Here are the three amigos who have proven themselves to:
-Go completely unirrigated here in Grand Junction (and therefore certainly do so in wetter Denver, Salt Lake, etc)
-Bloom their stupid heads off all season. (April-November, give or take a month)
-Prove to all be yellow and perennial, native (to the Western US) and are all members of the sunflower family.
1. Zinnia grandiflora, Prairie Zinnia.
You've grown garden Zinnias. We all have. Forget what you know about them when meeting our native dude: He is not tall, but a few inches tall (5-10cm). He is not annual, but perennial and lives for who-knows-how-long-many-years. And he doesn't need water. Best in sun, he takes part shade acceptably.
Prairie spreads underground by fine rhizomes, increasing its mat size significantly over the years. Think 8-10 feet (2.5-3 metres) in as many years, and plan accordingly. This is not a bad thing, for it's diminutive height makes it play well with other plants, making an excellent skirt around tall stuff. PlantSelect has recently promoted a nice form with blueish leaves, and making the species blessedly more available in retail. It's a warm-season plant, coming up very late in the spring and at its happiest when you'd rather spend the daytime inside.
Don't plant Prairie Zinnia next to a Crevice garden, for instance, (yes, Susan, I just did that very thing) unless you want it to disappear under a yellow rug forever. This plant is probably best used in large curb-appeal areas, next to sidewalks, et cetera. Landscapes, really, in my opinion, as opposed to gardens. Maybe even gravel driveways. We're going to try that on Thursday.
2. Hymenoxys scaposa, in August, also called "Thrift-leaf Perky-Sue" . It's other names include "Sunshine Daisy" and other invented stuff which is easier to pronounce.
Note the spent flower heads- it's been blooming since early-mid spring. Next to a driveway, It gets a bit of extra runoff and access to water trapped under the concrete.
Hymenoxys acaulis, (left) which is pragmatically the same, tends to be a smaller plant and can be distinguished from H. scaposa in that there is little to no stem-space between the leaves, which are emitted as a bundle, making a denser, more bun-like plant. It is native to the Western Slope and basically all of the Great Basin while it's sister, H. scaposa, is a plains/prairie plant.
Both need to be sold more in garden centers. Duh.
3. Lastly, my favourite at the moment: Jone's Goldenaster: Heterotheca jonesii
This bitty is no taller than an embarrassed creeping thyme, but ten times as xeric and more apt to be seen. It is native around the Capitol Reef and Zion National Parks area of Utah. Despite the diminutive habit, this bugger is actually a tiny, flat shrub, forming a wee woody trunk over time.
Lately, I've been enjoying how the plants have been attracting copper-coloured butterflies who are the same size as a copper penny.
Ready for a butterfly-chase diversion from the main point?
Turns out, they are the world's smallest butterfly.
Brephidium exile is the Western Pygmy-Blue, with zebra-striped antennae and a cool name.
But back to the small plant- Heterotheca jonesii is really the cat's meow in it's cleanness and incredible performance as an unirrigated re-bloomer. Old plants stretch a couple feet wide and I'm told that they may die back in a sandy soil without some water.
Here, I'm using it as a weed-preventer so that a person does not have to risk getting gouged by Agave parryi if weeds should appear near the plant. Nowadays, it tightly hugs the base of the agave.
Please do yourself a favour and procure at least one of these three (and a half) golden jewelries to adorn your xeric garden.
Firstly, it is important to know that a completely unirrigated landscape is possible.
Not only that, but it can be very lush and colourful, and may be impossible to distinguish from an irrigated landscape.
What is special to unirrigated landscapes, and are there any disadvantages?
Here is what makes them different.
(other than the obvious):
-Different Plants. Some plants perform better without irrigation, others worse. Some cannot survive. This means no bananas, and in Grand Junction, it may even be too dry for Lavender, sadly. This is where it is important to know that there is a distinction between totally without water and a "dry" garden (a relative term) where you can still, in fact, grow Lavender. However, that list of plants which will, in fact, do it, is amazing and growing longer all the time. If your goal is to grow Giant Orienpet Lilies, then make a watered area for them and their other thirsty comrades. If you are hell-bent on growing certain plant, that's okay (I hope so- for it is my life story); what you need is more of a "garden." *
The 'Satisfaction' Orienpet (Oriental x Trumpet) Lily requires well-amended soil and at least weekly watering.
Sainfoin, or Onobrychis viciifolia requires no irrigation in a climate with 9 inches of annual rain and does quite fine in compacted clay. It also makes people pull over and ask what it is.
-There are fewer pests. Perhaps this will change, but I have observed that in a neighbourhood environment full of traditional landscape pests, natives have fewer. This may change in future years as folks grow more natives. Still, wild natural plants are more built to avoid, cope and recover from pests.
-New plants need water to get started, and also prefer to be bare-root planted.
-No Irrigation system or its interminable, abominable, maintenance. Just hose-dragging to get things started, then you're free.
-Rain is the irrigation. So plant placement is subservient to where rain naturally accumulates or does not. (I tend to use gravels and cactus in high, dry spots and shrubs or grass in low, moist spots; this also helps prevent weeds. Downspouts must be acknowledged and utilised )
-Fewer Weeds and Less Pruning. There are simply less resources for living plants in the area, so it limits weeds, which are nature's army meant to fill that niche and use those resources. Secondly, no-irrigation appropriate plants grow with their natural expectations, so giving them water simply encourages their bad behaviour. So spending more (water) on such plants results in spending more (time/money) to prune. Why do that?
-The Native tendency. It's no mystery that one's local flora will be the happiest plants with local climate, so I won't insult readers' intelligence explaining it. What we all must remember is that there are natives who aren't appropriate for our landscape: lovers of water (like willow and dogwood, which grow near water) and there are many many natives we don't encounter very often which will surprise us with their lushness, colour, and surpass our expectations.
Jones Bluestar, Amsonia jonesii, does not look like a plant tougher than cactus. But it is.
Blackfoot Daisy, which is essentially in continual bloom, may go without water here, but I'll wait to rule on that for another year or two.
-Unwatered landscapes need not be "wild." Going unwatered doesn't restrict what style the landscape has. Natives are not restricted to looking twiggy or unkempt. An fully-xeric native garden also does not necessarily need to be informal. It could be clean, formal, beautiful, or as boring as any traditional bank-parking lot landscape. (I made some like that early on- I'll admit. )
Clean lines and lots of green- Does this look like an all-native unirrigated Xeriscape? It is.
(Bouteloua gracilis, Blue Grama is the ornamental grass in this six-month old landscape)
* Landscapes v. Garden
Going 100% without water is more appropriate for Landscapes than Gardens. So let's distinguish them for argument's sake:
-A Landscape is a patch of earth we must deal with, so we make it pretty. We are forced to work on it. We have space: what to do with it?
- A Garden is a need to grow things, so we sought a patch of earth to do it with. We found a place to do our work. We have a need (veg, flowers): where's the space for it?
It's in our heads: One of the above can magically instantly morph into the other based solely on how a person feels that minute! Most of us deal with spaces which are sliding around on a spectrum in-between the two.
What I'd like to discuss, and invite other's revelations about, is the limit of unirrigated landscapes. I think they are few, but exist. An amusing flaw may be that a garden which requires little to no maintenance is easy to ignore, and we'll forget to enjoy it! (I also confess to this, with frequency)
It's easy to overlook new flowers, like Chamaechaenactis scaposa, (Penstemon arenicola in background) in a carefree unwatered garden that does not demand your attention.
But the real thing which is bad about the Unirrigated is on the extreme end of the spectrum: Garden. Since it serves our whims and joys, it is less adaptable to those needs if it is deprived entirely of the tool of irrigation. Not to say we can't be responsible resource users within that realm. My "guilty pleasure" garden, which, for the confessional record, hosts orchids, Gentians, and yes, a freaking Banana, is watered but once per week in the summer, and about fortnightly in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. It uses a variety of mulches, topdressings, rocks, and ground-covers to retain that weekly water.
Traditional Veg just can't be grown here without irrigation. There are edible xerics- but grown dry, their production is unreliable and their space-to-food ratio is poor. (i.e. Clove Currant, Goji Berry, Saltbush, Lamb's Quarter, Wild Onion, Purslane, Desert Holly, etc). We must water if we want (realistic) food.
Sometimes it's nice to skip the years of growth from seed and go strait to buying a free-flowering plant from Yucca-do. Probably not hardy outdoors, even here.
Here's a hardy Coryphantha for you- C. similis. Maybe better known as Escobaria missouriensis var. navajoensis. This plant is blooming and attracting green native bees in Kevin's Boulder, Colorado neighbourhood-median-garden. If you are like me, and miss the obvious, the petals are metallic and reflective. Note, too, it's blooming in summer, which is nice when the bulk of cacti bloom in mid-late spring.
Eriogonum grande var. rubescens. San Miguel Island Buckwheat. It has been blooming for months and I hope it makes my fellow buckwheat lovers jealous. It's in part-shade, dry clay, watered lightly once a week or less. It was planted April 2014.
Ring Muhly, Muhlenbergia torreyi, near Bristol Head, Creede, CO. This miniature and incredibly long-lived grass must be grown more often. I have seen a plant the same size as this, in a garden, confirmed to be decades old. To propagators out there: I will send you material, and Mike Bone of DBG says its easy from cuttings. He's right.
Opuntia englemanii var. linheimeri, Agave parryi, and Heterotheca jonesii. The mat aster is there to prevent weeds from growing in the Agave which would be dangerous to pull.
Jone's Mat Aster or Jone's Goldenaster, Heterotheca jonesii.
Bouteloua gracilis, or Blue Grama, brilliantly used in a downtown Grand Junction parkway. (It's in bloom) I would love to find out how often it is watered and mown. I am curious what others feel about the aesthetics of an ornaental native grass like this: Does it look shaggy or like it was a lawn that has not been mown? What do you think of this landscape?
Our experimental Xeriscape in Downtown Grand Junction, CO
Let's observe and learn from what fails and celebrate and enjoy what succeeds.
What went wrong:
We've barely been "done" for a month, and things are already happening.
Having planted the majority of our plants in the worst possible month of the year, August, we did see some mortalities. After some autopsies, I can report the three main (avoidable) reasons we killed about a dozen plants (out of hundreds; I'm not unsettled by that).
For the plant-specific addicts out there, Erigeron elegantulus and Eriogonum ovalifolium did not like summer planting. On other words, all of them died. I'll try them again in fall, which has worked beautifully in the past.
1-The nearby soil was too dry upon planting. Yes, we watered in the new plants, but a teacup puddle of water in a 20-square foot area of brand-new dust-dry soil will not go very far to keeping a young new plant alive. We had been dragging hoses around through most construction steps, but some corners of the property never had the whole general area watered.Next time, we will preemptively soak the whole area, making a great, broad reserve of soil moisture to buffer the drying of young plants. This probably means a sprinkler left for a few hours immediately after the topdressing/mulch, and before we place and plant the flowers.
2-Disturbing too many fine roots on older plants in the heat. One of our upright 'Taylor' Junipers is awful stressed from this, other things, especially shrubs, died. (Salvia dorii, Sapindus saponaria) What happened is that in our fervour to really "bare" the roots of woody plants who have lots of fine roots, we took off too many of those fine roots. We usually get away with that in spring and fall, but in August, where even healthy, undisturbed plants in the landscape struggle to keep water in their leaves with water shipped from the roots, we really doomed our heavily-rooted woodies. The fine roots are the source of water and nutrients which feeds the plant. They are quickly replaceable, but shutting them all down leaves a plant with no life support. Also, plants which are good-sized who have passed their "teenage" vigour stage also find it harder to push through such a shock in the summer. Next time: Our very pot-bound plants will have only half their soil removed (not all) and their roots frayed- this is sufficient to achieve what is gained through basic bare-root planting.
3-Stressed out or root-damaged plants. These poor fools were doomed before we planted them. It's a trick to keep containerised plants watered in the summer heat, it's even harder to not overwater some drowning-prone natives. I am not some sort of watering samurai and am therefore not immune to letting plants get too dry and too wet in their pots where I hold them in my mini-nursery. Generally, given time, the average plant can recover from root damage and be suitable for planting. It can take weeks, months, or even a year for recovery. Unfortunately, if either of those happen, (over-dry, over-wet) and a plant's roots are damaged, it leaves the plant in terrible shape to get established in new digs. There is a simple way to avoid this. This also applies to when you are out at the nursery shopping for new plants. Next time: Don't plant plants if the majority of their roots are not bright and white and active. It is totally worth holding onto a plant for a few weeks until it shows fresh, new replacement roots. To damage roots by improper watering is a sin which takes just one bad day to commit and so much longer to atone for.
* * * * *
What went right:
A big-top shade-cloth.
Instead of hundreds of tediously pinned-down shade-cloths tents for our new transplants, we used large sheets of shade cloth to cover whole areas of dense planting. We don't bother to cover cacti; they don't mind.
Several folks stopped by to look at comment on the landscape. One fellow, who works nearby asked if I dreamed up the idea, because it looked exactly like a place he knew: Twenty-nine Palms in Joshuatree, California. Indeed, there is a striking resemblance.
Volunteers at our fair community radio station next door came through to see what we were doing. Many folks saw their first crevice garden. May the gospel spread, I say.
We wrapped shade-cloth around our Junipers. They looked like bizarre art-installation burritos, but this allowed us to bare-root those suckers to prep them for a life without irrigation. That is, after they endured an untimely 97F-degree wind the day after planting. They look just, if a little matted like a hat-hair-day.
On the leafy plants, we tool 1/3 to 1/2 of leaves off of the plants, just pinching them off, when we planted them. What? Weird, eh?
Referring back to the death explanation above, see that what this does is reduces the amount of water a plant can possibly lose in the hot air. Amazingly, by taking a third of the leaves off of our overgrown Gambel oak army, we bare-rooted all twenty-something of them and lost only one. A month later, they are already putting out new leaves and shoots. Bare-root planting is awesome, amen.
Rain was trapped.
Using "Rain-harvesting" techniques, the rain which has fallen on the dirt parking lots has been adequately absorbed into a strip along 13th street which will hopefully supply shade-trees with enough water to cool parked cars and the sidewalk. What I was unsure of, nervous about, and caused me to jump in my truck at midnight in the pouring rain was: Will that engineered berm absorb the great deal of water accumulated from so much space? Answer: My goodness, it did. Sometimes things you read in books are indeed true.
Also, the as-yet-unromantic but future Gambel-Oak grove garden has remained totally moist the whole time without even the need for introductory watering, because the soil diverts (away from the foundations) and stores the water (under four inches of woodchip) which runs off the roofs of both buildings. This woke up bindweed which had been dormant. But we are not afraid; we are persistent.
The right plants.
In other gardens, plants which we are trying at KAFM are proving themselves worthy elsewhere. Take, for instance, The Jone's Mat Daisy or Jone's Goldenaster, Heterotheca jonesii, growing at 946 S. 7th Street at our landscape at Woodstove Warehouse. This plant, as flat as thyme (1" tall, and 10" wide) is not just growing, but blooming continuously and attracting tiny native butterflies without irrigation. I wish we had even more for this new rockery.
Also, Alkali Dropseed Grass (Sporobolus airoides) is used en masse here. It proves itself to tolerate wet sites, completely dry sites, and still looks like a beautiful puff of smoke either way. Our friend Allen at Valley Grown Nursery specially-grew us plugs of this fine species; they have been the fastest plants on the property to get established. Being a grass and being highly competitive (as observed by Lauren Springer) they kick weeds in the butt.
(Sporobolus airoides in a Grand Junction Xeriscape)
Stay tuned for more hits and misses on the Western Slope.