I had a surprise visit from an old friend last week. Ralph Godfrey, who has recently retired due to health reasons, had spent a lengthy career as an ecologist for the National Parks Service. The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge was a substantial portion of his domain. It was Ralph’s job to understand everything from the elk and bison, birds, reptiles and amphibians, to all the plant life.

We had a nice long visit as we had been out of contact for several years. Naturally Ralph came to have a great appreciation for native plants that exist in these parts, so he has over the years become one of the folks we love to see at the nursery. Ralph and his family live in an upper middle-class neighborhood on a big corner lot in Lawton. Most of his neighbors have traditional high maintenance landscaping and can afford all the various services needed to keep their landscape in good shape. Not Ralph, he does his own maintenance and is no doubt considered the oddball of that housing development.

As we visited, Ralph made a statement that I want and indeed, need to share. “Landscaping,” he said, “Is mainly about plant selection and placement.” If we first choose the right plant material, then consider our location accordingly we will be successful. Success, defined in Ralph’s terms, means true low maintenance. No fertilizers other than the organic matter produced by the plants themselves, no insect or disease problems, and no irrigation except during extended drought. The true beauty often includes what we don’t readily see, but we don’t have to give up color or interest or settle for a “wild and wooly” looking landscape to achieve this.

I have not visited Ralph’s home in well over a decade but would bet his landscape is one of the most interesting in the neighborhood. He left that afternoon with three young mesquite trees. Proof that it takes someone of his obvious experience and training to fully appreciate the attributes of mesquites, which although over represented on much of our rangeland, can make a fine specimen for ornamental uses. I hope he put them out in the front yard for his neighbors to see.

For too many years we have held high esteem for expensive, tightly pruned and manicured landscaping. Likewise, we are led to believe that the “green thumb” gardener is that person willing to go to great lengths to “show off” their exotic tropical specimens. I wrote about this last week but think it bears some repetition.

Whenever I get the opportunity to speak to the general public the main thing the majority of folks tell me is that they want low maintenance. Yet, we continue to see the high-end landscaping that gets the “landscape of the year” award. I am certain that sooner or later these awards will go to people who can put together a truly functional, low maintenance landscape that provides food and shelter for local birds, bees, and butterflies. All of these desirable creatures are currently in dire straits due (in part) to our landscaping culture that is all but devoid of Life. Again, we are taught by that same landscaping ethic that one must provide feeders and birdhouses to help our feathered friends. It just ain’t so…

So last Sunday, after I finished my article, Nila and I spent some quality time out by our goldfish pond. While we lamented the fact that our tomatoes, squash, and peppers were now history, we were reminded that our native ornamentals were doing just fine despite the dreaded first freeze. We had Gregg’s mistflowers, Gregg’s salvia, scarlet sage, pigeon berry, Texas sage, and cowpen daisy, all blooming away and covered with varied species of butterflies and some honeybees.

None of these plants had been irrigated at all. None had been treated with extra fertilizer. None had been treated for any insect or disease. This was not their “first rodeo” as these plants had evolved with the roller coaster weather patterns that are standard issue here on the Rolling Plains. Nila and I will enjoy the same show again today.

As the sun set and the shadows grew long we saw several species of birds come in to get a drink from our pond before they went to roost for the night. A big barn owl soared in low over our open grassy areas under our mesquites. No doubt he was just beginning his nightly rounds in search of mice and rats, or perhaps a nice young bunny. All good, and none of it costs us a nickel. The right plants for the right place. We do not live in the tropics.

Yes, some of my clients have been awarded the coveted “best landscape.” Mostly in smaller towns like Iowa Park and Seymour. I hope that Ralph gets this honor while he is still alive and healthy. Hang in there… Brother.

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