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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.