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.
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.
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.
No need to speak French to capture the gist of this particular landscape featured at this year’s garden festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire. The designer sought to create a living and evolving painting contained within what appears to be a traditional frame. As such, the visitor approaches a wall as if they (yes, we know this should be she/he here, but isn’t that just oh-so clumsy) were in a museum, only to find within it a three-dimensional landscape that will grow, evolve, and change over time, so that viewing the painting one day will not produce the same results if one were to visit on another day. Viewed from afar, the landscape appears two-dimensional; viewed from up close and you can perceive depth, height, and width. According to the designer, the color palette consists of a range of blues in order to ideally inspire daydreaming and to evoke feelings of escape, discovery, and travel within whoever is viewing the garden. A novel idea indeed.
There’s a line in Orlando that uses an allusion to weeds – or their absence – as a way of highlighting just how patrician the grounds of Orlando’s manor are: “Lying in bed of a morning on the softest pillows between the smoothest sheets and looking out of his oriel window upon turf which for three centuries had known neither dandelion nor dock weed, he thought that unless he could somehow make his escape, he should be smothered alive.” While not in any way a pivotal moment in the story’s narrative, the line says much – to a plant enthusiast – about weeds and the world humans have long lived in: weeds are not a 20th-century phenomenon; they’ve been with us for as long as gardens have been cultivated and lawns have been immaculately maintained. They grow with intent against what the gardener intently wishes would grow.