This will go wrong.
Things will also go right.
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.