Irrigation-free all around you

A Verbascum bombyciferum growing irrigation-free in an alleyway in Oakland, at the end of the dry season
Verbascum bombyciferum growing irrigation-free in an alleyway in Oakland, at the end of the dry season

When we say we do irrigation-free landscapes, we typically get one of three responses: 1. That can’t be done; 2. That’s been done before; or, 3. How cool. We love the third, of course, but the first and second responses do merit a conversation.

When it comes to the first, all it takes is a bit of observation just beyond your front door to see that there are plants growing irrigation-free all around us. The above photo is of a couple Verbascum bombyciferum plants growing totally irrigation free, at the tail end of the dry season in Oakland, California. And this isn’t the only one. We’ve seen canary palms, lavenders, four o’clocks, coleonemas, calla lilies, and more, growing irrigation-free and looking just fine.

Once we have seen and observed these lovely tough ones doing their thang, we should ask ourselves what we can learn from them, so that we might either use some of them in our own landscapes, or find ones better suited to the space in question and our aesthetic tastes but that have the same drought-busting qualities that these do.

As for the second response, the dismissive one of “Oh that’s been done before” – well, in part they are right. Nature has been doing irrigation-free for milllenia. Yet as far as actual gardeners, landscape designers, architects, contractors doing irrigation-free in more cultivated landscapes – especially in the US – we have seen very little of it. The drought training, the watering basins, the right plants, the rainwater harvesting, the monitoring of how much water each plant gets, all in one landscape – we’ve done this, yes, and very successfully in our pilot landscape. Brad Lancaster has done much with rainwater harvesting and contouring in his, and there is some truly forward-thinking stuff going on in Tucson. But we have seen little beyond this, especially in a place as supposedly forward-thinking and progressive as the Bay Area, where we are actually light years behind when it comes to both stormwater retention and truly drought-tolerant landscapes. Most of our rainwater ends up running into the Bay, and virtually all of our landscapes are tethered to irrigation systems – even the drought-tolerant ones. In other words, we have a long way to go. In any case, though, if it has been done, well, it couldn’t hurt the planet to have it be done much much more.

In the meantime, we as Prairieform will keep giving presentations on irrigation-free landscapes (most recently at the University of East London and UC Davis), make those landscapes a reality, and keep chugging forward, finding those folks whose response is refreshingly, “How cool.”

We are now licensed landscape contractors

Photo of new Prairieform business cards featuring their new California Landscape Contractor license number.
New Prairieform business cards, complete with fancy license number

It’s o-fish, we have passed our exams, are fully bonded and insured, and are now licensed landscape contractors in the state of California. We started out mega-small in Minneapolis, working on my parents’ landscape, and from there things have grown and evolved and led to this. Our goal is to make irrigation-free a reality in California. People say it cannot be done, but we know it can, and the plants and water supplies will thank us for it.

-John Kamp

‘Sustainable’ increasingly means little

neonicotinoids, corn, sustainability, sustainable, EU ban, bees

It was probably only a matter of time before the terms “sustainable” and “sustainability” became so diluted in meaning that they have now become virtually meaningless. They are ascribed as modifiers to landscapes, hoped-for political decisions, architecture, in an effort to make whatever product or decision at hand seem “good.” This is done in much the same way that “common sense” is thrown around as if it had any objective meaning at all. It doesn’t. The result are terms that, at best, now simply mean “less bad,” and whose effects are intended to make the viewer or participant or consumer swell with a visceral feel-good reaction of support.

On perhaps the most cynical, lowest-of-the-low end of the spectrum, we have Bayer CropScience (one of the primary manufacturers of neonicotinoids, a substance a growing number are calling a major cause of the global bee decline) saying that the EU’s recent decision to ban neonicotinoids is “a setback for technology, innovation and sustainability.” To Bayer, “sustainability” can mean 90 million acres of American corn embedded with neonicotinoids planted every year as much as it can mean green roofs and bioswales and prairie restorations. How in quantifiable terms the use of the pesticide leads towards long-term environmental and economic “sustainability” is dumbfounding, but this is obviously not their point; rather, they have co-opted a term in order to render a problematic product and its manufacturer “less bad” and to make those in support of the ban appear unreasonable, and “anti-sustainability.”

In the world of landscapes there are examples of this dilution of “sustainability” that are much more subtle but equally as problematic. There is a growing trend of landscapes that feature less lawn and more plants. It is a welcomed trend; however, simply removing lawn and adding in plants does not by definition boost the landscape’s sustainability cred. So often, water-loving plants are chosen, and plants with little to no value to wildlife are used. As a result, you get a landscape that consumes much in the way of water and resources, but that gives back little. We have in effect created little more than a feel-good aesthetic that says, “Good for you, you got rid of your lawn,” regardless of how lessened its impact on the environment is.

A Los Angeles landscape advertised as “sustainable” while containing countless high-water plants that require copious amounts of supplemental irrigation year-round

The photo shown above illustrates this phenomenon well. The landscape is advertised as being “sustainable” and as a beautiful alternative to a lawn. Beautiful it is; sustainable, however, it is not. Los Angeles receives 15 inches of rain annually in a good year, and most of it falling between the months of November through April. Most of the plants in this landscape are endemic to regions of the world that receive consistent rainfall year-round that far exceeds 15 inches. This includes the purple-leafed Abyssinian banana, and the New Zealand flax (a plant that has a drought-tolerant, Agave-esque look, but actually requires relatively consistent moisture) you see in the photo. As a result, you have a landscape advertised as “sustainable” while requiring irrigation almost daily, especially during the long Los Angeles dry season. This is little improvement over the water requirements of a conventional lawn.

Perfection and attempts at pseudo-purism are not our end goal, and we are not advocating for such. Rather, it is time to create and employ new words to describe what the landscape, or building, or decision is actually doing instead of what one wants people to think it’s doing. Thus, we describe landscapes as visually appealing, plant-abundant, water-conserving, irrigation-free, wildlife-friendly, and so on. And a landscape can be many of these things at the same time. But if it is, say, a visually appealing landscape or work of architecture or whatever that merely gives the look and feel of being sustainable but actually does little in the way of giving back to the land and minimizing resource consumption, we need to call a spade a spade here and say that it cannot claim the tag of “sustainable” too just because it looks nice.

Plant provenance reveals much

eremurus, iran, drought-tolerant, bulbs, xeric, native habitat
Eremurus sp. growing in their native habitat. Courtesy of D. Lofti-Azad.

Success with a plant is inextricably linked to knowledge of that plant’s provenance. If you know what the conditions of plant in its native habitat are, you will have a good gauge of whether or not you have or can effectively create the right growing conditions for it in your own landscape. Beth Chatto is perhaps the pioneer of this approach, of using plants whose natural growing conditions match the growing conditions of your site. And on the surface this sounds like such old news and so completely obvious that why should we care? Because more often than not information on the specific provenance of a plant and the particular climactic, geological, and topographic conditions of that place of origin are not immediately available. Rather, we are given a generic set of guidelines by which to care for the plant: average water needs, keep evenly moist, plant in fertile soil, fertilize annually.

We take the various Eremurus / foxtail lily species as a case in point. Some entries may make vague reference to the plants being from places such as Iran, Afghanistan, and the Hindu Kush, but the buck generally stops here. Without any information on their native growing conditions, we are then offered up generic advice on care of these plants, particularly with regards to water. In the case of Eremurus bungei, this site says that the soil should never be allowed to dry out once they are planted. This one doesn’t mention water at all. And this says “Average Water Needs; Water regularly; do not overwater”. We are left with the impression that Eremurus bungei / foxtail lily must be from an environment that is neither too wet nor too dry and that is never affected by drought. And none could be further from the truth. Their native growing conditions are intensely dry, including in winter (which are somewhat cold), and rocky. The plants shoot out leaves during the brief time when moisture is available in the soil and must gather up enough energy as quickly as possible before the heat and drought of summer set in and they go dormant once again. In short they are the prototypical dry-landscape/high-desert bulb.

allium, Iran, native growing conditions, xeric, water conservation
Allium growing in Iran. Courtesy of D. Lofti-Azad.

This is not common knowledge in part because nurseries are thinking about sales and would like to sell more Eremurus than fewer, and thus if they are advertised as needing average this and average that, then the average person in average anyplace USA can purchase and grow them, regardless of whether this is true or not (and, yes, it is somewhat true: you can prep your soil in various ways to make certain species of Eremurus grow in Minneapolis or North Dakota, albeit a bit tenuously). The other reason for the lack of information on native growing conditions of landscape plants is that species plants (as opposed to cultivars) are relatively new to the gardening scene. Heretofore the provenance of most plants was the nursery, end of story. And many plants have been in cultivation for so long that common knowledge of their origins has all but disappeared (did anyone know, for example, that geraniums are actually native to very dry regions in South Africa?).

We have nothing against cultivars at all and use them when need be, but our hope is that as interest in species plants grows, so too will access to detailed information on these species plants’ native growing conditions. The result can not only be increased knowledge of and interest in protecting the native habitats of these plants, but also in more sophisticated, climate-specific plant palettes that truly mesh with the ebbs and flows of the places they are located in.