Weekend viewing for the drought-tolerant / -curious

Anigozanthos rufus Red Kangaroo Paw

PRAIRIEFORM believes that going drought-tolerant should not be synonymous with punishment. Using less water in a landscape should not require one to give up their desire for a full-looking landscape and to buy into a depressing, scrubby aesthetic. Why people insist on this as a strategy for winning over converts to the low-water landscape is beyond PRAIRIEFORM. Going drought-tolerant should be presented as a true opportunity to discover and explore whole new worlds of plants – a 21st-Century makeover to one’s landscape, and water bill. Yes, you are perhaps saying goodbye to Azaleas and Cala Lilies, but you are saying hello to Kangaroo Paw, Indian Grass, Silver Buffaloberry, Little Bluestem, Ginkgo trees. And the list goes on.

In a recent episode of The Outdoor Room, Aussie Jamie Durie offers up an relatively instructive approach to the low-water landscape, one that merges the client’s wishes with the overarching theme of water-conservation and visual splashiness. Some good old-fashioned weekend entertainment for the drought-tolerant and -curious.


Neutral grounds

Huntington Drive in El Sereno

Many of Los Angeles’s boulevards measure in at over 100 feet from side to side. Some, such as Huntington Drive, stretch out to almost 200 feet – which is, quite simply, huge. The vast majority of these 200 feet comprise traffic lanes, while a small portion of the width is devoted to planted median strips. As a city, Los Angeles has historically shown great hesitation in relinquishing carpspace and transforming it into generously sized medians and wider sidewalks. Quite the opposite, the prevailing modus operandi has been to widen roads early and often, including widening those streets and roads adjacent to rail stations, the very places where pedestrians travel most.

To learn about the wide, wide world of varying uses for streetspace, many an Angeleno (and American, for that matter) could benefit from a trip down south to New Orleans – both the birthplace of Jazz, and home to the famed neutral grounds. Neutral grounds are what New Orleans residents refer to their medians as. Originally developed for drainage purposes, the neutral grounds have become the city’s emerald jewels, bisecting streets with swaths of greenery, wildlife, and calm.

Neutral ground in New Orleans spanning some 30 feet

The neutral grounds range in size, with some measuring a miniature three feet, and some spanning over thirty feet. Some of the larger neutral grounds have become home to playgrounds, impromptu games of volleyball, fountains, and public gathering areas. Others double as space for streetcars. Whatever the case, they are a reminder of what many of our streets once were: public spaces for a whole host of activities, only one of which being vehicular traffic.

One of the narrower neutral grounds

There has been growing talk of late of bicycle lanes, transit, and walkable streets, all of which are integral components to 21st Century city, but none of which can be realized if municipalities simply cannot get serious about relinquising some carspace to other uses. Merely painting a bicycle lane along the side of Sunset Boulevard while not redesigning the street so that motorists do not drive at 45 mph is insufficient. The push-back within the conversation has come from those who claim that constructing medians, bike lanes, wider sidewalks will lead to worsening traffic, which will lead to economic decline. This line of reasoning sounds mildly convincing until one considers New York, Paris, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong – all cities with horrendous traffic, and all major financial centers of the world, not to mention some of the most-visited cities of the world.

Saint Charles Streetcar within neutral ground

-Written by PRAIRIEFORM’s John Kamp, and James Rojas of Place It!

Plant of the Week

Sorghastrum nutans “Blue Steel”

Sorghastrum nutans, or Indian Grass, as it is commonly referred to, is one of the dominant tall grass species of the American Prairie, with a range that extends up into Minnesota and down and across to the Southwest. It comes in a variety of cultivars (Blue Steel, and Sioux Blue to name a few), but even the native variety looks at home in the most modern of landscapes. Often overlooked in nurseries for not being standalone and showy enough, this grass deserves a doubletake. It offers a bolt of upright, metallic blue color that contrasts well with the greener foliage of your landscape, and in late summer, little can be more beautiful than the flush of its golden panicles backlit in the afternoon sun.

Indian Grass is a warm season grass, with an accent on warm; it is late to come up in spring and will wait to display its panicles until the waning heat of late summer. As such, it is best placed in the center of a larger landscape or towards the back of a shallow one – particularly because it can reach over five feet high when its panicles emerge. True to PRAIRIEFORM botanical taste, it is tough as nails and can survive on remarkably little water, and can grow even in clay-heavy soil. Indian Grass loves sun and lots of it, and this is somewhat of a hard-and-fast rule, so don’t try planting it in part-sun or it will tend to flop over. On the topic of flopping over, less water = more upright, so err on the side of caution and don’t overwater your Indian Grass, otherwise you’ll have a stake job on your hands. As always, cut the grass back to about an inch above the ground in spring.

The shrub as the unsung landscape hero

Shepherdia argentea

PRAIRIEFORM perenially views landscape design as problem-solving; the components of a landscape are but pieces of a larger, spatial-botanical puzzle. This is, however, generally not how landscape is viewed. The conventional approach is to construct a landscape from disparate pieces, moving from these pieces towards a vague idea of a whole. As a result, the tendency is to gravitate towards deemed “show-stopper” perennials and to ignore the somewhat less glamorous but equally crucial building blocks of the landscape.

Diervilla sessilifolia ‘Butterfly’

The shrub is one such overlooked component. While many a shrub has been played out to the point where someone simply needs to issue an early-retirement notice (i.e. Yews, Arbor vitae, Juniper and all of those other static and itchy ’50s-era shrubs), there exists a wide wide world out there of shrubs of varying colors, textures, and forms that can do wonders for the overall structure of a landscape. For maximum effect – and to avoid the depressing topiary-shrub-hugging-house motif – their placement should be considered within the larger context of the landscape, and mixed in with a host of plants of various heights and forms. In this way, you will be able to begin buidling a true landscape composition, whose form, foliage, and texture will endure across the seasons and through the years.