Patty Manning, Linda Hedges Reflect on the Art of Native-Plant Gardening

By Andrew Stuart

The plains and deserts bloom. Birds whistle and sing. There are radiant days when the wind abates, and the sky itself seems to mellow and ripen. Springtime in West Texas is always a sweet surprise. 

And across the region, gardeners greet the season with vigor.

On Saturday, May 4, the Big Bend’s Native Plant Society holds its spring sale in Alpine. It’s sold out in recent years, as gardeners have increasingly embraced native plants. In Midland, the Sibley Center’s native sale sold out in pre-sale.

On this episode, we turn to two accomplished native gardeners – to hear the lessons they’ve learned.

Patty Manning, of Alpine, is a botanist who managed the Sul Ross State University greenhouse for 18 years. The May 4 sale includes plants from her home greenhouse, grown from seed she collected locally. Linda Hedges, of Limpia Crossing, was for two decades a Texas Parks and Wildlife interpretive specialist .

Both Manning and Hedges have cultivated native-plant gardens for many years.

What does “native” mean to each? Both Hedges and Manning focus on plants found in Trans-Pecos Texas, but also include species from adjacent areas in Mexico.

One of the glories of native plants is the support they provide native wildlife – as food, water and shelter. That’s vividly illustrated in Hedges’ garden each summer. 

The Fort Davis Hummingbird Festival is held in August, when the Davis Mountains become a stopover for migrating hummingbirds. Hedges’ garden is on the festival circuit. She keeps feeders, but they’re not the hummers’ first choice.

“They’re nectaring at salvias and penstemons and lantana and whatever else is in flower,” Hedges said, “and ignoring the feeders, and I love that. I think it’s a good lesson for people who are here enjoying the garden and watching hummingbirds at the same time, that, ‘Oh, yeah, this is kinda the way it’s supposed to be out there in nature.’”

When it comes to Trans-Pecos natives, what’s commercially available often comes from elsewhere in a plant’s range. Manning’s greenhouse addresses that.

“The idea behind that is to try to have more things – even if they’re plants that are the same as you get in Central Texas, the same species, that maybe they are more regional ecotypes of those species, if the seeds were collected from this region,” Manning said. “I like the idea, but I guess i’m kind of provincial in that way.”

Both Manning and Hedges find that “ecotypes” matter. Hedges, for example, has four yellow bells, or esperanza plants – two from Manning, two from Arizona stock.

“And the two that are from our local seed stock, they leaf out first, they flower first, they’re more robust,” Hedges said. “So genetics do make a difference, and evolution is real, natural selection, that whole thing – I can just see that at work.”

Just because a plant is a regional native doesn’t mean it’s right for a particular location. Cacti that thrive in the southern Big Bend may not like the cooler, wetter conditions in Alpine or Fort Davis. And then, certain plants might like it “too much.”

Hedges recalls her “lechuguilla experiment.” The classic Chihuahuan Desert succulent typifies hard, arid country. In the Davis Mountains, Hedges said, it “took off,” and ultimately became a pest.

Cycles of wet and dry alternate across decades here. But as climate change intensifies, Manning said the overall trend is toward drier conditions. 

Finely adapted, native plants generally require less water than non-natives. But water scarcity puts even native gardeners in a bind. Manning would like to expand her greenhouse, but can’t imagine justifying the water use. Both gardeners say if they were to start again today, they would place even greater emphasis on water-wise plants.

Manning said “gardening addicts” like herself are obliged to see how little water they can get away with.

Native-plant gardening has an ecological dimension. But Manning said it’s also “esoteric,” tied to love of place. Hedges agreed.

“I live here in this beautiful place because I love this place,” Hedges said, “and so to me to bring in plants that belong here, it just feels like the right thing to do – I’m honoring and enhancing this one place on Earth where I have chosen to live.”

The Native Plant Society’s May 4 sale is from 9 to 1, at North Eighth Street and Avenue E, behind Forever West Texas Realty in Alpine. Checks and cash only.