Watering Water Wise Plants

Excessive watering rots drought tolerant yarrow.

Native plants like coast live oak, valley oak, toyon, flannel bush, Western redbud and California lilac (ceanothus) are among the most resilient of plants as the weather gets dry and warm after spring. So are plants from similar climates, like bottlebrush, oleander, rockrose, grevillea, acacia and eucalyptus. They survive dry summers by dispersing their roots deeply into soil that does not get as desiccated as surface soil naturally does (without irrigation).

Ironically, these most resilient plants can also be difficult to work with while they are young. Because they rely on extensive root dispersion for survival, new plants that have not yet dispersed their roots can not survive long without regular watering. They only become tolerant to drought as their roots disperse into deeper soil.

However, because they are adapted to arid conditions, they do not like to be too damp for too long. Roots soon rot in soil that does not drain adequately between watering. They therefore need to be watered frequently, but not too frequently. Yes, that is as confusing as it sounds.

To make it even more confusing, these plants will need less watering as they mature and disperse their roots. Bottlebrush, oleander, contoneaster, hop bush, firethorn, grevillea and juniper can certainly tolerate more water than they really need; but wasting water is contrary to selecting drought tolerant plants to conserve water. Manzanita, coyote brush, rockrose, flannel bush and redbud may actually succumb to rot if watered too much. Even perennials like Pacific coast iris and yarrow can have problems.

Pine, oak, acacia and especially eucalyptus disperse their roots as soon as they can, so do not want to be confined in containers. It is therefore best to plant smaller young specimens than larger ones. #5 (5 gallon) eucalypti get established in the garden more efficiently than larger but more expensive #15 (15 gallon) trees. If #1 trees were available, they would be even better.

Daddy’s Garden

Truly sustainable plants are less lucrative to the nursery industries.

My rhubarb really has been around a while! My father’s father’s father and mother grew it quite some time ago, and shared some shoots of it with my father. He then shared it with my maternal grandmother, who shared it with her mother, another of my great grandmothers, who thought it was something really exotic. Along the way, it was undoubtedly shared with friends and neighbors all over the place.

My great grandparents with the original rhubarb also grew old varieties of grapes, oranges, lemons, walnuts and all sorts of vegetables. Their two (‘Carpathian’ English from Persia) walnut trees were remnants from an orchard that was already old before their home was new in 1940. The few ‘ornamental’ features of their garden included such old fashioned but resilient plants as junipers, callas, pelargoniums (geraniums), dahlias and roses. Yes, the stereotypical Italian American garden. My great grandfather even gave me my first nasturtium seeds.

My maternal grandfather likewise grew all sorts of traditional vegetables, as well as cherries, peaches, avocados, blackberries and raspberries. My grandmother competed for limited garden space to tend to her many roses, as well as lilacs and bearded iris that she got from her mother. My mother still grows a large herd of the original iris, several lilacs and a copy of the peach tree.

My very first experiences with gardening were in the old fashioned but remarkably sustainable gardens of my parents, grandparents and great grandparents. Such gardening with so many old fashioned plants would seem primitive by modern standards, but really demonstrates how sustainable proper horticulture is.

Of course, as a horticulturist, I work with all sorts of exotic plants and modern varieties. Although some are fun to work with, the best and most sustainable plants are the old classics and simpler ‘unimproved’ plants, especially those that can be propagated from seed, division or cuttings from established plants.

Many modern varieties of plants are more beneficial to the retail nursery industry than to home gardens, since they do not last too long. They are generally either not well suited to local climates, or are genetically weak from extensive breeding or mutation. (Many of the mutant characteristics that some varieties are selected for, such as variegated foliage or compact growth, compromise vigor.) As they come and go, more new plants are needed from nurseries to replace them. This is actually contrary to the sustainability fad that so many nurseries claim to promote.

Perhaps our parents know more about gardening and sustainability than we give them credit for.

Horridculture – Plastic Is Forever

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Ah, the memories.

Horticulturists are environmentalists by definition. Whether we grow horticultural commodities, install such commodities into landscape, maintain such landscapes and associated trees, or design such landscapes, the vegetation that we work with affects the environment. Many of us should take our innately significant environmental responsibilities more seriously than we do.

We should also be realistic about our environmentalism. For example, there is no problem with designing a landscape that attracts butterflies for a client who enjoys butterflies in the garden. However, we should not promote butterfly gardening as something that benefits the environment and ecosystem by distracting insects from native flowers that rely on them for pollination.

I have never been one of ‘those’ extreme environmentalists. I do not want to save all vegetation. Some trees are too hazardous to those in the landscape below. Some exotic species are too aggressively invasive within a natural ecosystem, and therefore detrimental to the environment. Planting a proper tree where it will be an asset is fun; but too many trees obscure sunlight.

Fake environmentalism made good environmentalism look bad, and is contrary to it. Associated sustainability has become a cheap fad to capitalize on. Sustainably grown produce is pointless relative to the fuel necessary to transport what is grown in remote places, and all the plastic that it gets wrapped in. The volume of plastic needed to make sustainability possible is baffling.

Our compost is not the best, but it is adequately composted. Except for eggshells, the only recognizable bits are non-biodegradable plastics that mistakenly got mixed in, such as small bits of cellophane from the cafeteria kitchens. The most prominently abundant are these small stickers that were originally affixed to individual and mostly sustainably grown fruits and vegetables.

Are so many bits of non-biodegradable plastic so necessary to demonstrate sustainability and environmentalism?

Sustainability Is A Contradictory Fad

60706The original Dodge Dart, with the slant-six engine, was not much to look at, but was built to last. While cars were expected to last ten years or a hundred thousand miles, Darts easily lasted twice as long or twice as far. A few are still going now! Such resiliency really made a reputation for Dodge. The problem was that those who bought Darts had no need to buy another car for a long time.

That is a problem with sustainable plants too. Those that last too long, or are too easy to propagate, eliminate the need to buy new plants from nurseries. Many of the most traditional plants that have been popular for a long time probably earned their popularity by being so reliable and sustainable. These are the plants that the nursery industry would prefer to replace with newer varieties.

Good old fashioned lily of the Nile is about as tough and reliable as a perennial can be. If it gets crowded after a few years, it can be dug, divided and replanted over a much larger area, and even shared with friends. Kangaroo paw has been a fad for a few years because it is purported to be tough and drought tolerant too, but like a 1982 Oldsmobile Omega, it dies out in only a few years.

Kangaroo paw is certainly worth growing for striking blooms, even if it is enjoyed for only a few years. It is not too demanding, and can be sustained longer with a bit of specialized grooming and plugging (replanting shoots slightly deeper than they naturally grow). It is just important to realize that kangaroo paw sustains the nursery industry more than it should be expected to sustain itself.

Many of the trendiest modern varieties of old fashioned plants are not so justifiable. Perennials are the most notorious, especially if they are labeled as annuals. Sensational labeling with buzzwords like ‘sustainable’, ‘eco-freindly’ or ‘riot of color’ (seriously!?) can sometimes be a clue. Plants that seem to be ‘doped up’ (blooming with ridiculous profusion) might look their best when first planted, only to decline afterward, instead of growing into their garden space.