Over the years, we have written about a need for landscapes in California to really start embracing the summer dry season and let the tans and golds of real California summer shine. Back in 2010, we wrote The green that will never be and Inviting the golds and tans in, both of which advocated for a move away from the insistence that everything in our landscapes be green year-round, given that summer in California is really a period of rest for its plants and thus golds and tans become dominant colors of our natural landscapes.
Well, as it turns out, the initial proposal for the green roof at the California Academy of Sciences was essentially a replica of a grassy California hillside, which would have greened up in winter and faded to tan (“fade to brown” just doesn’t sound that appealing, but to each one’s own) in summer. Yet, as landscape architect and urban designer Jossie Ivanov of Oakland, California, points out in her master’s thesis on the shifting portions of Golden Gate Park to be more in line with the actual climates of California, architect Renzo Piano had a fit when he learned of the roof proposal, and thus the idea was scrapped. As a result, we now have a green roof of sedums, which are watered and green year-round. And what could have been an ideal educational opportunity for people from around the world to learn about the actual climate and ecologies of California became a missed one.
In any case, one missed opportunity is the opening of doors to new ones. We have an endless canvas of less high-profile, everyday landscapes in which we can start to explore these climate-wise ideas. To learn more and to get the wheels turning, you can read through Ivanov’s ideas on how we could start to shift at least portions of Golden Gate Park to be more in line with the actual winter-wet/summer-dry climate of the Bay Area, you may click HERE.
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.
There are so many plants of the landscape that we assume are water-loving because they are never given a chance to prove otherwise, and because we don’t look into their native growing conditions to see just how little water they need to grow and thrive. Coleonema pulchrum is just such a plant. With its chartreuse leaves and pink flowers, it’s a much-loved plant in Northern California, offering a bright spot within what could be a washed-out landscape of dull greens and grays. Yet what folks probably don’t know is that this plant is native to a summer-dry, winter-wet region of South Africa and thus for many months out of the year has to tough it out with no water.
Indeed, even a drought-tolerant plant will need water up front in order to get established, but once established, the watering can be phased out, and the plant will thank you for it. Plants that are native to regions where drought is simply part of the climate oftentimes simply cannot absorb enough water from irrigation if they are watered during their period of dormancy as their root systems go into a sort of slumber during this time. In a worst-case scenario, their roots will rot, or the plant will grow much larger and faster than it should, ultimately opening out on itself and taking on a leggy appearance that no one particularly likes.
In our inveterate efforts to show that irrigation-free is all around us, we hope that folks will start to open their eyes to other plants they’ve seen growing irrigation-free and doing just fine.
One of the dreamy perks of living in the East Bay is easy access to the Berkeley Botanical Garden, which boasts one of the largest collections of Mediterranean, South African, and Desert plant collections in the world, all conveniently located in one spectacular setting, up a canyon with views out to the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. If you are in the area, it is a must-visit place, especially in these times of drought, as you can discover the positively huge range and variety of plants from all over the world that actually grow and thrive in drought, and that look good to boot.