Just another photo from our visit to the first irrigation-free landscape six years later. It was so fascinating to see how the landscape had taken on a life of its own, and how the wild and exuberant self-sowing plants had mixed in with the more stay-in-place cultivated ones. There were even new arrivals to the landscape that weren’t weeds, something we had never seen before. Anyway, happy Friday.
It’s hard to say what you first notice when you see the irrigation-free landscape now after six years of being in the ground. Perhaps that everything looks huge and full and not at all tired or half-dead or all the things people were worried might happen when we proposed the idea seven years ago. The little bluestems (Schizachyrium scoparium) have self-sown with abandon, as have the pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida) and butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). The Golden Spirit smokebush (Continus coggygria ‘Golden Spirit’) looks almost otherworldly in its stature and form – no doubt loving the gravelly, crummy soil we planted it in. Some extremely tall perennials have also appeared in the landscape, and, for the life of us, we can’t figure out what they are, but once they’ve bloomed the mystery should be solved. The pathways are less perceptible than they were before – in part because of how big the grasses have gotten, but also because they need a good weeding (we learned early on how much certain self-sowing plants loved the gravel as a growing medium). But all in all, we think most would call the landscape a success if they saw it – and the bees and butterflies think so too, as they have very much found an ideal foraging spot within it. And how exciting it’s been to see the landscape take on a life of its own since it isn’t tethered to an irrigation system. So maybe that’s what you sense most when you see it now: a freedom and exuberance that can only be found within a landscape that is given a little license to do what it wants.
Over the years, we have written about a need for landscapes in California to really start embracing the summer dry season and let the tans and golds of real California summer shine. Back in 2010, we wrote The green that will never be and Inviting the golds and tans in, both of which advocated for a move away from the insistence that everything in our landscapes be green year-round, given that summer in California is really a period of rest for its plants and thus golds and tans become dominant colors of our natural landscapes.
Well, as it turns out, the initial proposal for the green roof at the California Academy of Sciences was essentially a replica of a grassy California hillside, which would have greened up in winter and faded to tan (“fade to brown” just doesn’t sound that appealing, but to each one’s own) in summer. Yet, as landscape architect and urban designer Jossie Ivanov of Oakland, California, points out in her master’s thesis on the shifting portions of Golden Gate Park to be more in line with the actual climates of California, architect Renzo Piano had a fit when he learned of the roof proposal, and thus the idea was scrapped. As a result, we now have a green roof of sedums, which are watered and green year-round. And what could have been an ideal educational opportunity for people from around the world to learn about the actual climate and ecologies of California became a missed one.
In any case, one missed opportunity is the opening of doors to new ones. We have an endless canvas of less high-profile, everyday landscapes in which we can start to explore these climate-wise ideas. To learn more and to get the wheels turning, you can read through Ivanov’s ideas on how we could start to shift at least portions of Golden Gate Park to be more in line with the actual winter-wet/summer-dry climate of the Bay Area, you may click HERE.
What’s been interesting to observe already with the Adopt-a-Mediterranean Plant Project is how the water needs of the grasses are really mirroring what we learned with the grasses in the first irrigation-free landscape we ever did. Namely, the grasses seem to always need two waterings spaced about a week apart, and then perhaps a third a couple weeks later, and then they reach a point where they can comfortably be on their own. As their adaptation to drought lies primarily in their roots, and thus these waterings are helping the plants send the roots deep into the soil, we shouldn’t be surprised, but, well, this work is always surprising, as you see first-hand just how little water so many of these plants actually need, even in drier mediterranean climates.
Stay tuned for more updates.
When we say we do irrigation-free landscapes, the response we so often get is that that is impossible. Well, however cliched and trite, the adage “seeing is believing” never fails to ring true. We know irrigation-free is possible because we have done it, and we also see plants growing irrigation-free all around us every day. So that you too can see this reality in action, we’ve launched a new citizen-science-based project in which we give you a plant from a mediterranean climate region of the world and then you monitor its water needs over the course of the year. At the end of the year, we will have a gathering to share what we have learned. Additionally, and more importantly, participants will ultimately become their own irrigation-free experts, and we will be able to create a set of meaningful data on the water needs of plants from summer-dry climates. These data can then be applied to the creation of new irrigation-free landscapes across California and the country at large. To learn more, click HERE.