Landscaping with Austin's climate in mind

Xeriscaped plantings like this one require less maintenance, including water, than traditional plantings.
Xeriscaped plantings like this one require less maintenance, including water, than traditional plantings.

Despite climate and funding challenges, The University of Texas at Austin still manages to keep its campus beautiful, sustainable and green. One reason is that Brett Gustafson, Facilities Services landscape installation supervisor, is transforming plant beds all around campus into xeriscaped spaces.

Xeriscaping is a type of landscaping that greatly reduces the need for supplemental water from irrigation. Promoted in areas with unreliable or limited supplies of fresh water, this type of landscaping is gaining acceptance in other regions, including metropolitan and residential areas.

On the university campus, Gustafson and his team members Angel Cruz and Jared Muennink are replacing traditional, high water-use plants with native plants such as red yucca, prickly pear, and Texas sotol. "The native plant materials have such great textures and blooms and are much more adaptive to our Texas climate," said Gustafson.

Since joining the university in May 2010, Gustafson has led the transformation of numerous beds, including one just east of the Tower and a series of five beds on the north side of the biological laboratories. While all new plants need water in order to take root, native plants used in xeriscaping these areas require little water after a month or so and need only occasional pruning. Once the plant beds are established, water usage can be reduced up to 75 percent, lowering maintenance costs.

Angel Cruz
Angel Cruz, installation crew gardener, plants native species in a bed near the Biology building. 

In addition to conserving water, Gustafson's team renovates existing landscapes for other reasons. "Our current landscape is exhausted; some of it was planted as early as the 1940s, and it is important to keep our campus beautiful," he said. He also oversees contract workers on special projects that address erosion and safety concerns along with landscaping.

Gustafson's group already has plans to work on the landscaping around the Alumni Center when construction and renovations are complete. Xeriscaping with native and adaptive plants is the best way to fulfill Gustafson's goal of designing and implementing landscapes on campus that "look like Texas truly is."

In high school, Gustafson began his landscaping career as a laborer and worked his way up to crew leader. His employer noticed he had an eye for landscape design, so Gustafson pursued landscape architecture at Iowa State University, graduating in 1998. He is a member of the Professional Grounds Management Society, which encourages continuing education and professional development, and he is always eager to learn and apply new design concepts.