Scenes from an irrigation-free landscape

An irrigation-free landscape in Oakland in its second year. Here Stipa pulchra (purple needle grass/aka the State Grass of California) with plants from the eastern Mediterranean and South Africa.
An irrigation-free landscape in Oakland in its second year. Here Stipa pulchra (purple needle grass/aka the State Grass of California) with plants from the eastern Mediterranean and South Africa.

Since shelter-in-place was instated in the Bay Area three weeks ago, I have found myself wandering aimlessly out to the fire-escape garden or to the one pictured above, just down below – innumerable times and at all hours – even when it’s past sundown, as the nighttime smells of the city have changed as much as the pace and pulse have (re: they are fresh and tinged with something vaguely wild and green that is now able to come to the fore as the exhaust from our cars and delivery trucks and airplanes has all but disappeared).

Another view of the landscape, here Convulvulus cneorum blooming with California poppies, an aloe, and other plants from South Africa and the eastern Mediterranean.
Another view of the landscape, here Convulvulus cneoreum blooming with California poppies, an aloe (‘Walmsley’s Blue’), and other plants from South Africa and the eastern Mediterranean.

The Eschscholzia californica (California poppies) have been the first to bloom, which they invariably do mid-spring every year. And of course the first spring flowers of the year always attract the eye of those who are paying any attention. Only this year, the newest blooms of the Eschscholzia are proving to be a distraction of disproportionate proportions, continuously bringing me away from the computer, away from the apartment, and down to stare at them once again, like I probably already did an hour earlier.

On social media and in the news, we are reminded by many, many voices that the world is falling apart all around us. And then you go out into the garden, and, well, along with the poppies in mid-bloom, the hoverflies are returning, as are the solitary bees and honey bees, the carpenter bees, the bumble bees, the hummingbirds, and all sorts of other birds that are either staying or just migrating through. Other plants are hinting at what is to still come, their shapes bolting a bit upright, the ends of the stems showing the beginnings of what will become buds and then, ultimately, color, and life, and simultaneously will come all of the flying and feathered, crawling and ambling things that are attracted to both. In essence, these are predictions that we know will play out much as we expect, and they are predictions of things to look forward to, standing squarely in contrast to the innumerable predictions we read and hear about through the now 24-hour news cycle, the predictions of doom and disaster that sometimes come true but oftentimes do not.

The negativity bias that we all have within us is currently on overdrive, as here we are with a real and present danger microscopically and invisibly among us. And yet long before Coronavirus took center stage, our negativity bias had already been on a mild form of overdrive. Harkening back to our days of yore when we lived out in the wild and constantly had to watch our backs for fear of being eaten or perhaps clubbed to death by a protein-starved neighbor first and then eaten, the negativity bias is a cling-on that our tech-soaked world and all its proponents have capitalized on to no end. At the click of a button, we can now know about potential threats to us not just outside our window, but down the street, across the Bay, the ocean, two oceans – threats that are most certainly unfolding on other continents at all times and that have wound up on the screens immediately in front of us, in our living rooms.

Convulvulus cneorum, starting to bloom just after the Eschscholzia. This plant has been watered once since last April, when it was planted. Looking at it at peak dry season, you never would have known.
Convulvulus cneorum, native to the eastern Mediterranean, starting to bloom just after the Eschscholzia. This plant has been watered once since last April, when it was planted. A little native bee can be seen in the lower left, foraging for pollen and nectar.

And then I go downstairs to check up on what else might be showing signs of change in the garden, and I see that the Convolvulus cneorum has just started to bloom, its luminous silvery foliage reflecting light and its buds tinged a pale pinkish-red, all of which are the perfect foil and contrast to the Pelargonium crispum (lemon-scented geranium) and its yellow-green, ridged and multi-fingered leaves growing just behind it. A native solitary bee has already found the newly emerged Convolvulus flowers, no doubt attracted to both their color – white, with tinges of yellow and pink – and perhaps scent. And its appearance – and existence – all the more remarkable because I haven’t watered the plant since last April, when it was planted.

An excerpt from the watering log of the Irrigation-Free Landscape in Oakland
An excerpt from the watering log of the Irrigation-Free Landscape in Oakland

In fact, none of the plants in the garden are connected to an irrigation system, one that would give them a pleasant but drought-capacity-killling jolt of water at regular intervals throughout the year, regardless of season. If the plant shows no signs of drought stress, it doesn’t get watered. And for the past year, like I did in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis in 2012 and 2013, I have been monitoring how much water every plant in the landscape has gotten by gallon and how much rainfall we have received by inch. It’s a merging of science and design, but the science part is there only if you are interested, as the landscapes are not meant to read as science experiments; rather, they are supposed to be expressions of joy first and foremost and places in which to find a detail that means something to you and that you can then marvel over – a wash of lavender flowers covered in bees and accompanied by that distinct scent most of us seem to respond well to, the combination of orange and purple that is revealing itself now as the Eschscholzia, Bulbine frutescens, and Lavandula ‘Goodwin Creek Grey’ come into bloom, a native plant you might have written off as weedy but now juxtaposed against a more familiar, more cultivated plant, and suddenly you see all the plants in a new light.

Château de Villandry with its Renaissance-era straight lines and demarcations that spoke volumes of both our aspired dominance over and anxiety surrounding nature
Château de Villandry with its Renaissance-era straight lines and demarcations that spoke volumes of both our aspired dominance over and anxiety surrounding nature

Of course, there was a time when even what we now perceive as pleasant, marvel-inspiring aspects of nature were themselves clear and present dangers for us. One apple tainted with a bacteria could kill you; a large predator roaming the nearby woods might be hungry at the same time that you wanted to explore those woods just a little; lovely salad greens and, later, an indomitable bout of dysentery. In fact the rigid lines of formal Renaissance gardens were in many ways a manifestation of that threat, presumably there to demonstrate power and control over nature but that were, below the surface, a manifestation of an unsaid anxiety and fear of what nature was really capable of.

And now that nature-induced anxiety has reared its ugly head once again, this time not as an invisible bacteria on an ages-old variety of apple but as an invisible virus that has a penchant for floating in the air we breathe and hanging out on the innumerable hard surfaces that have supposedly kept us well and protected, in charge of and separated from nature for a good part of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The mostly-mulch, some-plants aesthetic that has become synonymous with "low-maintenance"
The mostly-mulch/some-plants aesthetic that has become synonymous with ‘low-maintenance’

Before the time of Coronavirus, “no maintenance” or “low-maintenance” were oft-utttered requests of those wishing for a landscape upgrade or a new landscape altogether. While the explanation was that no one had time to garden anymore, “no time” is almost always synonymous with “not a priority,” and, indeed, landscape was simply not a priority for most Americans. At their core, these no-maintenance requests were borne out of a view that nature was something we did not need beyond its property-value-enhancing ways and something we were completely uninterested in. And this attitude squarely and succinctly revealed itself in the landscapes we created: seas of mulch with a few plants thrown in for a veneer of tidiness and green, a sleep-inducing combination of a demonstrated dominance over a nature and a decided disinterest in it.

The late Christopher Lloyd's Great Dixter in East Sussex, England
The late Christopher Lloyd’s deliciously complex Great Dixter Gardens in East Sussex, England. Lloyd said of the desire to have a ‘low-maintenance’ garden, ‘If you don’t want to garden, forget about the labor-saving and play golf.’

Fast forward to now and nursery sales are at an all-time high, and nurseries are scaling back on advertising to quietly dissuade folks from coming in to shop, as the crowds have been making social distancing simply impossible. Apartment dwellers with no access to a plot of land of their own are turning to house plants for the first time, and people’s long-neglected gardens have never looked better.

Recently planted Lavandula 'Goodwin Creek Grey' in front of Eriogonum nudum 'Ella Nelson's Yellow' and Pelargonium crispum
Recently planted Lavandula ‘Goodwin Creek Grey’ in front of Eriogonum nudum ‘Ella Nelson’s Yellow’, Pelargonium crispum, and Clarkia rubicundia blasdelei, all showing hints of the blooms to come, the mulch to become less and less apparent as the plants fill in and cover the ground

To be clear, I’m not here to make yet one more prediction to add to the pile of what our post-Coronavirus lives might look like. The predictions of our time, which now come at the pace of water unleashed from a dam and that we find ourselves standing at the foot of despite our better judgment, seem to be so inextricably intertwined with their potential capacity to generate clicks and shares and thus have little to do with any useful guidance on how to proceed through troubled times. Instead, I can only offer up a prediction on what will most likely happen in the not-so-distant future regarding the natural world around us, which we are, despite how much we’ve tried to deny it, so inextricably a part of: the lavender will bloom, and so will the buckwheat, the Pelargonium, and the Clarkia. The bees and butterflies will come to dine on their nectar and pollen, and we can be out there any time to watch, observe, and marvel. The plants will need minimal water to get established and will ultimately be able to survive and thrive on rainfall alone. Observing these displays of color, the in-migration of all manner of wildlife, and the awesome capacity of mediterranean plants to thrive on almost no water while being visual powerhouses in the garden, we’ll feel better because we’ve seen the natural world unfold and carry on right before our eyes regardless of the headlines. Anything other than that is probably just mere conjecture.

John Kamp is a landscape and urban designer with Prairieform who has been designing, installing, collecting data from, and observing irrigation-free landscapes for the past 10 years. He is currently co-writing a book with James Rojas for Island Press on creative, hands-on ways of engaging the public in urban planning, landscape, and transportation projects.

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


prairieform, project weeds, new work
Plants emerging through concrete. Photo courtesy of Ugly Angel.

Our newest landscape-installation project will be focusing on weeds and will seek to involve anyone and everyone in the project’s evolution and data-collection process. You may follow the progress of the project on Twitter via hashtag projectweeds. We are partnering up with two Swedes and one Minneapolitan on the project in order to create a robust multidisciplinary team. The team thus far consists of Björn Wallsten, Anna Maria Larson, Shannon Farrell, and, of course, us.

In other big and exciting news, we are moving to San Francisco and the Bay Area starting this May.

Drought sets in again, Irrigation-Free Landscape unfazed

irrigation-free landscape, prairieform, landscape design, water conservation, minneapolis, saint paul, los angeles, drought, Minnesota, solutions
The Irrigation-Free Landscape in early September 2013

We probably could’ve called it, but we are settling once again into a late-summer drought. This is an all-too-familiar pattern we have obsverved for the past several years in the Twin Cities area, and it is in part why we created the Irrigation-Free Landscape in the first place. We wanted to create something that could grow and thrive in spite of the droughts that now seem to arrive like clockwork every summer. And, well, one year and three months in the ground and the Irrigation-Free Landscape is going strong and looks completely unfazed (see photo above for the proof that is in the pudding) by the latest drought. Aside from the five replacement plants we had to plant in early summer (only five casualties out of 203 total plants in the landscape, actually, which is a very low mortality rate for even a conventional landscape), none of the other plants have received supplemental water. So this means over a year of no watering. Meanwhile the local paper ran an article this morning on how you need to water your entire landscape and lawn with an average of an inch of water a week during these dry spells. For a conventional landscape of an equivalent size as the Irrigation-Free Landscape (658 square feet) you are thus looking at 410 gallons of water a week, or 1640 gallons a month. In contrast, and in our case, we have simply removed the need to water from the equation. No time and money spent watering, no added pressures on overtapped water supplies, but still a beautiful landscape. Pardon our French, but this is such a no-brainer.

Okay, over and out and ’til next time.

To self-sow, or not to self-sow, this is the question

prairieform, self-sowing plants, prairies, landscapes, landscape design, minneapolis, Los Angeles, irrigation-free, xeriscape, drought-tolerant
Some plants that have self-sown profusely in the Irrigation-Free Landscape

We have always been drawn to the element of evolution in the landscape – how a landscape grows and evolves across the seasons, and over the years. It is what separates a landscape from a painting or another creative work whose ultimate form is intended to remain static over time. To these ends, we have increasingly sought out self-sowing plants that can be interspersed within a structure of more so-called placeholder plants (i.e. clump-forming grasses, perennials, and shrubs), so as to infuse a wildcard element into the landscape, which is then subject to the everchanging whims of nature. This all being said, is there a limit to how many self-sowing plants we should include in a landscape? It is a question that has been on our minds all summer, as we have observed many a plant in the Irrigation-Free Landscape self-sow with aplomb, to the point where even we’ve been surprised by their botanical fertility and vigor (this includes both native plants of the prairie and plants from other regions of the world).

The biggest problem that arises when plants self-sow so profusely is the difficulty in knowing which seedlings are weeds and which aren’t. A serious maintenance issue then rears its ugly head when the wrong seedlings are pulled or weeds are left to grow and take over the landscape due to lack of familiarity with the good vs. the bad. While we as landscape designers can most often easily tell the good from the bad, the task is more complicated for those who are less familiar with plants and who don’t stare at and ponder them for a living. Additionally, in a year such as this one, when spring was late, and early and mid-summer were very wet and relatively mild, you will find yourself with so many seedlings the landscape may start to look more like a weeding nightmare than a source of joy.

How then do you infuse that wildcard element into the landscape without letting it become a maintenance nightmare? The first strategy is to minimize the optimal growing conditions for self-sowing plants, or at least reduce their optimal growing conditions in quantity or quality. In our case, many of the drought-tolerant plants we use prefer extremely well-draining soil, including preferring virtually pure gravel. As such, one could reduce the total amount of area that contains this soil type and confine it only to areas where plants like lavender (which need perfectly drained, crummy soil to thrive) will go. The other strategy is to pick a bare minimum of a few self-sowing plants, and choose those whose seedlings are easily discernible from the ever-bothersome weeds that will always self-sow regardless of soil type (re: dandelions, crab grass, etc.). So, for example, Rudbeckia hirta seedlings are grey, rounded, fuzzy, and easy to identify, whereas Carex bicknelli can be hard to distinguish from turf grass if just given a glance-over. A combination of these two strategies could potentially yield promising results and the balance between rigidity and free-form evolution that we are looking for.

We will be infusing this new strategy into our latest landscapes and then shall report back with further observations.

John Kamp