Xeriscape process: How to plant the garden

Theres the long range and the short range.

If you are a farmer who plans to work the land for forty or fifty years, and maybe pass the land on to the next generation, you would try to take real good care of it. You want the earth to stay healthy and abundant, and to make it better, not worse.

If you are a landscapers working at a shopping mall or some kind of a commercial type property, then you know that the plants are just decoration and temporary. The next owner who flips the house will switch out the garden in five or ten years, the new manager will say ‘Cut it all down’ and put in a garden based on the latest trends. The plantings are disposable and short lived, and so you work accordingly.

In a short term planting plan, you bring in new top soil or potting soil, and just lay it on top. You do not have to mix it or till it in with the native soil, since the plant roots are going to be shallow – the upper 12” or 16” or so. You hook up an irrigation system to make sure that the plants are watered with good coverage. You do not anticipate that the plants will ever reach down deep or wide to find their own source. You lay down a layer of weed cloth, then cut some holes in it for the plants. You throw the plants into holes in the ground, not bothering much to open the root ball, or tease and cut out the girdling roots. Time is of the essence; you know that the plants are not going to live that long anyways. To finish the planting you spread a layer of small bark mulch on top. Thats it, you are done.

For the most part, the xeriscape garden is more the long range plan rather than the short range one. It requires you to pay attention to the soil and the water. You want your plants to be well settled into their places and take care of themselves, not always be dependent on external supports and high maintenance regimes. You imagine and hope that the plantings will still be prospering forty years down the line, although you may not be present anymore to witness them.

So the first thing is to plant according to climate. Microclimate to be specific. Meaning that you find the minor tiny variations in a given place, and match your plants accordingly. Observe your garden and surroundings with tremendous intensity. Even in a hot hot place, there may be a shaded spot near the eave of the house that is ten degrees cooler than everywhere else. Write this down. Next to the driveway, there is a spot that is perpetually wet. You are not sure if it is the roof runoff, shallow groundwater, or what?, but it hardly ever dries out. Water always gathers there. Write this down. And you look at the neighbor next door – they have a fifty year old lemon tree that is always blooming, always full of fruit. You see them using it for cocktails, kids squeezing lemonade all the time. You strike up a conversation with the neighbor – how often do you water the lemon? Do you fertilize it? And the neighbor says “I don’t do anything! It just loves the exposure and the soil, I guess…”. Plant something that likes that little niche you have discovered, not a plant that will be distressed and uncomfortable. Make the plant feel ‘at home’.

The second thing is to work the soil. Some of the ornamental xeriscape plants we are planting do not need much amendment, actually. They might have come from a place where poverty was the norm, and they are not really enamored of rich rich soils. They be like ‘Whats the big deal? I’m fine with rice and beans, and a bit of chile pepper. I dont want to eat beef and pork and shark and tiger and bear every meal. That is for the kings and queens. Rice and beans for me!” Other plants we are planting do like a bit of help to look good in the garden. So that is what we will do. First is to amend the soil and mix it in. That is in every garden help column and every horticulture magazine – add organic matter. Add it to sandy soils, add it to clay soils. Make goopy globs of nutrient humus and worm heaven and increase the soil’s water and nutrient holding capacity. Make uneven pores and holes to improve the drainage and aeration. What kind of organic matter? Manures and composts always excellent, as are the fallen leaves and worm poop called castings. The other thing to do with soil is to shape it. This is making terraces or little berms and mini volcanoes, pressing them into shape and form, so that water will better infiltrate the ground. Actively direct the flow of water, whether that be from irrigation or from rainfall. This little rhododendron is gonna like all the water it can get…

As the weather starts to dry, the soil forms this glaze of a skin over itself. As if it were a creature itself that was conserving moisture and tucking it all in. You can see this happen outdoors, and also to the surface of potting soils in a container. The whole thing tightens and contracts. Then if you were to water this skin, the water just skims and runs right off of it. A slow and steady drip drip drip of rainfall would soften the skin and penetrate, but if it is just a gush and a jolt of water, the plants do not benefit. You have to make pores in the earth and allow the water to soak in.

Thus, you create water holding patterns of soil on the earth. It is that simple; but not often done in planting projects. The process is a bit of extra labor and time and getting dirty, especially if you are working in clay and the stuff sticks all in between the grooves of your boots and smears all over your pants. This way of doing things is nothing novel and if anything it is ancient technology, coming from people who did not have access to irrigation as practiced today. A prime example comes to us from corn farmers of Arizona called the Tohono O’odham who made waffle like soil matrices in the sandy washes where they knew water would gather come late spring and summer monsoons. That way they could harvest a crop of corn in the driest and hottest of climates. In all parts of the world where drip irrigation is not practiced yet, this is how they conserve water and make their plants grow. Furrows. Berms.

Climate, soil. Then it is timing. Ideally you plant around when the rains come. Then you do not have to irrigate and the sky will do it for you. These parts, that is around November December. Usually best to plant after the first rain or two, then the soil is good and wetted and the plants have till March April to grow – spreading roots and hunkering down for the long hot dry period of summer. Remember that around here plants keep growing all winter long. If you look at the hills that go from brown to green that is what is happening. If it was colder then the plants would go dormant, but on the mild coast, plants keep marching on. The sun is a little lower in the sky, there is a bit of a chill, but the plants keep marching on. This is another one of those old timey approaches to gardening and farming – following nature’s rhythm and the seasons. Plant when the timing is right. Not whenever you want it.

Lastly it is the plants. When you plant in a xeriscape style, you want to encourage the plant to establish itself in the local soil and ‘get rooted’. That is what wild plants in nature do. That is how you can survive adverse situations and circumstances. You may want to loosen or remove some of that nursery potting soil that the plant came with. That potting soil is mostly all bark. If there is a hot day and the bark dries out quick, the plant is dead. You dont have to take all the barky peaty soil off, just make sure its mixed up in there with some grains of loam and clay or moist sands. Get the plant roots into the native soil so that as the land dries and that skin contracts and tightens, the plant is a part of that matrix and not something foreign and apart. An alien thing that gets squeezed out and discarded by mother nature.

Other than this basic planting method, it is the selection of plants that makes a xeriscape garden. And how you assemble and combine them together to make a community. Some are low spreading things that cover the earth, others are upright creatures with roots fifty feet deep. They are not separate organisms, they work together to benefit the entire system.

Theres a ton of different kinds of plants to choose from. Many of them are drought tolerant, but more important than being drought tolerant is that you match the site to the needs of the plant. Good fit. Right plant right place like the ol gardeners repeat infinitum. Boy am I a broken record or a MP3 stuck on loop action. Okey dokey until the next group of plants.