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.

Project #ButterflyRedux

Some of the plants that will form the backbone of the Prairieform #ButterflyRedux landscape
Some of the plants that will be forming the backbone of the #ButterflyRedux landscape

In the realm of authentically exciting news, we’ve begun work on our newest landscape project, dubbed the #ButterflyRedux and which involves retooling and reworking what has amounted to a well-intentioned but hot-mess-looking butterfly garden. Of course, never ones to just plant something pretty and call it a day, the #ButterflyRedux project is a thoroughly two-layered endeavor:

Layer 1: Explore how self-sowing native plants and more tried-but-true garden stalwarts and cultivars can be combined within one – ideally harmonious – landscape.

Layer 2: Serve as a US- and Minnesota-based research site as part of English writer and plantsman Noel Kingsbury’s ongoing and extremely important work on how such landscapes of self-sowing plants and what I will call “stay-in-place” cultivars evolve over time.

Over the next week, we will be retooling the existing landscape and giving it some good bones (see some of those bones in the photo above), and then we will be laying a grid atop the finished product to then document the species and location of every plant within the space. This grid we will then be laying over the landscape every spring to see how the composition of the landscape evolves over time. Kingsbury’s (and by extension our) intention is to really explore and observe how horticulture and ecology intermingle in such a landscape, and then to generate a set of data and observations on how dense plantings can reach a sort of natural equilibrium that maximizes visual heft and impact, creates a carbon-capturing ground cover, and minimizes maintenance.

Notes from the planning stages of the Prairieform #ButterflyRedux Project
Notes from the planning stages of the #ButterflyRedux Project

Pertaining to Layer 1: Heretofore, many a wildlife garden has been treated as seeming sacrifice for a cause: who cares if it looks weedy, as it’s doing so much good for the world? Additionally, mixing cultivars into a native-plant landscape has been seen as somehow “weakening” the value of the space. We are thoroughly of the opinion that wildlife appeal and aesthetics shouldn’t and don’t need to be mutually exclusive but that achieving this two-pronged landscape requires mixing cultivars with native plants. As such, we will be exploring what techniques can be employed with varying shapes, colors, textures, and forms to create a landscape that can read as an intentional garden space on the one hand, and as an actual attractor of wildlife on the other. Our ultimate aim of this endeavor is to generate a series of key principles and how-tos for creating a new kind of wildlife-friendly garden that is rooted as much in human psychology and how we perceive landscapes and space and their intentionality and beauty as it is in attracting the beneficial insects and critters that we are increasingly realizing are integral to the overall health of our world.

You may read further blog posts/updates on the project HERE and/or follow the work on Instagram.

Noel Kingsbury’s blog site can be found HERE.

John Kamp

Rethinking the American front yard: a workshop

Photo of Levittown, with front yards
It is high time we rethought the front yard space

If you are interested in both the history and evolution of the American front yard and rethinking how we design and use this historically purely aesthetic space, please join us for an interactive and collaborative workshop on April 20 @ 1:00 p.m. at the machinaloci space in South Berkeley. Co-led by James Rojas of Place It!, Trena Noval and Ann Wettrich of Fieldworks Collaborative, and Carol Mancke of machinaloci.

To RSVP, click here.

First landscape of 2019

Photo of Prairieform's work on its first landscape of 2019, for a front yard in Glendale, CA
Working on our first landscape of 2019, for a front yard in Glendale, CA

We are excited to announce our first new landscape of 2019, in Glendale, CA. It will be a front-yard lawn-to-landscape conversion involving drought-tolerant deliciousness, eye candy in spades, and habitat for a whole host of fantastic winged and four-legged friends (and humans too). While the landscape will have an irrigation system, we will be reducing the amount of water used over time, so that ultimately much of the landscape can thrive on its own, whatever may come its way. Stay tuned for more updates.

John Kamp

Long-term learning from a landscape

What is so fascinating about this documentary on Southern California’s Descanso Gardens is that it really traces the evolution of our understanding as a culture of nature, ecology, and gardening. And this evolution can be seen through what the Gardens have prioritized and modified over the years – such as moving water-loving camelias (the early cornerstone of the Gardens) away from the live oaks (which hate summer water), and an increasing focus on water conservation and habitat landscaping. The documentary even weaves in the ugly history of Japanese internment, its connection to the Gardens, and how that story, once buried, is now told very openly.