Newer isn’t always better

Patio de los Naranjos, in Cordoba, Spain, with the citrus trees planted using the basin technique (photo courtesy of Cordoba A Pie)
Patio de los Naranjos, in Cordoba, Spain, with the citrus trees planted using the basin technique (photo courtesy of Cordoba A Pie)

Notice how the trees are planted in the 17th-century Patio de Los Naranjos in Cordoba, Spain – in basins and connected by way of channels. No overhead emitters; no automatic sprinkler system. Just plants planted slightly sunken so that water can percolate straight down to the roots of the trees, drawing the roots down with it.

Many a landscape professional has looked on in horror when we have proposed or used this technique in our landscapes; and yet, here it is, time-worn and tested, the trees clearly thriving and growing well.

We need to start rethinking our planting practices and the notion that a landscape must have an irrigation system of emitters and lines and tubing in order to survive. The Patio de los Naranjos is yet more evidence of why this just isn’t so.

John Kamp

First landscape of 2019

Photo of Prairieform's work on its first landscape of 2019, for a front yard in Glendale, CA
Working on our first landscape of 2019, for a front yard in Glendale, CA

We are excited to announce our first new landscape of 2019, in Glendale, CA. It will be a front-yard lawn-to-landscape conversion involving drought-tolerant deliciousness, eye candy in spades, and habitat for a whole host of fantastic winged and four-legged friends (and humans too). While the landscape will have an irrigation system, we will be reducing the amount of water used over time, so that ultimately much of the landscape can thrive on its own, whatever may come its way. Stay tuned for more updates.

John Kamp

Snow falling on sedums

Sedum spectabile "Autumn Joy" in winter
Sedum spectabile ‘Autumn Joy’ in winter

When it comes to plants in the landscape, there are tried but true and therefore played out and boring (and should be retired), and there are tried but true and thus indispensable. Sedum spectabile ‘Autumn Joy’ falls into the latter camp, an indispensable plant for landscapes in those four-season climates that include a good dose of winter. Emerging early in spring, it provides structure and color with zero supplemental water, and its fat leaves offer a foil to smaller-leaved plants, which, packed in too closely and in too great of numbers, will resort in a landscape that suffers from what we call “small-leaf syndrome.” Then, in late summer, its flower-heads start to emerge, slowly opening in early fall to attract pollinators of all varieties, feasting on its nectar during a time of year when nectar is starting to run scarce. Finally, in winter, it retains its structure and fades to a lovely rust color, its spent flower heads offering the perfect platform for snow to sit atop. Aside from the short period of time in spring when you must chop the plant down to the ground and thus don’t see it, this plant is the very definition of year-round appeal – both for you and for the lovely pollinators that will seek it out come fall blooms.

Go forth and plant with aplomb!

John Kamp

Drought-tolerant vernacular

An everyday resident of Colton has planted their trees in drought-busting watering basins
An everyday resident of Colton has planted their trees in drought-busting watering basins

The watering basin is a planting technique in which the plant or tree is not planted at ground level but instead is sunken so that water is directed downwards rather than away from the plant. As a result, the plant’s roots grow deeply rather than superficially. As an added benefit, the basins both catch rainwater and make deep watering by hand much easier. The technique is a hallmark of the irrigation-free landscapes we do, and, lo and behold, is something that just an everyday resident of Colton, California, has been doing too (see photo above).

And yet, when I first shopped this planting idea around to landscape professionals and arborists when we were pitching the irrigation-free idea, I was told by many that this was bad practice. Once we had secured public funding for the pilot Irrigation-Free Landscape and I was in the thick of installing it, there was actually a professional landscape designer working on the landscape next door. While I was planting one of numerous grasses in the basin-style of planting, she came up, grabbed the plant by the crown, and said, “Why are you planting it this way? Don’t you know you are supposed to plant the crown just above soil level?” I said that I was, but above the soil level of the bottom of the basin. She was not convinced. In another conversation with an arborist, I was told that you could not plant trees in this basin style, because their roots would grow out and around and eventually girdle the trees.

In fact, within educational materials and at workshops put out and on by professionals working in the realms of sustainability and landscapes, the watering basin is simply never suggested. Rather, you are to plant your drought tolerant plants in the same way you’ve planted any other plant, and you are to still tether them to an irrigation system. In short, within the worlds of landscape architecture, design, and arborists – the professionals one would think would be at the forefront of real techniques for sustainability – there is at one end a limited take on designing for drought, and on the other, outright resistance to new techniques.

The truth is, landscape professionals and designers can be woefully unwilling to step down from their lofty seats of professionalism and advanced degrees to look at what everyday people are doing in their own landscapes when responding to drought – both in terms of planting technique and design. No, this is not to say that landscape professionals know nothing; rather, it is to say that we don’t have all the answers. No one does. And sometimes those answers lie within the work of non-professionals and what kinds of drought-tolerant vernacular landscapes they are making.

And so we come full circle to this resident in Colton, who clearly understood on an intuitive level that given low rainfall and high heat in a place like Colton, planting the trees in basins makes perfect sense, and the resident’s work has resulted in plants that are surviving and thriving.

-John Kamp