Rethinking water savings in landscape design

For no other reason than to make a point, I plan to submit this recently completed front yard landscape redo in a xeriscape design contest. I'm certain the distinguished panel of judges will take a quick glance at the pictures and conclude that I obviously don't know what xeriscaping is. The entry paperwork will be tossed, er, recycled- I will get a polite note of thanks for participating in the contest, and the winner will receive acolades and praise for ripping off a High Country Garden drought tolerant design.

Or maybe I'll win because they'll have read my blog.

This handsome North End Bungalo likely started life with an equally attractive landscape. And like the Arts and Crafts style of the home, the landscape probably had a slight Asian feel. Sometime in the last 100 years somebody decided to install turf instead.

My clients moved into the home in 2009 and after I reworked the back yard, they asked if I could also help with the front. I tore out the sidewalk and the turf and replaced it with a planting scheme that by all accounts looks thirstier than the old lawn but
actually offers a water savings of eighty percent.

Check out this great book on period Bungalow gardens:

Outside the Bungalow America's Arts & Crafts Garden

Politically Correct Plant Selection

A few years back a landscaper friend of mine sold his diesel work truck and bought a Prius. Even though the truck was more practical for his day to day work routine and actually got decent mileage, he'd been castigated by friends and clients for driving the "Beast" and felt the new hybrid would put a better polish on the image he was projecting. Coming back recently from three months of vacation, by all accounts his strategy seems to have worked.

Despite all the recently publicized problems Toyota has had recently, I like hybrids and the push to create more fuel efficient cars. During a period of the 70's that was dominated by enormous V8's, I was practically raised in the back of VW's that got triple their gas mileage. Kudos to my parents and to anyone today who wishes to conserve. What bothers me is the largely symbolic gestures businesses often make to ingratiate themselves to their customers.

I've done it myself, struggling with the symbolism of plant selection.

Here's the deal: Invasive species can have devastating effects on ecology and many invasive species were actually introduced for one reason or another. In the last twenty years I've seen the green industry become more careful in the growth and selection of plant material. Locally, for example, that means fewer Russian Olives (Elaeagnus angustifolia) are being planted. This a good thing given how the now ubiquitous invader has out-competed native species in riparian areas. But I see an unintended consequence to this elevated sense of concern: tough, drought tolerant plants are getting a bad rap in Boise because in much milder areas (e.g. San Jose, Ca) they tend to jump the fence. The truth is I've stopped using some plants in my installations not because I believe there is any danger in planting these blacklisted plants in Boise, but rather out of concern for the image I'm projecting.

I'm coming to grips with the inherent silliness of that reasoning. I finished a small commercial installation this week using, among other ornamental grasses, drifts of Nasella tenuissima. Mexican Feather Grass, as it's known by it's common name, is a wispy, somewhat ethereal grass that's the plant equivalent of mood music. It also happens to be a grass that some have called on to be banned because of its potential to become invasive. An attentive gardener employee at the location brought this to the attention of the owner and sent him a link to an online Sunset Magazine article about N. tenuissima (go here to read it). The author, Sharon Cahoon, does a great job presenting the debate, concluding that the matter of invasive potential needs to be determined regionally.

Honestly, I would be reluctant to plant N. tenuissima anywhere that receives more than 16 to 20 inches of annual rainfall but in our arid, high desert I think it's a fantastic alternative to many of the thirsty plants designers seem to use over and over (hey, I'm gonna start my own blacklist). While it's true it will self seed a little within a garden, in 20 years of digging in Boise's dirt I've never seen it wander into a neighbor's bed or naturalize into a non-irrigated area. I've heard the same debate about other plants like Euphorbia myrsinites, another tough, evergreen perennial. While I believe there should be a careful vetting process for any new introduction, designers should also be careful not to eliminate tough, drought tolerant plants from their design palette simply to appear, err, correct.

Monsanto kindly asks that you rake the forest.

Everybody has days when they realize their job is a pointless absurdity. Mine came the other day when I was raking the forest. Don't get me wrong- any kind of February work for a landscaper is a good thing, but I'm used to thinking that what I do is important. I regard landscaping as a nexus of Art and Science and often imagine myself poised heroically with a shovel in a Diego Rivera mural.

Daydreaming helps pass hours of endless raking.

On this day however, I was preoccupied with the silliness of what I was doing. A friend and long term client had taken pity on me and asked if I could squeeze in some late winter work into my busy schedule (har, har). A couple hours later I was on a little island near the Boise river raking up leaves and debris that had already begun to turn into wonderful compost over the winter. The adjacent homeowners had already cleaned their little sections of the island which just seemed to make my client's area just look, well untidy.

Cutting into this self sustaining natural system does have it's business advantages though. As an add on to my expert raking services, we also provide fertilization (which I will be sure to suggest for this little piece of Poplar and red twig dogwood riparian forest). I don't feel especially bad about it as we use organically derived, low nitrogen fertilizer but it does make think that there are probably better ways to manage our landscapes.

I'm currently working on a large community common area landscape redesign which I plan to write more about in the future. An important component of this design will be on site composting of all non-woody organic debris derived from the common area landscape. The idea is simple. Instead of hauling off the biomass, we can reduce it by a factor of ten or more through accelerated composting and reintroduce it to the beds as a nutrient rich soil conditioner. In my own landscape beds at home this has precluded the need for supplemental fertilization. This is a terrific way of emulating natural systems in an effort to create sustainable landscape maintenance .

I got the idea from raking the forest.

Juniper timber

My mother is convinced that nuclear testing in the 50's is responsible for a whole host of physical ailments amongst her generation. I often wonder if the 70's analogue would be the salad greens I ate as a kid that had been grown in creosote soaked railroad tie raised beds. Today we've got "pressure treated" lumber that's been treated with Chromated copper arsenic (CCA). Yuck.

Since untreated wood doesn't last long in direct contact with soil and treated wood poses likely health risks (especially in edible landscapes), I've stuck with using stone whenever there's a chance of decay. I was recently given the task of finding a replacement material to use in rebuilding old railroad tie steps in a neighborhood common area and was forced to reevaluate my assumptions about using wood in the landscape. Replacing a hundred or more steps with stone or a concrete product just wasn't financially feasible so I reluctantly began to look again at the lumber option.

At the lumber yard I glared at the mismatched, half rotten railroad ties and the green day glow pressure treated timber determined to find a better product. Back home on the computer I stumbled across a website praising the merits of juniper timber- an article that describes juniper fence posts still standing from the 20's. A little more research confirmed that juniper has remarkable anti-decay characteristics which makes the use of chemical preservatives unnecessary. I also learned that junipers are considered a "deleterious invasive native that threatens other ecosystems", and that the means of controlling juniper has historically been to use fire as there have been no commercial applications for the wood.

This has changed in recent years as mills are beginning to process the once unwanted trees into usable, dimensionable lumber. My Frank Capra moment came when I found REACH, a non-profit organization that runs a juniper mill in Klamath Falls. Their mission is to provide people with disabilities employment by manufacturing environmentally safe products for landscaping and agriculture. I'm nominating their juniper timbers as the feel-good product of the year.

I ripped out over a hundred railroad ties in various states of decay in the common area footpath and went on to rebuild several flights of stairs with the juniper timber. I'm pleased with the results and thinking about all the potential hardscape applications. As an added benefit, after cutting juniper all day I get to come home smelling half decent for a change.

Native plants?

In the group of abused landscape terms, Native plants should file a restraining order against most of us in the green industry. In the parlance of our greenspeak, we stretch and deform the phrase like silly putty to make a point or to fit the sensibilities of our audience. It's particularly amusing to watch two green industry professionals use the term as a kind of litmus test, dodging and parrying like two strangers at a party discussing philosophy or religion. And just as terms such as "spirituality" and "solipsism" have largely been bleached of any specific meaning, the phrase Native plants has been assigned its own identity crisis.

I make this observation without any antipathy for the use of native plants in the landscape. In fact, using native plants is a fantastic way to reduce water, fertilizer and pesticide inputs. Plants that grow naturally in a geographic area are adapted to the ambient rainfall, soil type and zonal nuances of a specific region and generally don't need the life support system that makes up such a large percentage of our billable work in the green industry. But what is the criteria for defining a plant as being native? Is it a plant that once happily grew where your house now sits before all the top soil was scraped off and sold? A plant that's native to North America? Or is it a one gallon something or another at the grocery store that's marketed with a crossed out water drop and has a link to the Audubon society?

In the early 90's I worked as a wildland firefighter, initially on a hand crew and later as a first response helitack repeller in central Idaho. In the tiny window between the cooling ash of summer's fires and autumn's early mountain snowfall, we were given the job of preventing erosion in the recently burned areas. Massive sediment delivery into riparian areas can be devastating for fish habitat so our job was to cut down the burnt remains of trees and install them horizontally on the steep mountain slopes in an effort to temporarily mitigate erosion.

The longer term solution, re vegetation in these fire affected areas, is remarkably sophisticated and serves as an example of a particularly strict version of what Native plants means. Restoring an area to pre-fire condition means replanting with varieties that are as genetically as close as possible to the original plants. Calling a nursery in California and having two thousand one gallon Pinus contorta delivered to central Idaho is like wiping out all the Smiths in southwest Boise and replacing them with half the Smiths in South Bend, Indiana. There may be some distant relationship, but the unique qualities that defined the Smiths in Boise can't be replicated by the new comers. Broad genetic variation within a species is the first line of defense against extinction. Government agencies and private firms carefully collect seeds and propagate plants in an effort to maintain the unique genetic qualities of local, native plants.

Writing this, I'm looking out at our backyard and witnessing the beautiful collapse of the season. The gorgeous display of fall color from our very non-native trees peaked about a week and a half ago and I see the landscape slipping back into the monochromatic gray that defines our winter in southern Idaho. I try to imagine what our acre looked like before wagons began clunking down the Oregon trail a few miles away from our home. It's an image that's not too difficult to conjure as a short trip south will take you into an endless repeating motif of sage, bitterbrush and rabbitbrush. I'm not immune to the stark beauty of the high plains desert, but this natural landscape has a face that only a Minimalist, an ecologist or a chukar hunter can completely love. In all fairness, we're told this area was also covered in large clumping grasses before overgrazing, yet taken as a whole, I'm pretty sure that I don't want to return my backyard into jack rabbit habitat.

The truth is, in Boise our options are pretty limited if we try to adhere to a strict definition of what constitutes a native plant. Even the tough-as-nails Celtis occidentalis, one of Boise's few true native trees, can only be found in limited areas naturally where, in a convergence of botany and geology, large sandstone or granite boulders collect and concentrate water for the trees. We just have to face it: if the Amazon basin represents one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, we sit somewhere on the other side of the spectrum.

The arborist/science major side of me likes the idea of returning a piece of land back to its former condition, but the artist side stubbornly refuses to have his design options so cruelly curtailed. As is usually the case though, I think the answer lies outside of the argument. While two plant geeks might endlessly debate the relative merits of Chrysothamnus nauseosus (incidentally the most accurate scientific name for a plant) versus Ceanothus velutinus, the truth is that the true culprit in most landscape installation is turf grass. Planting most anything else will generally result in water savings and a decrease in the overall need for chemical input. I was once chided by a Horticulturalist friend for having a clump of bamboo (Phyllostachys mannii) next to our house in the front yard. I was compelled to point out that this particular clump of bamboo, known for its drought and cold hardiness, was surviving on very little supplemental irrigation; a point I couldn't make about the 1000 square foot swath of turf in front of the house.

In my own designs I tend to use a hybrid approach, using true local native plants intermingled with non-native, non-invasive & drought tolerant varieties. While there will always be a place for restoring original, native habit- driving through an average neighborhood I'm struck by just how much basic work still needs to be done to improve most landscape designs (enter token "sustainability" Meta tag here) . I've watched landscapers install turf against concrete on a south facing aspect and blame billbugs on the visible heat stress (and then charge the client for the chemical "solution"). The discussion of what constitutes a Native plant is largely academic in nature compared to the many obvious steps we can take to make today's landscapes less dependent on a constant life support system of fluid and chemicals.