AUSTIN (KXAN) — An unusually wet summer in Central Texas has bode well for local sunflower patches here in Austin, and local ecologists are working to help preserve wildflowers in urban settings.

At the intersection of Curlew Drive and Crownspoint Drive in south Austin, a local home’s years-long tradition of growing a sunflower patch in its front yard was met with a citation from the city of Austin. After neighbors rallied together in support of the neighborhood “icon,” one local ecologist is stepping in to help area homeowners and maintain biodiversity within the city.

John Hart Asher specializes in urban ecology and sustainable designs, as well as hosts the PBS show, Central Texas Gardener. He’s now offered to help Tanglewood Forest homeowners stay within city code and preserve the neighborhood’s iconic sunflowers by installing pocket prairies, free of charge.

“We need to look at becoming these active agents. And so if people replace up to half their yard or something with pocket prairies and native plantings, we start to create habitat for other species, we start to address all these ecosystem services,” he said. “Human health and well being is directly tied to being able to live in a biodiverse environment.”

Pocket prairies are an ecological design tool used to preserve natural prairie land and wildflowers in urban settings. Following an unusually wet summer, increased wildflower growth has led to taller, more lush sunflower patches — both a beautiful landscape to view, but also a possible cause of limited visibility in nearby roadways, Asher said.

“We need to re-learn how to see and appreciate diversity, which if you’re comparing it towards a traditional lawn that’s mown and blown and straight lines everywhere, it might look messy,” he said. “But nature loves messiness. That messiness provides nesting habitat for birds, insects over winter.”

Creating a pocket prairie relies on the following conditions:

  • Identifying a spot that receives high sun exposure
  • Removing any invasive species from the sight
  • Select live plants, plant species seeds to plant in spot
  • Plant the species in pocket prairies in more temperate seasons — ideally, during the fall or spring
  • Maintain pocket prairie by weeding, watering and trimming, as well as mowing once a year

Michelle Bertelsen is an ecologist at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin and said sunflowers are favorable of most conditions. Seeing them pop up along curbs or grassy medians are part of their growth behavior, she said.

“So their job in the plant community is to come in early and just take over bare spots, bare places,” she said. “And so they really like abandoned fields, they like roadsides — like anything that’s a little bit sort of damaged, sunflowers will explode there. And it’s really beautiful.”

“That’s the key to diversity in all restoration. As conditions change, and you don’t know how they’re going to change, something will be there that can fill the gap.”

michelle bertelsen, ecologist, lady bird johnson wildflower center

Central Texas was once a biodiverse oasis that featured a mixture of scrubland and prairies, she said. Prairieland is key for native pollinators and bird species that rely on its resources for food, shelter and other means of survival. Within an urban environment, pocket prairies can help combat the negative consequences of city development by providing a little slice of home local species thrive off.

“The neat thing about the pocket prairies is that you can assemble a little prairie in your little patch of land, and then you create this little refuge,” she said.

When it comes to climate change, Bertelsen said much of the challenge is waiting to see what kind of impact a warming climate is having on native species. However, through pocket prairies, she said increasing the prevalence of biodiversity is like a little insurance policy: In times of crisis, having coverage kick in can make a substantial difference.

“That’s the key to diversity in all restoration,” she said. “As conditions change, and you don’t know how they’re going to change, something will be there that can fill the gap.”