The little plant that could

Mystery plant spotted and observed in Oakland growing and still green with no irrigation for months
Mystery plant spotted and observed in Oakland growing and still green with no irrigation for months

We spotted this plant back in May, appearing seemingly out of thin air and looking surprisingly un-weedy for being a volunteer. Since then, it has grown without irrigation for months, and has stayed remarkably green too, not once showing signs of drought stress. The thing is, we have no idea what this plant is. We are waiting for it to bloom to have a better clue of what it might be. In the meantime, we’ll marvel at its toughness and its ability to plant itself in horrendously compacted soil and thrive all summer long on basically zero water.

Once again, plants growing and thriving irrigation-free are all around us. We just have to open our eyes and look.

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.”

We are now licensed landscape contractors

Photo of new Prairieform business cards featuring their new California Landscape Contractor license number.
New Prairieform business cards, complete with fancy license number

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.

-John Kamp

Hope

dwarf fritillary butterfly caterpillars on passion vine in Oakland, California
Dwarf fritillary butterfly caterpillars on passion vine

In 21st-century California, it is increasingly a luxury of kingly proportions to have a yard of one’s own, especially within one of the state’s major metropolitan areas. As such, container gardening is the only option for many of us, a type of gardening that presents its own set of challenges, not the least of which being watering, as even the most drought-tolerant of plants will require much more watering in a container than they would in the ground. Maintenance reservations aside, I bit the bullet some months ago and started transforming the fire escape/balcony we have here in Oakland into a pollinator garden that is ideally groovy to look at and hang out in as well. To these ends, I planted, among other ‘tings, three kinds of passion vine back in April, hoping to attract the dwarf fritillary butterfly, whose food of choice is the passion vine. Well, as of a month ago, I discovered tiny orange eggs on the vines, and then two weeks ago, these eggs hatched into the tiniest of caterpillars. Since then, the caterpillar children have eaten to their hearts’ content and grown exponentially bigger by the day.

It would be a cliche to say that these are uncertain times we are living in, but, well, the cliche rings true. And in such uncertain times, inviting wildlife intro your landscape in whatever way possible can be a tonic to the lunancy about, serving as a small beacon of hope. What’s not to marvel over that a tiny butterfly would fly around and somehow locate a little patch of passion vine in the middle of dense, urbanized Oakland and decide to make that small patch of green home for its butterfly kids? It is marvel-worthy indeed.

John Kamp