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

Weekend viewing

Christy Ten Eyck is just one of the best landscape designers/architects in this mythical country of so much so-so, throwaway stuff. These projects solve so many problems of sustainability and water conservation in one fell swoop and all the while are unbelievably beautiful spaces you just want to be in. The video is not an uber-polished/hyper-edited YouTube-style video, so don’t expect a crazy fast pace. But then again, these landscapes are not to be looked at quickly in passing but rather spaces to be in and explore. Lovely lovely loveliness.

Come to the Mother Earth Gardens winter seminar on the irrigation-free landscape

prairieform, mother earth gardens, irrigation-free landscape, xeriscape, drought, drought-tolerance, minneapolis, saint paul, twin cities, landscape design, landscape architecture, climate change

We will be giving a seminar on the Irrigation-Free Landscape on Februrary 4 as part of the Mother Earth Gardens winter seminar series. The seminar will cover the nuts and bolts of the Irrigation-Free Landscape, how it works, what we have learned from the first pilot landscape, and how you can apply some of these lessons and tips to your own landscape or garden. The seminar starts at 7:00 p.m. and will be held at the Riverview Wine Bar, located across from Mother Earth Gardens at 3745 42nd Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN. The event is free of charge, but the nursery asks that you RSVP to the following email address: info@motherearthgarden.com. The seminar line-up contains tons of informative and instructive seminars on landscapes and sustainability. To check out the other speakers, click here.

Of rain, rabbits, and gold


Gloriosa daisies (Rudbeckia hirta) in a PRAIRIEFORM landscape

The element of change and surprise is something we try to infuse into every landscape we create, so that at any given point during the year one can discover something new within it. The same is true for how a landscape evolves across the years. While we can to a certain extent plan this evolution into a landscape, there are wildcard factors such as temperature and precipitation that can radically alter the landscape from year to year. Take, for example, gloriosa daisies (Rudbeckia hirta), whose shots of deep gold and burnt orange can be profuse or sparse depending on what has gone on that year. What went on last year was bunnies, and lots of them. What also went on was not much rain. Thus, any irrigated to semi-irrigated landscape area was an endless dinner of uber-washed field greens for bunnies, with gloriosa daisies being a food of choice for them. The result was a virtual absence of the deep golds and oranges that we are now seeing this year in the landscape, as, this year, we have seen much rain, and a profusion of clover and other greens that bunnies seem to love. As a result, they are not tempted to move their way into more cultivated environs and mow down our labors of botanical love. What we enjoy vis-a-vis this phenomenon is not so much that we have more gloriosa daisies (among other plants) to stare at this year, but that it is a reminder that designers may have some control over the landscape, but not complete control. A nice humbling lesson for a profession that frequently gets all too caught up in its own myth-making. So, go out and enjoy the golds of this summer and know that they might be rabbit food next summer, which makes them all the more precious.