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

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.”

Weekend Viewing

No matter where people go, or where they must flee to, so many will turn to nature for comfort and refuge – especially when there are no other options. While folks in the modern world seem to be increasingly turning to their phones and social media for some semblance of that comfort, when the lights go out and your wired world goes dark, family and nature are our default comfort spaces to turn to. Perhaps nowhere can this natural instinct towards nature be seen more than within refugee camps, where people suddenly no longer have those creature comforts of home, or the option of turning towards Netflix or Facebook or the like to find some sort of modern comfort.

The above video is a fascinating look into how refugees in northern Iraq have managed to create their own calming green spaces within an otherwise unsettled environment. The very act of shining a light on these spaces and their creation serves to truly underscore the humanity of the people having to flee and live in these camps. And to further highlight the refugee’s efforts to carve out their own gardens amidst such troubling and tough conditions, the Lemon Tree Trust created a landscape for this year’s Chelsea Flower Show that was inspired by the resiliency of the refugees in these camps. You may find more photos of the garden by clicking here.

Plants as magnets for the good and bad

Observing the Joppa Avenue Landscape in Minneapolis, Minnesota, for bees, butterflies, and bunnies
Lounging and observing the laboratory

The occasional sad reality of doing landscape design is that not all landscapes you create will survive long-term. Ownership can change, and maintenance can be spotty. At the very least, you can expect that some plants will die or be less successful than planned due to circumstances outside of your control, and the result will be a landscape different than what you had envisioned. In our case we never could have anticipated the bumper crop of rabbits that seemed to emerge in Minneapolis in the summer of 2009, or how that bumper crop would subside by 2014. Nor could we have anticipated how much the monarch and honeybee populations would dwindle during that same period. Fortunately, we’ve had a living laboratory of sorts in which to observe all of these phenomena long-term and to see what plants are bunny magnets, and which are monarch and bee magnets.

Here is our run-down:

BEE/POLLINATOR MAGNETS
Nepeta x faassenii ‘Walker’s Low’ / Walker’s Low catmint: Blooms for at least a month (reblooms after a mid-summer haircut), with the bees (bumble, honey, and solitary, not to mention hoverflies, hummingbird moths, butterflies, and hummingbirds) on it from sunrise to sunset
Aster oolentangiensis / sky-blue aster: Very good late-summer nectar/pollen source
Solidago speciosa / showy goldenrod: Also an ideal late-summer nectar/pollen source
Diervilla sessilifolia ‘Butterfly’ / Butterfly bush honeysuckle: Bumblebees love the little yellow flowers; lightly cut back after blooming for a second bloom
Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Longin’ / ‘Longin’ Russian sage: Bees of all varieties love this plant, and it blooms from July virtually til the end of summer
Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ / Autumn Joy stonecrop: Amazing late-summer nectar/pollen source

MONARCH MAGNETS
Liatris ligulistylis / meadow blazing star: They bloom, and the monarchs come. . . in droves; it’s as simple as that
Eutrochium purpurea / Joe Pye weed: Huge, tall, and full of monarchs once they bloom in July
Verbena bonariensis / Brazilian verbena: An annual that blooms from June (depending on when you plant it) until the end of summer and thus provides a very consistent nectar source for monarchs, which flock to it

RABBIT MAGNETS
Echinacea purpurea / purple coneflower: Numbers dwindled down to almost none by 2013, have replanted new ones and caged them
Panicum virgatum / switchgrass: Ultimately disappeared after two years and space taken over by other plants
Sporobolus heterolepis / prairie dropseed: Initially took a huge hit from the rabbits but now seems to be doing better now that it’s been in the ground longer (maybe rabbits don’t like crusty old grasses?)
Koeleria macrantha / June grass: Suffers some damage by rabbits each year in the spring, becomes less attractive to them by July
Rudbeckia hirta / gloriosa daisy: Numbers dwindled down to almost none by 2012; some that had self-sown in cages around other plants managed to survive, and now the landscape is full of them again (but there are also fewer rabbits now)
Liatris spicata / dense blazing star: Caged them and the rabbits have since kept away; landscape now dense enough that the plant has self-sown here and there, and the seedlings seem to be protected by other plants (that is a very loose hypothesis based on casual observation)
Aster oolentangiensis / sky-blue aster: Some were gnawed down to the ground and died; remaining ones caged and are now thriving and self-sowing with a bit too much aplomb
Liatris ligulistylis / prairie blazing star: A choice meal of rabbits of all shapes and sizes; the plants need cages around them if they are to survive a rabbit’s dinnertime whims

Just to be clear and in layman’s terms: bee and monarch magnets will bring you happiness; rabbit magnets, without the proper protection, will bring you sadness.

John Kamp