Irrigation-Free landscape grows by leaps and bounds

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The Irrigation-Free Landscape on June 20, 2013

The plants in the Irrigation-Free Landscape are growing at a clip. Hard to believe over 80% of these haven’t been watered since June 6 of last year, or that none have been watered at all this year. If you would like to see the landscape up close and personal, sign up to go on the Longfellow Garden Club’s annual tour of cool, waterwise landscapes in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis. The tour will be held on July 10.

Irrigation-free update

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The Irrigation-Free Landscape has been doing quite a bit of growing these past couple of weeks. The Salvias are immense and blooming profusely (and these were actually the one plant we were thinking about removing, as they were having trouble dealing with dry conditions last summer. . . time will tell this summer. . . we are hoping their root systems have grown enough to take on whatever the weather brings them), the sedges over doubled in size from last year, the smokebushes finally established and growing well. To see how much things have grown in the past three weeks, here is a photo from a bit over two weeks ago:
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For more photos from the past weeks, come to our Facebook page, and please do “like” us while you are there. It helps us spread the word about the work on water conservation and design we are doing.

‘Sustainable’ increasingly means little

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It was probably only a matter of time before the terms “sustainable” and “sustainability” became so diluted in meaning that they have now become virtually meaningless. They are ascribed as modifiers to landscapes, hoped-for political decisions, architecture, in an effort to make whatever product or decision at hand seem “good.” This is done in much the same way that “common sense” is thrown around as if it had any objective meaning at all. It doesn’t. The result are terms that, at best, now simply mean “less bad,” and whose effects are intended to make the viewer or participant or consumer swell with a visceral feel-good reaction of support.

On perhaps the most cynical, lowest-of-the-low end of the spectrum, we have Bayer CropScience (one of the primary manufacturers of neonicotinoids, a substance a growing number are calling a major cause of the global bee decline) saying that the EU’s recent decision to ban neonicotinoids is “a setback for technology, innovation and sustainability.” To Bayer, “sustainability” can mean 90 million acres of American corn embedded with neonicotinoids planted every year as much as it can mean green roofs and bioswales and prairie restorations. How in quantifiable terms the use of the pesticide leads towards long-term environmental and economic “sustainability” is dumbfounding, but this is obviously not their point; rather, they have co-opted a term in order to render a problematic product and its manufacturer “less bad” and to make those in support of the ban appear unreasonable, and “anti-sustainability.”

In the world of landscapes there are examples of this dilution of “sustainability” that are much more subtle but equally as problematic. There is a growing trend of landscapes that feature less lawn and more plants. It is a welcomed trend; however, simply removing lawn and adding in plants does not by definition boost the landscape’s sustainability cred. So often, water-loving plants are chosen, and plants with little to no value to wildlife are used. As a result, you get a landscape that consumes much in the way of water and resources, but that gives back little. We have in effect created little more than a feel-good aesthetic that says, “Good for you, you got rid of your lawn,” regardless of how lessened its impact on the environment is.


A Los Angeles landscape advertised as “sustainable” while containing countless high-water plants that require copious amounts of supplemental irrigation year-round

The photo shown above illustrates this phenomenon well. The landscape is advertised as being “sustainable” and as a beautiful alternative to a lawn. Beautiful it is; sustainable, however, it is not. Los Angeles receives 15 inches of rain annually in a good year, and most of it falling between the months of November through April. Most of the plants in this landscape are endemic to regions of the world that receive consistent rainfall year-round that far exceeds 15 inches. This includes the purple-leafed Abyssinian banana, and the New Zealand flax (a plant that has a drought-tolerant, Agave-esque look, but actually requires relatively consistent moisture) you see in the photo. As a result, you have a landscape advertised as “sustainable” while requiring irrigation almost daily, especially during the long Los Angeles dry season. This is little improvement over the water requirements of a conventional lawn.

Perfection and attempts at pseudo-purism are not our end goal, and we are not advocating for such. Rather, it is time to create and employ new words to describe what the landscape, or building, or decision is actually doing instead of what one wants people to think it’s doing. Thus, we describe landscapes as visually appealing, plant-abundant, water-conserving, irrigation-free, wildlife-friendly, and so on. And a landscape can be many of these things at the same time. But if it is, say, a visually appealing landscape or work of architecture or whatever that merely gives the look and feel of being sustainable but actually does little in the way of giving back to the land and minimizing resource consumption, we need to call a spade a spade here and say that it cannot claim the tag of “sustainable” too just because it looks nice.

Update from the irrigation-free homefront

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The Irrigation-Free Landscape, late May 2013

The Irrigation-Free Landscape has awakened from its extended winter slumber and is coming back to life slowly but surely, as everything has been late to come up this year. However, with ample amounts of rainfall, the cool-season grasses and sedges have been growing at a clip, and the Salvias and lavenders and other plants that take on more grey/blue tones as spring segues into summer are nearly as green as the grasses. Little is in flower save a few Allium bulbs that are just about to bloom, but the Salvias should be on their way shortly. The native perennials of the prairie are slow to bloom and won’t come on until late June/early July, which is all the more reason why we plant plants like Salvias and catmints and the like – for early bloom color and good early food sources for pollinators.

As a comparison of how the landscape has changed and will change color- and form-wise over time, below is a photo taken last August from virtually the same spot.