Sunday, January 14, 2024

Plants so good it makes ya angry


This is a competition.

Plants will be judged for ten years on three traits:
-Sex appeal 
(to everyday people 
and not botanists or nerds like me.)

This means these three winning plants will be ideal for 
No-water Landscapes; 
places where they can't hide in an ugly season. 

1. Gaillardia 'Amber Wheels'

The problem with allllll the other gaillardia is that they are barely perennial, living 1-4 years at best, but often just a couple. This one, selected from the wild in Colorado by DBG's Larry Vickerman, is FULLY PERENNIAL, and what's more: rhizomatous. Yes, folks, it can spread. Not wildly; nice and slow. It's available online from a few mailorders. Why isn't it in your local nursery?  Because you need to tell them about it and buy more of it. I'm so sick of not being able to buy it easily that I'm growing my own. 

- - - - - 

2. Amsonia jonesii , Desert Bluestar.

A once-bloomer for a few weeks in spring, but he's blue, which is not common in available xeric plants. He varies- the above plant is pale; and white happens. What he really scored for is being indefatigable, wiltless, nice dark green leaf all summer, which is much needed when it's 100F (38C) outside. The other high score is longevity; I was pretty impressed seeing plants in friends' Denver Gardens that are exactly as old as I am until I found a massive wild plant last summer that is about a century old.
He is in PlantSelect but I never see him in any nursery except Chelsea's. That's messed up. We need to pester High Country Gardens and get the word out. It's slow from seed, so the few nurseries that do it usually go with cuttings. Here he is growing in nature in this weird red crap that even the cactus don't seem to like:

- - - - - 

3. Melampodium leucanthum. Blackfoot Daisy.

So, real talk here. I wondered if folks would give it a new common name in the way Sorghastrum isn't "indian grass" anymore- but I was making an assumption. This guy's name is because the seeds look like little black horse's feet. Checks out. Small lots of seed is also available online. 

He scores middleville for longevity, but my rubric is merciless. He gets points back because he reseeds gently, and then he takes his win because he reblooms and reblooms, stays short and unthreatening, and does it all without irrigation.  But this jerk has a problem- he's not commonly available. Time to knock on some doors.

He's short-  there he is at the heels of... anything else. 

Just look at him shamelessly dancing around this unwatered front yard off Littlepark Rd in Grand Junction. When I planted him in 2016 I put a dripper on him because he comes from the front range. Well that drip wasn't ever turned on and he reminded me that he is also from the desert, baby, and he gracefully replaced anything that died out over the last seven years.

- - - - - 
Honorable Mentions go to:

Prarie Zinnia,  because she's got marketing and recognition before and heavens know I've sung her praises for too long. 

Santa Fe Plox was very close in the running because it reblooms, it's not available enough, and seems to live a very long time. He gets a little crispy without water on the hotter side of the rockies, but he never dies. Note: this plant wasn't voted down because Kenton doesn't generally like pink. This one is definitely garish enough to appeal to him.
Please support Nurseries with the balls to sell good plants which perform in the landscape and feed insects and other great things but don't look snappy in retail containers, which is the driving force behind all the crap sold as "perennials" at big box stores. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for... spring.

Friday, November 17, 2023

Ten years of landscaping and gardening without irrigation: Another book in the works

 Back in 2013 I started working for myself, and started hiring employees, with a nearly religious mission to make landscapes that use natives and need no water. ...And that get better with age and do ecologically good things, et cetera. Over the years, my landscaper era waxed and waned as I felt drawn to address crevice gardens and work away from my semi desert valley. But the mission remained.

(circa 2015, those were honest times...)

More recently, Especially during Covid, I found myself working increasingly as a "coach" for homeowners who were DIY xeriscaping their homes because of a shortage of available landscapers.  There have always been hands-on people who prefer to do their own work, and those with budgets. It is deeply gratifying to equip folks with the knowledge they need to take charge of their yards and make things that make them happy. 

After years of this, I of course find myself answering many of the same questions for people dealing with the same issues. I'd like to think I've gotten better with a decade now of practice in helping folks decide what they're going to do with a patch of earth. With a full ten-year scope, I've also reflected on the vast difference of then and now.

When I started I had little experience and native landscapes were a hard sell, a very hard sell, and I underbid in desperation for work.  I ate a lot of beans and rice. Luckily I had a few great mentors like Bob, and his integral book back then.  Now, I have to turn down work and I can barely keep up with the demand for it and am ever re-balancing what sector needs help the most to spread myself out most effectively. 

Another thing that has changed is that I'm not alone. 

Early on, and I think still to this day, the finest book on no-water gardening is French. FRENCH! Olivier Filippi's books still have not been surpassed, and isn't that embarrassing in some way to us proud Americans? But in recent years I've found friends like Jo Wakelin in New Zealand (her garden above) and John Murgel of CSU's Douglas County Extension Office.  He gave a mic-dropping talk to WildOnes a while ago that isn't available, but this parallel one is still up. Treat yourself to it- a real foundation of ground-breaking principles- over lunch. 

It feels like things are coming to a head. 

Emboldened with the experience of writing The Crevice Garden, I'm writing one on Irrigation-free landscaping and gardening. With the momentum of an even longer experience than my crevice work, and aiming to address the biggest issues dry gardeners face, with the working title of:

"No Water, More Flowers: Gardening and Landscaping with little to no irrigation."

I think there are isn't an elephant in the room about dry gardening, but a whole herd of them: What can you really expect without irrigation? When is it just inappropriate not to water?  Isn't that religiously dogmatic? How the heck can you possibly get what you need when you deprive yourself of such a tool? Where does this fit into ecologcal gardening? Aren't we just gonna desalinate the oceans and solve water shortages? What about fire? What plants can actually go without? Why do all these alleged xeric plants suck so bad at staying alive in drought when they were sold as "drought tolerant?" (I'm looking at you, Redbirds in a tree, Agastache, and Kniphofia!) 

Well, I don't think I will be the last word on it but I want to start a conversation. Now I'm going to put my slippers on and turn into my writing den; see you next year...

Friday, March 17, 2023

a little TV coverage of crevice gardening in New Zealand


When in New Zealand in February, it was lovely to see how the Christchurch Botanic's crevice garden was growing in. We made a day of it- a workshop and even Mr. Spurdle from local TV- Star News- showed up. He may have made the most succinct and understandable wee blurb on crevice gardens I've ever seen. 
It's also just really pleasant bathing in that kiwi accent:

Watch the segment here.

A whole family of California Quail totter over the garden: daddy stands watch on top, upper right.

Monday, January 2, 2023

Bruised Musings: A Prototype Passive Solar hoop-frame greenhouse.

There is no better way to ensure you finish designing a new basket than to put all of your eggs in one.

This winter I have been building a 1000 square-foot (100m2) greenhouse to produce hardy native and rock plants and replace my backyard hoop nursery. I was unable to find anyone who has already tried to make a passive solar (self-heating and cooling) greenhouse but using traditional materials that nursery people are familiar with.  (Most passive solar greenhouses are serious things, framed in wood like a house or shed whereas most production greenhouses are metal frames wrapped in plastic film. 

I aimed to create a hybrid: something economical enough for a business- like my own- to reasonably use. This means lighter materials. (versus concrete floors, glass roofs, et al, of a long-term and serious greenhouse). There are also no utilities on site, so being off-grid is not solely to prove a point.

The dark truth and problem with greenhouses is twofold: They consume prodigious amounts of energy to heat and cool  (usually propane of natural gas). In America, the average greenhouse costs four times that of a house to heat/cool. Secondly, a traditional greenhouse is a needy, fussy, fragile bastard teetering on disaster all the time. A brief over/under-heating, usually from a power outage or vent catching or door left open, can result in damage or loss to everything in there. This shit kept me awake at night when I worked in commercial greenhouses. 

So the drive to create something better is both environmental and mental.

So we built it from scratch in the old-school way that the last generation of Colorado nursery-people did: bending fence rail into hoop ribs and building the ends by hand. A hoop-house on steroids kind of deal. It is inside of such things that my mentors have produced all of the cacti, native plants, and trees… where I worked for years and where for years later I have purchased the plants for my gardens.  These humble greenhouses are the workhorses behind all the things we love. 

Anyhow, I found myself inventing a wheel- a prototype and F.O.K: First of a kind. I have not finished and I don’t have the answers. Yet. But I want to share some main lessons so far.


For economy and sanity, it’s not dug in. It’s powered only by water. IBC totes. I hadn’t seen anyone use those before so I’d like to take credit for that idea if nothing else and the rest of this folly ends in tears. 20 of them gives me 5500 gallons (21,000L) of water as a north wall, well above (50%) the average used in passives. (per square foot of growing space). 


I was going to make a straw-bale wall as the north side’s insulation but that grew more painfully more complex than useful. Instead, there are 2”-thick rigid styrofoam boards (salvaged) which would have cost $600 new, half that of using straw. Next winter I want to try hanging infrared reflective foil behind the water totes and measure the efficacy. 

One of the most heartening surprises has been how well the size, proportion, and two layers of film are working, getting me off the hook for further insulation. Usually, insulating the ground around the perimeter of a passive greenhouse is important, but the proportions of this one seem to be mitigating that. This is a huge win towards my goal of creating something that is not a complex pain for other growers to do.

The floor is simply black (heat absorbing) groundcloth on top of compacted gravel fines. Wherever possible, I’ve used salvaged, used, or free materials. While it’s an experiment, it needs to pay itself off some day.


For sanity the outside skin is one whole piece, as it will have to be replaced every 4-8 (or 10) years. The proportions are about 50x25, (15x7m) so the ends are theoretically big enough to vent it without side or peak vents. There is no electricity, so no extractor fan per se, but I will try solar-powered circulation fans which can be directed toward aiding the convection cooling. 

The Biggest pain in the Ass and one tentative regret

Two film layers. Traditionally these are laid together and a fan inflates them apart, operating perpetually for the whole life of the greenhouse, creating that critical insulating and structural airspace. Without electricity on site and a learned shyness to risk so much on electronics, I avoided that and had to build an interior wooden intra-structure to hang my second layer. It’s been a pretty flexible, easily adaptable system but a hell of a job to do: lots of hours and lots of exercise climbing ladders with a drill. I think if I were to do it over, it may have actually been easier to engineer a solar-charged battery-powered blower fan, rather than engineer the whole greenhouse.

The Regret?

At the moment, I feel that if I were to do it over, I’d use a kit greenhouse (without the heaters and motors) and retrofit one for ease of framing. But I’d shop around hard to see what brand or design would be sanest to retrofit. After all, more and more growers are not building their own from scratch but using modal kits. So far, materials have cost exactly what a kit greenhouse would cost of that size. ($6700) I’m taking that as a win. Hell, it’s bigger than our house. 


Most of the greenhouse sheds it fine, but there is one hoop whose curve isn’t right, and it accumulated a heavy snow in part also to an interior purlin acting as a dam. I’ve moved that purlin to solve my problem, but to any future builder I’d recommend going gothic shaped for any film structure wider than say 10’ (3m). 

-Ventilation is yet to be seen. I’m building these now, and their proving time is spring and summer. Stay tuned. 

-Cooling will be a multi-part thing. Wax-opener powered and convective Passive vents, shadecloth (on the outside of the greenhouse- this is critical) over the growing area, a shadow over the water wall, and we’ll see what evaporative cooling happens from plants and floors. 

Good news so far:

All the water and two layers of plastic are doing the trick. Outside temps around 5F (-15) made it freeze inside the unfinished greenhouse, sending a tomato plant, a “canary crop”, to its maker. Even when unfinished and before I sealed air leaks, the greenhouse’s coldest was 22F (-6C), which to its credit is 20F (10C) warmer than a 2F(-16C) outdoor temperature, and no sun for days. It’s sealed up snugly now.

I wonder if it would have frozen had it been fully glazed. The water tanks have never frozen, lingering in the 40-50 (4-10C) range so far. A tray of cilantro is growing like a chia pet even through the solstice. Hardy woodies and semi hardy agaves are all sleeping like beauties so far. The greenhouse refuses to go below 35F(1C) which is pretty ideal for sleeping hardy plants. Without ventilation it peaks at 75/80F (24/27C) on a very sunny 45F (7C) winter day.  

Cherries on top:

The greenhouse project became a village affair to finish in time for snow and deep cold; I had some back trouble that required friends to help out a day or two now and again, which led to having a thank-you solstice party with the aid of my friend Marla, which in turn led to a sort of a decorative Altar/shrine (after all, it is a plant-church!).

The greenhouse’s landlord insisted we re-use an old woodstove which had been sitting around gathering snow. While, for reasons of physics, a woodstove cannot actually heat a greenhouse in earnest, it will be useful to warm a corner of the greenhouse next to the potting bench on winter mornings (which might otherwise be 40F(4C) in there) to something comfortable for me to work sowing seeds and potting plants. It’s also just really nice. 

{Well, I say it’s no way to heat a greenhouse, but what organically came up in conversation and now sits in my mind like an inevitable, potent, explosive seed, is the concept of running a passive water radiator coil from the stove  and through the water tanks, which could hold the BTUs of heat from a single stove firing for weeks... Yet another passive system with high payoff that may be too fun not to try, even though the greenhouse will probably not need additional heat… stay tuned for that madness next winter}

I want to end with thanks: To my endlessly supportive greenhouse landlord. My ex-coworker did lots of tedious prep work on materials throughout her year working for me. I’ve also received generous advice on many occasions from folks including Kelly Grummons, Mikl Brawner, Jeff O, Dare Bohlander, Shane Smith, my neighbor orchid-Steve, John Stireman, the three musketeers of Minneapolis (you know who you are) and especially Tony Urschitz. My bible has been a gift from my other neighbor Steve: the cookbook for making passive greenhouses, Lindsey Schiller’s “The year-round Solar Greenhouse” Thanks to that second Steve, as well as Iain, Trina, JC, Hannah, Eric, and my endlessly patient partner Tori for lending a hand when I really needed it. I owe you all plants now. 

Friday, December 30, 2022

A Gallery of beautiful things

Unwatered trial garden in Fruita. 
Gomphrena surprising everyone.

Four-month-old seeded habitat meadow

Patridge pea, Chamaecrista fasciculata, is new to me- a native annual. 
You should see the flowers.

Nature still looks amazing even when it is wrecked land mostly clothed in invasives.

A newly Built crevice in Grand Junction, 
Mesa Verde Formation Sandstone.

crevice reno in vail

The silver leaves are Zauschneria/Epilobium 'Calistoga' which wove well between clumps and tussocks.

A designed meadow- from plants and not seed, 
with the best instal I've ever done of Dogtuff grass; this is just four months old.

Lectures 2023

Next year I continue to spread the gospel of crevice gardening, often tailored to different climates. 

But also, a pleasant change, I get to talk about no-water gardens/landscapes to wider audiences as well as meadow gardens.  I feel like I've done more dry landscaping work in my life than even crevices, and that I'm still as student of meadows, so its should prove to be just as educational to me .

2023 so far:

Manhattan Chapter NARGS (Zoom) Jan 16: Crevice gardens but mostly plants for them.

Utah Green Industry Conference (Salt Lake City) Jan23: Back to back crevice and no-water talks.

Christchurch Botanic, New Zealand,  Jan 27, afternoon crevice workshop in the Rock Garden with Grant.

Landscaping with Colorado Native Plants Conference (zoom) Feb 25 Real Unwatered Landscapes

High Plains Landscape Workshop (Fort Collins, CO) March 4 Home Meadow Gardens

Durango Botanic's Gardening with Climate Change Seminar: Mar 9, 11 or 16 tbd, How to make a Future-proof Crevice garden

Spring Fever Symposium, Iowa Arboretum, Des Moines, IA April 15 2 talks: Crevice gardening for the midwest and favorite plants

Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society, Tucson, AZ Nov 2: Desert+Cactus Crevice Gardening 

Buddies: Isaiah, Jacob, and John during conferences last year.

Monday, August 22, 2022

Plants for the Unwatered Crevice

 Several friends' inquiries made me realize this was needed. So here it is. 

These are species I have grown without irrigation, in crevice. I am sure there are more. There are a few things that seem to require being in either/both crevice and unirrigated. 

Know that a "rock garden plant" is subjective, and usually comes down to size and habit being appropriate with your rocks. Plenty of these are too large for a small crevice garden with small rocks and are noted as such. As with any unirrigated garden, performance and show will vary with rain and weather year to year... just like nature. 

Keep in mind that different parts of a crevice garden receive/repel more or less runoff, so plants specific to those are noted. Soil type effects things, too. Generally silt and clay hold more water longer. Also know that all plants will need supplemental (at least weekly) irrigation the first season to get established. 

Also know that Bob Nold’s ‘High and Dry” is basically an encyclopedia of plants that can grow without irrigation in Denver (and this classic book has a rock garden plant chapter). We are a little more limited over here in the hotter/drier Grand Valley.

So here it is. I'm listing possible sources after some and at the end listing several plant sources.

Plants for the unirrigated crevice garden in Colorado. 

(below 6000’asl, like Grand Junction and Denver)

Flower power

Castilleja integra, sessiliflora. C. miniata in shade/wetter.  (seed mailorder, or DBG sales)

Physaria ovatifolia, fendleri, arizonica, and most others but alpina. (Harlequin, Alplains, Nargs)

Phlox nana (not a tiny plant, it creeps.) (High country, etc)

Phlox hoodii (tiny) (rare)

Scutellaria resinosa (in a wetter spot, Denver not GJ, not tiny) (wholesaled by bluebird)

Melampodium leucanthum (not tiny) Plants of the SW, etc.

Zinnia grandiflora (spreads a lot, large gardens only- it will eat your small CG for snack) Plant Select.

Arenaria desertorum hookeri (seems to like afternoon shade) (Nargs, Waterwise, Chelsea)

Astragalus utahensis (short lived with organics in soil) NARGS seed

Astragalus spp, so many other western ones. Nargs, Alplains

Heuchera pulchella, abrahmsii, rubescens, even ‘Firefly’ (in deep shade and or with good runoff)

Ephedra minima/monosperma/regeliana in Denver, not GJ. Spreads by rhizome! (Chelsea, etc)

Liatris punctata- maybe too large for small gardens. Plants of the SW, seed, etc.

Phemeranthes (Talinum) brevifolium, parviflorum, calycinum, sediforme  (capricious, sometimes brief.)

Lewisia nevadense (Nargs, etc)

Oenothera caespitosa (up to 1-2’, some forms are rhizomatous, most are short-lived)

Oenothera howardii (up to 1’ wide) Alplains, Harlequin

Atriplex corrugata (Hates water, ultimately a short shrub, plant in early/late winter) Chelsea

Woody lilies

Yucca nana (mailorder)

Agave toumeyana bella (mailorder)

Agaves, most hardy sp, let’s be honest. 

Nolina greenei is the smallest/hardiest “Beargrass” but big: best behind the CG. (Coldhardycactus, high country, Chelsea, etc)

Lil yellow daisies

Stenotus acaulis (seedexes)

Haplopappus armerioides (alplains, seedexes)

Tetraneuris (Hymenoxys) acaulis, scaposa, and argentea

Calylophus lavandulifolius, C. serrulatus 

Heterotheca jonesii (seed, nargs)

Heterotheca ‘GoldHill’ (available on front range of CO)

Erigeron liniaris (may need to be low/wette)

Lil other daisies

Townsendia hookeri (the best/longest-lived), T. glabella (big-ish), T. spathulifolius, T. incana, etc.

Erigeron tener (super) (nargs)

Aster ericoides ‘Snow Flurries’ can be 2’ or more wide. (bluebird wholesales this)

Erigeron compactus (come. to. daddy.) Nargs

Artemisia frigida- will get too big for some gardens. (seed, Little Valley, etc)

Buckwheats Yo

Eriogonum caespitosum, kennedyi, wrightii (small ssp), jamesii, pulchrum, and more. (NARGS, Harlequin, Waterwise, etc)

Eriogonum umbellatum (ie Kannah Creek) in wetter/shadier spots in Denver (commonly sold)

Eriogonum ovalifolium, all spp except niveum. (seed)

Eriogonum heermanii (ie, var sulcata) - fantastic. (nargs, alplains)

Some Eurasians for ya

Acantholimon spp, especially blue leafed ones, not alpine or green-leafed spp. (nargs, wrightman, etc)

Limonium minutum (nargs seed)

Goniolimon sp that fit in size. (harlequin, nargs)

There are surely countless others species yet to be tried…

Limonium minutum

Africans for the right spot: usually wetter

Aloinopsis spathulata (Ethical Desert, etc) 

Nananthus transvaalensis

Escobaria sneedii (v leei)

Lil Cactus duh

Escobia sneedii, leei, orcutii, villardii, and probably any hardy sp. (Coldhardy, etc)

Escobaria missouriensis, vivapara especially. (many cactus retailers)

Mammillaria heyderi/maeiacantha (cactus retailers)

Echinocereus, most sp, where they fit. In Denver and wetter places, a slope or a rise help keep these drained. 

Opuntia fragilis, small forms like the “potato cactus” 

Coryphantha sulcata- delicious.

I know there are more small cacti. South Americans tend to want irrigation. 

P. pachyphyllus


P. laricifoius, tiny, long-lived, hard to find. (Alplains, mailorder)

P. alamocensis, barbatus, - big plants with wee shadows (Plants of the SW, etc)

P. moffatii (nargs?)

P. pachyphyllus (alplains?)

I know there are many more...

Choice things/Crown jewels/hard to source/Oddballs

Astragalus spathulifolius (rare, seed)

Castilleja scabrida (rare, seed)

Penstemon acaulis- don’t you dare go pester this in nature.

Leptodactylon spp. (rare, seed)

Lepidium nanum (rare, seed)

Chaetopappa ericoides- good luck, witches.

Sphaeralcea caespitosa

Chaemachaenactus scaposa- long lived, hard to find seed.

Linum kingii- way cool.

Hoffmanseggia (Caesalpinia) repens. 

Cymopteris bulbosus. Takes years, hates water.

Worth a shot, I haven’t tried them (enough).

Lewisia rediviva (NARGS)

Artemisia assoana. 

Erigeron elegantulus (NARGS)

Penstemon linarioides. (NARGS, penstemon society?)

Stachys, fuzzy ones

Sideritis sp. (plant select...)

Salvia… most fuzzy asian ones will probably do, but most are too large

Pterocephalus spp. Not in GJ.

Petrophytum caespitosum of desert provenance. 

Convolvulus boisseri, tragancanthos, etc. 

Phlox ‘Lemhi Gem’

Achillea, miniature spp. like serbica, ageratifolia.

Penstemon petiolatus- perhaps on a north side as it happens in nature.

I have not trialled enough Grasses

Bouteloua hirsuta (Denver, not GJ?)

Bouteloua ‘Zig Zag’ very worth a shot in Denver. (Waterwise, High Country)

Lycurus pheoides (oh no, this one is good) (seed)

Muhlenbergia torryi, pungens. (seed from reveg folks in TX, etc)

Eremeoruruefurususus something. Fluffgrass. Annual or nearly so.

Aristida purpurea/longiseta. Often short lived and bad in dog fur. (seed) 

Acnatherum hymenoides (1-2’ if you have space. Great. It’s been weedy for a rare few) (seed)

Hesperostipa comata- big translucent plant, no shadow. 

Buffalograss can work as a “skirt” but will invade/cover rocks in a rainy summer.

I know, I know, there is ruby muhly at Apex, but there is ample space and it gets a little water. 

Koeleria macrantha - someone should try it

Things you’d expect to go without water but won’t (usually)

Arenaria ‘Wallawa Mtn’ (it’s alpine and probably European, actually!) 

Arenaria alfacariensis 

Delosperma (with some exceptions… or they look bad when stressed. They need sun to be happy but need regular irrigation to be in sun…)


Sedums (lanceolatum, and a few others allegedly have done it)

Sempervivum (also been a report or two but I am dubious. They are usually alpine plants)

Half the Mesembs/Aizoaceae/Iceplant family, generally. They just haven’t persisted without regular, if minimal, irrigation. 

Erigeron scopulinus

Manfreda maculosa

Zauschneria (Epilobium), generally. I wish they did.

Chamaechaenactis scaposa

Rock Garden retailers, plant and seed:

Harlequin's (Boulder) 

Perennial Favorites (Rye, CO)
Aguafria Nursery (Santa Fe)
Plants of the SW (Santa Fe)
Waterwise Gardening (Santa Fe)

(Best source of special native seed, he's paring down, so don't take him for granted) CO (Mailorder), CO Mail-order

High Country Gardens (mailorder)

Arrowhead Alpines (MI, mailorder)

Wrightman Alpines,(NB, Mailorder)

NARGS seed exchange (every Dec 15th)

Edelweiss Perennials, Canby, OR (mailorder)