What does irrigation-free look like six years later?

The first irrigation-free landscape six years later, with no supplemental irrigation since the fall of 2012
The first irrigation-free landscape six years later, with no supplemental irrigation since the fall of 2012

It’s hard to say what you first notice when you see the irrigation-free landscape now after six years of being in the ground. Perhaps that everything looks huge and full and not at all tired or half-dead or all the things people were worried might happen when we proposed the idea seven years ago. The little bluestems (Schizachyrium scoparium) have self-sown with abandon, as have the pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida) and butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). The Golden Spirit smokebush (Continus coggygria ‘Golden Spirit’) looks almost otherworldly in its stature and form – no doubt loving the gravelly, crummy soil we planted it in. Some extremely tall perennials have also appeared in the landscape, and, for the life of us, we can’t figure out what they are, but once they’ve bloomed the mystery should be solved. The pathways are less perceptible than they were before – in part because of how big the grasses have gotten, but also because they need a good weeding (we learned early on how much certain self-sowing plants loved the gravel as a growing medium). But all in all, we think most would call the landscape a success if they saw it – and the bees and butterflies think so too, as they have very much found an ideal foraging spot within it. And how exciting it’s been to see the landscape take on a life of its own since it isn’t tethered to an irrigation system. So maybe that’s what you sense most when you see it now: a freedom and exuberance that can only be found within a landscape that is given a little license to do what it wants.

John Kamp

Adopt a Mediterranean Plant: What we’re already learning

A deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) growing in one of the test sites as part of the Adopt-a-Mediterranean-Plant Project
A deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) growing in one of the test sites as part of the Adopt-a-Mediterranean-Plant Project

What’s been interesting to observe already with the Adopt-a-Mediterranean Plant Project is how the water needs of the grasses are really mirroring what we learned with the grasses in the first irrigation-free landscape we ever did. Namely, the grasses seem to always need two waterings spaced about a week apart, and then perhaps a third a couple weeks later, and then they reach a point where they can comfortably be on their own. As their adaptation to drought lies primarily in their roots, and thus these waterings are helping the plants send the roots deep into the soil, we shouldn’t be surprised, but, well, this work is always surprising, as you see first-hand just how little water so many of these plants actually need, even in drier mediterranean climates.

Stay tuned for more updates.

John Kamp

Adopt-a-Mediterranean-Plant Project

First participants in Prairieform's Adopt-A-Mediterranean-Plant Project
First participants in Prairieform’s Adopt-A-Mediterranean-Plant Project

When we say we do irrigation-free landscapes, the response we so often get is that that is impossible. Well, however cliched and trite, the adage “seeing is believing” never fails to ring true. We know irrigation-free is possible because we have done it, and we also see plants growing irrigation-free all around us every day. So that you too can see this reality in action, we’ve launched a new citizen-science-based project in which we give you a plant from a mediterranean climate region of the world and then you monitor its water needs over the course of the year. At the end of the year, we will have a gathering to share what we have learned. Additionally, and more importantly, participants will ultimately become their own irrigation-free experts, and we will be able to create a set of meaningful data on the water needs of plants from summer-dry climates. These data can then be applied to the creation of new irrigation-free landscapes across California and the country at large. To learn more, click HERE.

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.”