Drought Tolerant Plants: Water Efficient Garden at Idaho State Capitol Building

water efficient garden sign

As drought and threats of drought continue in the western half of the United States, as well as in many other parts of the world, people are increasingly looking for ways to use less water in their landscapes. For many it is a change they are reluctant to make, worried that they will have to sacrifice lush and colorful yards and gardens for drab, dry, gray, and seemingly lifeless ones. Not so, though. The palette of plants that can survive in low water environments is actually quite diverse and contains numerous plants that are just as lush and colorful as some water hogging ones. If planned, planted, and maintained well, a water efficient garden can be incredibly attractive and can even consist of some plants that are comparatively more heavy water users. So, for those who are apprehensive about getting down with brown, don’t fret – there is a better way.

How does one go about creating such a garden? The answer to that is a book on its own – much too long for a single blog post. It also depends who is asking the question, or more specifically, where they are asking it from. Luckily, demonstrations of water-wise gardens are becoming more common. These gardens, planted with regionally appropriate plants and showcasing various water-saving techniques, are great places to start when looking for ideas and motivation. Such gardens can be found at public parks, city and state government buildings, botanical gardens, nurseries and nursery centers, and water company offices. If you are looking to transform your landscape into a more water efficient one, seek out a demonstration garden in your area. It’s a great place to start.

There are several such gardens where I live, one of which is the Water Efficient Garden at the Idaho State Capitol Building in Boise, Idaho. This garden began in 2010 as a partnership between United Water Idaho and the Idaho Capitol Commission. Its mission is to introduce visitors to “low-water native and adaptive plants that thrive in Idaho’s climate.” The plants that were selected for the garden are commonly found at local garden centers and nurseries – an important objective when introducing people to water-wise gardening. The ultimate goal of this garden is to “show homeowners that they can maintain attractive landscaping while conserving water.”

I have my criticisms of this garden regarding plant selection, design, etc., but I’ll spare you those details. I also don’t know the specifics about how this garden is maintained or how often it is watered. All that aside, I am just happy that it exists, and I encourage you to seek out similar gardens in your area. There are numerous approaches to designing and constructing water efficient gardens – again, a book on its own – but demonstration gardens like this are an excellent place to get ideas and learn what other people in your area are doing to conserve water and create landscapes that better reflect the ecology of your region.

United Water Idaho offers a brief introduction to low water gardening here, as well as a list of plants that are in the capitol building garden here.

Blanket Flower (Gaillardia x grandiflora 'Goblin') Plants in the garden are accompanied by a sign with a number on it. The sign corresponds to the plant list that is provided at the entrances to the garden.

Blanket flower (Gaillardia x grandiflora ‘Goblin’). Plants in the garden are accompanied by a sign with a number on it. The sign corresponds to a plant list that is provided at the entrances to the garden.

Dianthus sp.

Dianthus sp.

Coreopsis sp.

Coreopsis sp.

Geranium sp.

Geranium sp.

Liatris sp.

Liatris sp.

A drift of pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea)

A drift of pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea)

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Yellow ice plant (Delosperma nubiginum)

Yellow ice plant (Delosperma nubiginum)

Other “Drought Tolerant Plants” Posts on Awkward Botany:

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Book Review: Hellstrip Gardening, part two

Hellstrip Gardening by Evelyn J. Hadden is a book intended to help transform roadside beds (or any neglected or hard to garden spot) into a verdant and productive green space. A “paradise,” if you will. Last week, I introduced the concept of hellstrips and briefly discussed the first section of Hadden’s book. This week we are looking at the second section, which is all about the unique challenges and obstacles that hellstrip gardening entails. Hadden has divided this section into 8 main areas of focus. She provides a ton of great information that is sure to be incredibly useful for anyone seriously engaged in improving a hellstrip. If you are one of those people, I highly recommend referring to the book. For simplicity’s sake, this post will include a quick overview of each of the main themes, detailing a few of the things that stood out to me.

Working with Trees

Trees offer many benefits to urban and suburban areas; however, it is not uncommon to see hellstrips with trees that are much too large for the space. Hellstrips are often surrounded by paved surfaces and are heavily trafficked. This leads to soil compaction which results in roots being starved of oxygen and water. Where there are power lines overhead, oversized trees must be heavily pruned to make room for them. Consider planting small or medium sized trees in these spaces. Make sure the soil is well aerated and that there is enough space for the roots to expand out beyond the canopy. Hadden advises avoiding growing turfgrass below trees because it is shallow rooted and uses up much of the available water and oxygen; instead plant deep rooted perennials that naturally grow in wooded environments.

Working with Water

Depending on where you are located, your hellstrip is either going to be water limited or water abundant. Water availability also varies depending on the time of year. If you are mostly water limited, include plants that can tolerate drought conditions. Avoid planting them too close to each other so that they aren’t competing for water. Increase your soil’s water holding capacity by adding organic matter and mulching bare ground. Strategically placed boulders can create cool, moist microclimates where plants can endure hot, dry stretches. If you are dealing with too much water, you can “increase the absorption power” of your property by ensuring that your soil is well aerated and high in organic matter. Plant high water use perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees with extensive root systems. Replace impermeable surfaces with ground covers and permeable pathways to reduce runoff, and reshape beds so that they collect, hold, and absorb excess runoff.

Working with Poor Soil

Curbside beds in urban areas are notorious for having soil that is compacted, contaminated, and depleted of nutrients. This issue can be addressed by removing and replacing the soil altogether or by heavily amending it. Another solution is to only include plants that can tolerate these harsh conditions. Most likely you will do something in between these two extremes. Adding organic matter seems like the best way to improve soil structure and fertility. Because contaminants from paved surfaces are regularly introduced to curbside gardens, there is a good chance that the soil may contain high levels of lead and other heavy metals. It is a good idea to test the soil before planting edibles. Contaminated soils can be remediated by growing certain plants like annual sunflowers, which take up heavy metals into their tissues. These plants must then be disposed of as hazardous waste.

Common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is one of several plants that can be used to remediate polluted soils. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is one of several plants that can be used to remediate polluted soil (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Working with Laws and Covenants

Regulations and restrictions may prohibit you from creating the hellstrip garden you dream of having. Start by informing yourself of your areas laws and covenants. Some restrictions may be based on public safety (such as restrictions on street trees) while others may be based on outdated ways of thinking. Hadden advises not to assume that a regulation can’t be reversed; however, first you must prepare a well reasoned argument based on facts and evidence. Will your landscape design conserve resources, provide ecological services, improve property values, enhance the neighborhood in some way? Perhaps “your property can model a new landscaping strategy.” Prepare to state your case respectfully, intelligently, and convincingly, and you might just find yourself at the forefront of a new movement.

Living with Vehicles

A garden growing along a roadway is sure to be confronted by vehicles. Hadden suggests using “easily replaceable plants for vulnerable areas.” You can also protect your garden by installing a low fence or wall or by planting sturdy shrubs, prickly plants, or plants that are tall and/or brightly colored. If parking is a regular occurrence, leave room for people to exit their vehicles without trampling the garden. A garden surrounded by paved surfaces will be hotter than other areas on your property, so plant heat tolerant plants or shade the garden with trees and shrubs. A hedge, trellis, fence, or berm can act as a wind and dust break and can help reduce noise. Aromatic plants can help combat undesirable urban smells, and noise can be further masked by water features and plantings that attract songbirds.

Living with Wildlife

Wildlife can either be encouraged or discouraged depending on your preferences. Discouraging certain wildlife can be as simple as “learn[ing] what they need in terms of food and shelter, and then eliminat[ing] it.” A garden full of diverse plant life can help limit damage caused by leaf-eating insects. Encouraging birds and bats can also help control insects. Herbivory by mammals can be reduced by growing a wide array of plants and not over fertilizing or overwatering them. Conversely, encouraging wildlife entails discovering what they like and providing it. For example, to encourage large populations of pollinators, plant a diversity of plants that flower throughout the year and provide nesting sites such as patches of bare ground for ground nesting bees. Keep in mind that your property can be part of a wildlife corridor – a haven for migrating wildlife in an otherwise sea of uninhabitable urban space.

Living with Road Maintenance and Utilities

Curbsides gardens are unique in that they are directly affected by road maintenance and they often must accommodate public utility features like electrical boxes, fire hydrants, street signs, and telephone poles. In areas where salts are applied to roads to reduce ice, hellstrips can be planted with salt tolerant plants and can be deeply watered in order to flush salts down into the soil profile. In areas that receive heavy snowfall, avoid piling snow directly on top of plants. Always call utility companies before doing any major digging to find out where underground pipes and electrical cables are located. Utility features can be masked using shrubs, trellises, and vining plants (especially annual vines that are easily removed and replaced); just be sure to maintain access to them. If your hellstrip consists of “unsightly objects,” Hadden recommends “composing a riveting garden scene to divert attention from an uninspiring view.”

Fire hydrant decorated with ivy (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Fire hydrant decorated with ivy (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Living with the Public

Your hellstrip is the most public part of your yard, so you are going to have to learn to share. In order to keep trampling to a minimum and contained to certain areas, make it obvious where pathways are and use berms to raise up the beds. Keep the paths clear of debris and avoid messy fruit and nut trees that can make pathways unfriendly to walk on. Avoid planting rare and valuable plants in your curbside garden. Remember that your hellstrip is typically the first part of your property that people see, so make a good first impression. Also, consider the potential that your public hellstrip garden has for building community and inspiring others.

There is so much more in this section; it is impossible to discuss it all here. Again, if you are serious about improving a hellstrip, get your hands on this book. All hellstrips are different and will have unique challenges. Hadden does a great job of touching on nearly any issue that may arise. Now that we’ve covered challenges and obstacles, next week we will look at designing, building, and managing hellstrip gardens.

Drought Tolerant Plants: An Introduction

Water is a precious natural resource and an essential element for life on earth. Demand for water increases dramatically as human population grows and fresh water sources become polluted. Awareness of our reliance on water is especially heightened during times of drought, like the one that California residents are currently experiencing. Some regions of the planet are inherently dry. The region where I live (Boise, Idaho) receives on average about 12 inches of precipitation annually. Compare that to a place like Pensacola, Florida which receives around 65 inches annually, or El Paso, Texas which is lucky to get around 8 inches of rain a year. So whether it is out of necessity (enduring a drought or living in a dry climate) or simply the desire to be a responsible citizen of planet earth, many people are choosing to incorporate more drought tolerant plants in their landscapes in an effort to conserve water.

In the early 1980’s, landscaping with drought tolerant plants was given the name xeriscaping by the Denver, Colorado water department. These days terms like water-wise gardening and water efficient landscaping seem to be more popular. The initial vision that many people may have of a landscape planted with water efficient plants is one filled with desert plants like cacti, yuccas, and other succulents along with drab shrubs like sagebrush. While landscapes like these can actually be quite attractive (see Plantasia Cactus Gardens), modern water-wise gardens do not have to be so cacti-centric. As interest in water efficient plants has grown in recent years, the horticulture industry has been busy introducing a wide variety of plants that are not only drought tolerant but are lush, green, and full of color.

Plantasia Cactus Gardens -Twin Falls, Idaho

Plantasia Cactus Gardens – Twin Falls, Idaho

Plants that live in regions with frequent or extended droughts are called xerophytes. They have developed a variety of mechanisms that allow them to survive and even thrive in these regions. Ecologists call these mechanisms strategies, or sets of coordinated adaptive traits. In future posts I intend to profile specific drought tolerant plants so that we can get to know them on a more individual basis. For now I will provide a brief overview of the strategies plants use to cope with low water environments.

-Alternate Photosynthetic Pathways: Conventional photosynthesis is inherently inefficient when temperatures are high and water availability is low. Plants that evolved in hot and/or dry environments have developed alternate photosynthetic pathways in order to overcome these inefficiencies. These alternate pathways involve utilizing a different protein to fix carbon, splitting the photosynthetic process into two separate cells, and collecting carbon dioxide at night then converting it to sugars during the day. Learn more about the different photosynthetic pathways here.

-Drought Avoidance: Many desert plants live most of their lives as seeds hanging out on the desert floor waiting for rain. These are seeds of short-lived annual plants that sprout and grow when the rainy season comes around. They flower and set seed and are gone by the time the dry season returns. Birdcage evening primrose (Oenothera deltoides) and desert sand verbena (Abronia villosa) are examples of these desert ephemerals.

-Drought Dormancy: Some desert trees and shrubs shed their leaves during dry periods, and then put out new leaves when rains return. This is called drought deciduous. Other desert plants live out the dry season as fleshy roots or underground stems, putting out foliage only when conditions are favorable. Arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagitatta) is a good example of this; it spends much of the year as a taproot with little or no sign of its existence above ground.

Arrowleaf Balsamroot - Balsamorhiza sagittata

Arrowleaf Balsamroot – Balsamorhiza sagittata

-Physical Adaptations: Desert plants have many physical adaptations that allow them to survive in hot, dry climates. The thick, fleshy leaves of cacti and other succulents store water for future use. The roots of some desert plants are shallow but horizontally extensive in order to capture water more effectively when rains come. The roots of other desert plants extend deep into the ground, some (like the roots of mesquite, Prosopis spp.) even reach as deep as the water table. Palo verdes (Parkinsonia spp.) are drought deciduous trees or shrubs that have photosynthetic bark that can keep photosynthesizing even when leaves are not present. Other adaptations include small leaves, hairy leaves, dull colored leaves, and waxy leaves all of which help to reduce water loss and improve the efficiency of photosynthesis.

Drought tolerant sedums (Sedum spp.) with their shallow roots and succulent leaves are ideal for use on green roofs where temperatures are often high and water is limited.

Drought tolerant sedums (Sedum spp.) with their shallow roots and succulent leaves are ideal for use on green roofs where temperatures are often high and water is limited.

Learn more about how plants cope in low water environments from Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.