What does irrigation-free look like six years later?

The first irrigation-free landscape six years later, with no supplemental irrigation since the fall of 2012
The first irrigation-free landscape six years later, with no supplemental irrigation since the fall of 2012

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.

John Kamp

Adopt a Mediterranean Plant: What we’re already learning

A deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) growing in one of the test sites as part of the Adopt-a-Mediterranean-Plant Project
A deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) growing in one of the test sites as part of the Adopt-a-Mediterranean-Plant Project

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.

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

Surviving irrigation-free

Coleonema pulchrum, a commonly irrigated landscape plant,  growing irrigation-free in Oakland
Coleonema pulchrum, a commonly irrigated landscape plant, growing irrigation-free in Oakland

There are so many plants of the landscape that we assume are water-loving because they are never given a chance to prove otherwise, and because we don’t look into their native growing conditions to see just how little water they need to grow and thrive. Coleonema pulchrum is just such a plant. With its chartreuse leaves and pink flowers, it’s a much-loved plant in Northern California, offering a bright spot within what could be a washed-out landscape of dull greens and grays. Yet what folks probably don’t know is that this plant is native to a summer-dry, winter-wet region of South Africa and thus for many months out of the year has to tough it out with no water.

Indeed, even a drought-tolerant plant will need water up front in order to get established, but once established, the watering can be phased out, and the plant will thank you for it. Plants that are native to regions where drought is simply part of the climate oftentimes simply cannot absorb enough water from irrigation if they are watered during their period of dormancy as their root systems go into a sort of slumber during this time. In a worst-case scenario, their roots will rot, or the plant will grow much larger and faster than it should, ultimately opening out on itself and taking on a leggy appearance that no one particularly likes.

In our inveterate efforts to show that irrigation-free is all around us, we hope that folks will start to open their eyes to other plants they’ve seen growing irrigation-free and doing just fine.