Introduction to xeriscaping

Dry land gardening

When you talk about the average rainfall per year, San Francisco and Oakland get around 25”, Los Angles around 15”, San Diego less than 12”, Cabo San Lucas in Baja Mexico gets around 9”. Then you start going inland to Death Valley and the desert and you come in at around 2” per year. In drought years it is less everywhere. During those times water starts getting rationed, folks paint their lawns green rather than water them, and all the feral pigs start dying off along with other wildlife. Even three hundred year old oaks and two hundred foot tall eucalyptus go brown.

As you go north in California, the average rainfall comes closer to the USA average of 38” per year. That is about what Santa Rosa and Sebastopol get. By the time you get up to Fort Bragg on the coast or Willits a little inland we are at about 50”, Humboldt about 55”. All that rain falls on the western parts up north. When you go inland towards the high obsidian peaks of Modoc County then we are back down to 14” or less, and 6 8 10 12” in the Great Basin deserts of Nevada.

So that’s nature, we can’t really control where the rain falls, and how many inches of rain and snow fall a year. But once it falls, culture takes over. Dams stop up rivers, make reservoirs, and control flooding. Water works, pipes and pumps can convey that water to farm land and cities. We can move water from water rich areas to water poor areas. Wells can bring the water deep down below the ground back up again for irrigation or consumption. We can treat that water, recycle that water, contaminate that water, waste that water. Use it as we please.

We do recognize that water is a precious resource, and that water is life. Plus, these days, it costs money. It is money. So we try not to be careless with the substance, and hope that everybody gets a share. People and wildlife alike. However, like any limited resource that varies from year to year, theres fightin’ and arguin’ that goes along with the territory.

When we discuss water issues, it gets messy and tied up with politics and morals and country lines and farmers and fishermen and plenty of emotions. Science, which is supposed to be factual and objective and fair, tends to sway and dance, or just throw up its hands and give up. Theres a reason why river riviere riparia rivus rival forms a continuous stream of words. We’ve been fighting about water and life for as long as people have been people.

You’d think that planting flowers and growing trees would somehow be harmonious and be above the fray. But it too is a culturally bound activity with trends, standards, and tight perspectives. So theres a few topics to explore as we ponder xeriscaping – the plants themselves, our attitudes towards them, and how to make our garden a happy place that works according to plan.

Plants evolved from, and are adapted to, the climates and soils of the world, whether that be the sticky humid southern heat of the bayou or the chilly limestone rock outcrop on a north facing slope. They grow best within a given comfort range. Therefore, in your garden, you try to grow the plants that are suitable for the given area. Some plants like more heat, some less. Some plants dont mind the salty coastal winds, while others prefer the calm protected valleys. So on and so forth; plants are like people, they got preferences. Yes you could grow a plant out of its natural zone, but usually you would have to supplement it with artificial means (extra lights, heat, protection). Or, you would have to accept the fact that the plant will not go about its natural life cycle; it will not give fruit, or it might not flower well. Its not happy, not gonna do its thing.

Every culture has got its own look and aesthetic. Of what is desirable and looked up to. And then within that culture, you’ve got a whole lot of variation too. Of course culture being culture, this standard is not fixed, but changes over time. Sometimes that change is enforced externally, whether by violent means or by mandates of the law. Other times it is something that happens within individuals or tribes because the mind opens up to something new and it is a good feeling. You get that why not grin and give it a shot. So this is true for culture as a whole but also for horticulture. Theres a mold, the mold breaks, another form emerges. Like the insects molting, shedding skins, and undergoing metamorphosis.

Fashion is like this too. Sometimes it is rarity that drives desire and demand. Other times it is some charismatic persons who everybody wants to follow. Could be an ad campaign, could be a viral image. Could be some weird kinda ancestral dream you keep wanting to be a part of. Back in the day, after World War II, prosperity was all around. Given the settlers European lineage, what you wanted was a nice big green lawn. Even in the hot deserts of Texas and Arizona and Cali, a nice green lawn. Its not like people were thinking hahaha I’m gonna waste a whole lot of water and enslave myself to this little piece of earth every weekend. Mow it, fertilize it, aerate it, pest control it, water it, dethatch it, and so on. The lawn was a symbol. It was a remnant memory of a green pasture and lovely expanse of hills filled with sheep and milk and cheese and grains. It was an homage to ancient kings and queens and a fighting spirit with knights and armor and axes and yew longbows and the whole thing. It was worth the investment so to speak. Nowadays the lawn as landscaping has spread worldwide. It is a great place to sit and have a picnic, to play on, to take a nap and look up at the sky and clouds. It serves a function, and embodies a story. Everywhere the lawn goes, it takes on another personae. In Guatemala you got the human machete mowing method. Down in the amazon they like – we always cut our grasses short anyways cause we don’t like snakes hiding in the tall grass near the houses. In Asia’s cheap abundant labor pool you got thirty grandmas and grandmas on their knees wearing bamboo hats with asparagus knives picking at every tiniest dinkiest weed in the lawn, all the while mowing with pairs of scissors like they was a haircutter at the salon.

If you have the neat & tidy, everything-in-a-nice-weed-free-row mentality of farm and garden, then some of the native gardens were totally unrecognizable and probably ugly to you. The accounts that come to us from Spanish chronicles of the 1500’s or the 19th century botanists and writers articulates this view. What seemed a messy incongruent jumble of chaos was perfectly orderly to the west coast locals. Diversity was not some flim flam concept for fundraising, it was about survival. The garden included a myriad of plants for food and medicine and fiber and construction. Why would you go weeding something that would provide edible seeds? Why would you throw away the root that would relieve the painful toothache? Just leave it! Granted that they had limited access to metal tools and irrigation. It just wasnt priority or within their capability or part of the cultural mindset to make it just so… controlled. Relaxed is probably the correct word to describe their relationship with nature. They focussed their cultural efforts, organization, and formal structures on the baskets, the sinew bows, the fishing nets, and the coyote stories.

We are at a junction in the garden. The old ideas are still valid, but need to be tempered and balanced with novel solutions for a crowded and conscientious world. That is where xeriscaping comes in. In a sense, the way it is utilized these days, it goes beyond water conservation in the landscape. It dovetails with native plant restoration, designing with hydrozone principles, and the awareness of the importance of water to all life and habitats. It does challenge the old school green estate aesthetic with other ways to appreciate plants and nature. It does so with methods that are slightly less intense and a little easier on the body. Mostly with intelligent and wise plantings. Given that folks do not keep slaves anymore, and not everyone likes the constant din of motorized blowers and hedgers and chainsaws, this is a normal progression. If you could work less, pay less, have more fun, and still look good, why not?! Okay then here we go…