Central Texas project will study drought tolerance of landscape plants

Stakeholders invited to tour study’s drought simulator in San Antonio

SAN ANTONIO — Does a tough modern rose really need 4 inches of water a month to survive a drought? Can a plant bounce back after an entire growing season without rain?

Drought simulators in San Antonio and Georgetown will be used to get data for the survivability study. Those interested are invited to tour the simulator on  in San Antonio will

Landscapers, gardeners, green industry professionals and others interested in drought-tolerant landscapes may tour the San Antonio simulator at 10 a.m. on Feb. 12. (Photo courtesy of Judy McCarter)

A group of Central Texas entities is hoping to find these and other answers by analyzing popular local landscape plants in a drought-survivability study.

The Texas A&M Institute of Renewable Resources, Texas A&M AgriLife Research, San Antonio Water System, the cities of Austin and Georgetown, and San Antonio River Authority launched the one-year study in January.

The study will examine 100 of the most popular Central Texas landscape plants to determine the minimum amount of water required by the plants to survive and recover after a drought.

Dr. Calvin Finch, Texas A&M Institute of Renewable Natural Resources urban water program director, San Antonio, and Dr. Raul Cabrera, AgriLife Research associate professor, Uvalde, are the lead researchers for the study. The study is being conducted at the existing San Antonio Water System drought simulator and a new drought simulator in Georgetown when it is completed.

“The study consists of 1,600 plants at the San Antonio facility, along with plants at the Georgetown facility. Plants will be subjected to four different drought treatments: no water, and 20 percent, 40 percent and 60 percent of potential evapotranspiration to determine the actual amount of water they require to survive,” Finch said. “One hundred percent of PET is the estimated amount of water moving through the plant and from the soil based on the weather conditions.”

Study participants are inviting gardeners, landscape professionals and other interested citizens to a drought-tolerant landscapes presentation and walking tour at 10 a.m. Feb. 12 at the San Antonio drought simulator, located at 1104 Mauerman Road, adjacent to the Leon Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. Research team and sponsor representatives will speak about the need for the study, answer questions and provide a tour of the plants.

Finch said the 5,000-square-foot drought simulator structure will be operated to show how it can quickly move over the test plants when rain begins so water applications can be limited to those provided as part of the experiment.

“Studied plants that decline will then be restored to full irrigation to see if and how long it takes them to recover,” he said.

Cabrera said an analysis of data from metered-water use by single-family residences in Texas indicates about 31 percent of their annual water consumption is for outdoor uses, mostly landscape irrigation.

“If these plants can survive on less water than commonly thought, the water savings could be significant,” Cabrera said.

Karen Guz, San Antonio Water System’s conservation director, said they are looking forward to having objective results to reference when working with customers.

“This study will allow us to quantify how our most beautiful landscape plants can retain quality appearance with very little water,” Guz said. “Our similar study from 2006 confirmed that grass can survive on very little water. This study will show that not only can some of the most attractive shrubs and blooming plants survive drought, they can look great.”

Steven J. Raabe, San Antonio River Authority’s director of technical services, said the authority is “particularly interested in plants that are suitable for low-impact development applications like rain gardens and bioswales, which alternate between wet and dry conditions.”

“If the study shows that many of the plants can prosper on less water than is currently recommended, water purveyors such as the partners in this study and landscapers will have more accurate information on water needs to use in landscape planning, plant marketing, water demand estimates and drought restrictions,” Finch said.

The San Antonio Water System, the cities of Georgetown and Austin, and the San Antonio River Authority are funding the study. The Texas Water Foundation is serving as the funding coordinator.

For more information, contact Finch at 210-277-0292, ext. 207 calvin.finch@tamu.edu.

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