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Rethinking the yard in drought-stricken regions
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LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) — Texans watched disaster unfold slowly last year as a historic drought took a withering toll across the region.

Trees died by the millions, lawns and landscaping wilted, lakes shrank and wildlife struggled. Water bills shot up. All of this, experts say, could be just the nudge homeowners across the Southwest need to do things differently in their yards.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is featuring a "Drought Survival Kit" on its website that offers residents, who are facing a forecast of more dry weather, tips on how to landscape while reining in water consumption.

Restrictions on outdoor watering hit Texas cities and towns hard in 2011 — the state's driest year on record — and with another La Nina weather pattern already in place, those limitations will only deepen without ample rainfall.

It's an opportunity, the state experts say, to reconfigure yards into "wildscapes" with colorful native plants, shrubs and trees that use less water and benefit wildlife as well.

And water conservation isn't only for times of drought; many water suppliers across arid and semiarid parts of the country urge it all the time, and say outdoor yard use is one of the largest contributors to waste.

In Texas, the kit doesn't advise remaking the yard overnight. Homeowners should start small, it says, creating a wildscape in one part of the yard and adding to it as weather and finances permit.

Perennials are ideal in wildscapes, and newly planted native trees will need extra water at first. Avoid water-hogging grasses.

"Anybody can do it, and you can do it on any size home," said Kelly Bender, an urban wildlife biologist for the department. "Most people have some understanding of this. It's just refining that understanding."

Putting in heartier native plants and vegetation brings yards alive with butterflies, hummingbirds and other birds. A wildscape provides food, water, shelter and space for wildlife to flee predators and raise their young.

In Lubbock, Jackie Driskill, 62, advocates for native plants as president of the South Plains Chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists. She's been putting in plants that can handle the heat and drought conditions for about a decade, and her property gets noticed, she said.

"It's kind of evolved from a typical yard to wildscaping," she said. "We're kind of an oddball in our area."

In Dallas, wildscapes have been planted in some public venues. Judy Meagher, a master gardener and master naturalist, said volunteers tend to the wildscape next to the Museum of Natural History at Fair Park, but only infrequently because the space needs little care or water.

Wildscapes "are critical in urban settings because we've stripped the wildlife habitat when we develop them, in most cases," said Mark Klym, who handles certification of wildscapes for the Parks and Wildlife Department.

With a limited amount of water and a state population expected to double by 2060, Texans need to make changes, Meagher said. Residents should use mulch to help retain soil moisture, and harvest rainwater off their roofs.

"This is our chance," she said. "This is an opportunity to make all the changes we've been needing to make. We are headed toward severe problems" as the population grows.

The best time to plant is fall, but homeowners might want to check with a local nursery about what to plant as the drought persists.

"What we're going to see this summer is more severe cutbacks on water use from municipalities," said the department's water resource chief, Cindy Loeffler. "That's going to force people to rethink their outdoor watering."

The kit offers hints for cutting water use inside and outside, including checking your home for leaks, taking shorter showers, and watering in the early morning when it's cool and less windy. Raise the lawnmower blade to at least 3 inches, the kit advises, to promote root growth and provide the root system shade, which helps hold moisture in the soil. For swimming pools, buy a cover and a water-saving filter.

Just how catastrophic was the drought? In December, the Texas Forest Service estimated that statewide from drought and wildfires, up to 500 million trees died in 2011. There's no way to know how many lawns bit the dust.

"If we have another bad year and lose that many trees again, (all of) Texas is going to look like the High Plains," Loeffler said.