil, gravel, pine straw and hay mulch through the building, and planting 600 native and wildlife-friendly plants and flowers. The resulting wildscape is an impressive example of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department’s commitment to water-efficient and wildlife-friendly landscaping. The department recently revitalized its office building’s central courtyard into a lush TPWD wildscape garden, the first of many planned steps to “naturalize” the city. The courtyard has attracted butterflies, birds, bees, squirrels and even a family of raccoons, and it turns out native landscaping not only benefits wildlife, it saves money too.

Putting a public face on his already-personal commitment to improving Houston’s urban ecology was a natural step for Joe Turner, Houston’s new Parks and Recreation director. Turner understood the need to show the people who visited their office something tangible that matched his commitment to conservation. “We need to be the leader, and we didn’t have a courtyard to show that,” says Turner. Since native species are adapted to Houston’s hot climate, they require less water and less maintenance. Throw in a handful of flowers and shrubs — columbine, butterfly weed, rue and passion vine — known to attract butterflies, birds and bees, and you create a low-maintenance, low-cost and beautiful garden that has an energizing effect on people. “We’ve had more people in the courtyard recently than we have had in 10 years,” says Turner.

TPWD certified the courtyard as a Best of Texas Wildscape, meaning it contains year-round food, water and shelter for wildlife, consists of over 75 percent native plants and is available for public viewing.

Another component of the department’s ambitious native landscaping plan will include encouraging native landscaping on adopted esplanades across the city. They will showcase what citizens and businesses can do through the city’s Adopt-an-Esplanade program, by designing five native landscaping medians outside of the department headquarters. Currently, the city mows, weeds, edges and waters more than 2,500 acres of roadway medians. Wildscaping the esplanades can save money, water and maintenance time and can also reduce air pollution. EPA calculations show that eliminating the need to mow, blow, and trim 1,000 acres could prevent the production of 18 tons of volatile organic compounds and two tons of nitrous oxide emissions annually.

Turner hopes to encourage the widespread use of native landscaping on Houston’s esplanades. “My vision is to have beautiful, treed medians, and underneath, native plants that require very little maintenance.” Trees are planted clumped together like they would occur in a forest, and their fallen leaves create a natural mulch. “Why would you not want native?” Turner asks. “It makes sense both in a naturalist world and the business world.”

“Since Joe Turner arrived at the City of Houston, green space in parks is thought of more often — places for leisurely passive recreation, birdwatching and enjoyment of more natural areas,” says Houston-based TPWD urban ecologist Diana Foss, who has helped train some of Turner’s staff as master naturalists. “The staff should be commended for doing the research and selecting plants that actually attract wildlife for public viewing and enjoyment. We’re hoping that other cities and the county will promote the idea as well.”

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