Cover Story: Hallowed ground

Nothing stirs passions in Texas quite the way The Alamo does. The old Franciscan mission building in San Antonio is ground zero for the founding of the Republic – and later, the state – of Texas. The site of the famous battle, where Col. William Travis, Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett and about 200 defenders held off Santa Anna’s 6,000-man army for 13 days is hallowed ground for both Texas and the United States.

Today, The Alamo is one of the most popular tourist sites in the country, playing host to millions of visitors annually. The grounds have been the responsibility of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas since 1905, by act of the Texas legislature. At the time of the battle, The Alamo was situated more than a mile outside of San Antonio. Today, thanks to urban growth, visitors to the site find themselves in a tranquil, park-like atmosphere nestled in the heart of San Antonio’s downtown business district.

The day-to-day responsibilities for designing, installing and maintaining the grounds on this sacred site fall to horticulturist Mark Nauschutz, a former residential landscaper and graduate of Texas A&M University. Ten years ago when Nauschutz answered a small ad in the local paper he had no idea he would find himself in charge of a national landmark. But, as a Texan and native of San Antonio, he admits his job is “a dream come true.”

As prestigious as his job is, Nauschutz’s mandate from the DRT is pretty straightforward: Maintain a park-like atmosphere to showcase the historical buildings on the grounds. That gives him a lot of freedom to place plants, turf and hardfacing structures as he sees fit. “When I’m looking at the new planting season, or considering changes to the landscaping, I present my views to the oversight board,” Nauschutz explains. “If they have any objections, we discuss them. But they trust me and we enjoy a close, cooperative relationship.”

Combating heat and horseshoes
With as much freedom as Nauschutz enjoys when developing his vision for the grounds, he is highly restricted when installing new plants or landscaping systems. “It’s a historical site, and we have to be very careful not to disturb any archaeological artifacts when we work,” he says. For example, the Texas Historical Commission limits digging on the grounds to the top 16 inches of soil. “If we need to go any deeper, we have to call them first,” Nauschutz says. “We work hard to stay in that 16-inch range. If we don’t, projects can grind to a halt while we wait for them to assess the situation.”

One of Nauschutz’s first projects at The Alamo was the installation of a modern irrigation system. It was a daunting challenge given the restrictions he has to work with. “The old sprinkler system was fairly antiquated,” Nauschutz recalls. “It worked OK. But it had manually operated valves, and there was no way you could turn it on by a clock and schedule a watering cycle. The climate is so hot and dry here in San Antonio, it was limiting the appeal of our turf and plants.”

Nauschutz called upon San Antonio landscape architect Pete Olfers to ensure the new irrigation system would meet the archaeological restrictions of the property while delivering the performance necessary to bring The Alamo park to its full potential. “Pete drew up the irrigation plan that we used,” Nauschutz says. “And it’s worked out really well for us. In fact, I still confer with Pete on a regular basis as we tweak the landscaping from year to year.”

During installation of the irrigation system, Nauschutz saw firsthand why the historical restrictions on soil excavations are so severe. “We found lots of stuff when we were putting the irrigation lines in,” he recalls. Most of what Nauschutz’s crews find is pretty mundane – reminders of the battle that raged here and frontier life that bookended it. “We find lots of horseshoes,” he says with a chuckle.

“Particularly around the old blacksmith shop, which isn’t surprising. Most of those end up in the curator’s office. We also find odd scraps of iron or steel. You never know if that’s part of an old cannonball or just a piece of scrap that somebody threw away a long time ago.”

Indigenous and evocative plants
The Alamo park encompasses 4.3 acres of park land, including buildings, sidewalks and planted areas, which Nauschutz maintains with the help of two full-time gardeners and one part-time gardener and a budget of about $160,000 a year. When he began to exert his influence over the appearance of the grounds, Nauschutz felt his first role was to use native plants in a way that would evoke the Spanish Mission heritage of the site for visitors. This is apparent in the large number of palm trees present on the grounds. “We have several different species of palms,” Nauschutz notes. “I kind of insisted on planting those because I’ve always associated palm trees with missions.”

For color, Nauschutz uses flowering perennials complemented by ornamental grasses. “That’s a recent design addition,” he says. “A real hit has been the use of a perennial called yellow bells that – gosh – just bloom all summer long.”

Even better, Nauschutz found yellow bells require little watering through the hot summer months. “That’s always a plus in a climate like this,” he adds. “They’re colorful, attractive and require low maintenance. It’s a perfect perennial for us. Again, it’s a native flower indigenous to this area, which I feel is important.”

“Another colorful recent addition has been Mexican fire spikes, which bloom a brilliant red, just like the name implies,” Nauschutz says. “They bloom in late July and keep blooming through the fall until a hard freeze hits.”

Foot traffic and high heat
As in any park, attractive and colorful lawns are a large part of the aesthetic appeal of the grounds. But in San Antonio, temperatures routinely soar into the triple digits during the summer months. Add millions of people a year walking on the grass, and you’ve got the potential for some major landscaping headaches.

“We’ve tried several different Zoysia grasses over the years looking for the best fit,” Nauschutz says. “The first one was donated to The Alamo right after we got the sprinkler system online. It never really took because we had too much shade for it to grow properly.”

After trying a couple of other Zoysia varieties that didn’t work well either, Nauschutz finally settled on Emerald Zoysia for The Alamo’s grounds. “It’s been an all-around good grass,” he says. “It looks great, and it holds up to foot traffic well.”

The Alamo landscapers typically feed the Emerald Zoysia grass about once a month to ensure its health and color. Under normal conditions, the lawns are mowed twice a week. “Usually we put down either 21-0-0 or 21-7-14 fertilizer blends,” Nauschutz says. “And we also use a product called CPR, which is a combination wetting agent with micro-nutrients. I believe those applications have really helped the turf to root in and survive the foot traffic as well as it does.”

Fire ants are always a problem in hot climates, and particularly vexing for Nauschutz given the park-like atmosphere he is charged with conveying. “Nothing ruins a picnic like fire ants,” he observes. “We tried several different pesticides without any luck. But about three years ago we put Top Choice pesticide down and that seems to have stopped the ants, cold. We applied it in the spring, and I haven’t seen so much as an ant hill all summer long. Nothing ruins the appearance of a manicured lawn like an ant hill.”

Nauschutz is something of a lawn maintenance purist. He wants a highly manicured look, reminiscent of a golf course. To achieve that, the grounds are edged and trimmed every Wednesday and mowed twice a week with a fleet of three McLane reel push-mowers. “We’ll use one or two at a time and always keep a third in reserve,” Nauschutz explains. “They’re self-propelled, but still quite a workout. The guys that mow aren’t going to put on any weight working for me.”

In an age of production-oriented power mowers, it isn’t noise restrictions that prompt Nauschutz to use the reel mowers. He simply likes the cut better. “There are 10 cutting blades on each of those reels, which give a very precise – and manicured – cut to the lawns. I think it looks great, and I think the visitors like it, too.”

On the downside, Nauschutz says maintaining the reel mowers can be quite a challenge. “When the blades need sharpening or we need to put a new chain in one of them, they’re generally down for two weeks,” he says. “We have to take them to the dealer for work. We can’t maintain them here. So there’s a trade-off involved. But we get around that by keeping a third mower on hand to fill in if one is off being worked on.”

The Alamo’s grounds are watered at least twice a week with drip hoses and the in-ground irrigation system. “It’s been so hot, I recently had to step up the amount of time we’re watering plants in the drip zones,” Nauschutz notes. “We boosted the watering time to three hours per zone, and I think next year I’ll have to up it even more.”

Once a month, the crew aerates the turf around The Alamo – a practice Nauschutz is convinced helps the grass thrive during the height of the tourist season. “A good aerator is really the secret to growing grass in areas with heavy foot traffic,” he says. “We get great results doing it just once a month, although we really ought to do it more than that. During interim periods – halfway through the month – we’ll go ahead and aerate along the sidewalks about five feet out on both sides of the walkways. Those are high traffic areas and the extra attention really helps them. With 2.6 million people visiting every year, we’re lucky to even have grass out there!”

Quick Facts: The Alamo and San Antonio, Texas

  • The San Antonio river was named in 1691 when a group of Spanish explorers visited the site on the feast day of St. Anthony.
  • The city of San Antonio was founded in 1718 by Father Antonio Olivares.
  • According to the 2005 U.S. Census estimate, San Antonio is home to
    1.2 million people.
  • San Antonio receives an average of 29.05 inches of precipitation annually.
  • The highest recorded temperature in San Antonio was 111 degrees Fahrenheit on September 5, 2000.
  • The coldest temperature ever recorded was 0 degrees Fahrenheit on January 31, 1949.
  • The Alamo uses approximately
    3.2 million gallons of water a year to irrigate its grounds.
  • Three are 34 different tree species, 35 shrub and flowering perennial species, a cactus garden and ornamental grasses in The Alamo park.
  • Desert Willow, Indian Hawthorn and Dwarf Pittosporum are among the plants used on Alamo grounds in the past but discontinued now.
  • More than 2.5 million people a year visit The Alamo and its grounds.
  • The Alamo is open year round, except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
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