Winnie Spitz hasn’t watered her yard since 2007, and the plants and bugs seem to love it.
Spitz, 85, who has volunteered for years at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, took the former first lady’s message on using native plants to heart. Spitz said that her three-quarter-acre property is landscaped with nearly all natives.
“Talking to Lady Bird, she wanted you to use less water, so I decided that’s what I was going to do,” says Spitz, who has lived more than 30 years at her Manchaca home.
The lot, where she resides with husband Maynard, is alive with colorful plants, even during Central Texas’s prolonged drought. A recent tour showed pink lantana, red salvia, heartleaf hibiscus and yellow cowpen daisies, among others.
(Spitz’s home and yard near Onion Creek also fortunately survived the recent flooding in the area, she says.)
Spitz’s daughter, Denise Bartlett, says that even during the driest of times, her mother’s yard was “just blooming like crazy” with native plants.
“That’s the key,” Spitz says. “They’re suited to survive the weather that’s here in Travis County.”
Spitz says she has about 100 native species, throughout the course of a year, “because things come and go.”
At times, her yard is spilling over with bluebonnets. This year, she says, she has given away more than a thousand of the Texas state flowers.
“When my bluebonnets bloom, people stop and take pictures with kids,” Spitz said.
Surprisingly, she does have a few nonnatives, but she says she is careful not to let them become invasive.
Her interest in native gardening started with volunteer work at the Wildflower Center. Many of her plants came from the center, using plants that had been pulled as garden areas were thinned and from the center’s sales, she says.
Again, taking her cue from the late president’s wife, whom Spitz fondly calls “a gracious lady,” Spitz says, “That’s what Lady Bird wanted us to do, is make use of what’s available so we wouldn’t have to water and fertilize.”
Spitz has a 330-gallon rainwater storage system but says she waters only the vegetables, container gardens and transplants until they get established.
“When they’re transplanted, they need to be babied for a while,” she says. “Then they’re on their own.”
Throughout the yard, Spitz allows the plants to take the lead. When seeds blow in the wind, she lets them grow wherever they land.
Spitz says that although her yard has a natural look, she tries to keep it from appearing messy, as some native landscapes might seem.
“I was trying to raise one that people wouldn’t object to,” Spitz says. “Mine’s not really manicured, but neat.”
Along the way, she has spread her interest to others in the Onion Creek Meadows neighborhood. Referring to a neighbor, Spitz says, “Ninety percent of her front yard is out of my yard.”
Spitz, who worked at the IRS, among other jobs, has had a life-long interest in gardening, though not always using native landscaping.
“When we moved in (to this house), we spent thousands of dollars to put in St. Augustine,” Spitz says, “and it looked good for about two years. Then we had a freeze, and it killed about 75 percent of it.”
Over the years, she transformed the yard. Along with adding native plants, she laid the cement blocks in the yard. For one Valentine’s Day, when her husband asked what she would like, Spitz replied, “Rocks.”
“Well, he knows I don’t want any more jewelry,” Spitz says, “On Valentine’s Day, an 18-wheeler came with a couple tons of rock.”
Her yard is a certified backyard wildlife habitat. Spitz also has been active with the Capital Area Master Naturalists. Squirrels, raccoons, deer, possum, armadillo, snakes and hummingbirds are among the wildlife that she says has visited her yard.
Until curtailed by health problems in recent years, she devoted more than 2,000 hours volunteering at the Wildflower Center, where her helpfulness was appreciated.
“She’s so enthusiastic, and she loved to share her knowledge of gardening with anybody,” says Julie Marcus, senior horticulturist at the center.
Marcus says Spitz was knowledgeable about butterflies and brought in caterpillars from her own garden. In addition, Marcus says Spitz helped the center with growing bluebells – a favorite of Mrs. Johnson and Spitz.
“When I think of bluebells, I think of Winnie and Mrs. Johnson,” Marcus says.
Spitz’s yard has become a neighborhood attraction — not only to passersby who stop and talk about her gardens, but to bugs, as well.
Valerie Bugh, an insect enthusiast, has been regularly visiting Spitz’s property to photograph the bugs she finds there and post on www.austinbug.com.
“Generally I find more caterpillars there than at the Wildflower Center,” Bugh says. “It’s the way she lets things go for a long time.” Bugh attributes some of the reason for finding so many different kinds of bugs in Spitz’s yards to the large beds with diverse plants and the fact that she doesn’t water, which is “more in sync” with what is happening in nature. Also, Spitz does not use pesticides.
“There’s nothing to drive them away,” says Bartlett, “and everything to attract them.”
There have been some unusual sightings in her yard, too. Several years back, the crimson patch butterfly was spotted in Spitz’s yard.
“They usually don’t come this far north,” Spitz says. “I had hundreds of them all at once.”
Last year, the Xami hairstreak butterfly was found in Spitz’s yard, the only documented sighting in Travis County, Spitz says.
Spitz says children are thrilled to see the bugs in her yard.
“The kids just love coming out here, and they’re not looking at the plants, but at what’s on them,” she says.
Nowadays Spitz says she spends about 1½ hours daily in her yard, weeding after all the rains.
“A lot of times I’m not really working,” Spitz says. “Just sit out and enjoy.”