We will be speaking on our work on irrigation-free landscapes at the annual PG&E Water Conservation Showcase in San Francisco on March 21. Specifically, we will be co-leading an interactive workshop on water conservation in residential landscape design with fellow landscape designer Kelly Marshall and Outreach Coordinator for the California Native Plant Society Kristen Wernick. All are welcome to attend. Sign up here.
A short clip from RHS Chatsworth 2017 featuring the Garden for a Changing Climate, designed by Andy Clayden and Dr. Ross Cameron. It’s no longer business as usual for the plants in our landscapes, but this need not be a reason to lament. In fact, with challenges and limitations placed on creative work, that work almost invariably gets better. Happy viewing.
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.
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.
We spotted this plant back in May, appearing seemingly out of thin air and looking surprisingly un-weedy for being a volunteer. Since then, it has grown without irrigation for months, and has stayed remarkably green too, not once showing signs of drought stress. The thing is, we have no idea what this plant is. We are waiting for it to bloom to have a better clue of what it might be. In the meantime, we’ll marvel at its toughness and its ability to plant itself in horrendously compacted soil and thrive all summer long on basically zero water.
Once again, plants growing and thriving irrigation-free are all around us. We just have to open our eyes and look.