Home & Design July 29, 2008

Mountain Oasis

Xeriscape garden: lush, low-impact

“If you look at Google Earth (an online satellite imaging program), it is easy to spot our property,” says Morgan Brown. “Ours is light green, while most of our neighbors’ are dark green.”

As observed from several miles above the earth, the lighter color shows the significant difference in the amount of water Brown and his wife Rebecca Bundy use on their _land _in comparison to their surrounding neighbors. “We soak the garden only about once every two or three weeks,” says Bundy, a local architectural designer who created the landscape with her husband. “Most people around here water at least once a day.”

You might think one cannot have grass, let alone a flower garden, without irrigation. However, Brown and Bundy have proven otherwise. Their lawn doesn’t have an irrigation system. And yet it is green. A lighter shade than their neighbors, indeed, but still green. Instead of the common Kentucky bluegrass that is often watered daily and mowed weekly (using valuable water and contributing to air pollution), Brown chose a warm-season, drought-tolerant buffalo grass. With a minimal amount of hand watering to establish the lawn, it has thrived over the past few years and even survived their family soccer games. Brown is happy with it, but thinks he’ll experiment this year with a drought-tolerant, cool-season grass [thickspike wheatgrass] to test its durability in our high-desert climate.

The flower garden is the real showpiece of Brown and Bundy’s landscape. There is no lack of color here: vivid purple, blue and white flowers, including chives, penstemon, lupine, lavender and bleeding hearts, grow along the undulating berm that surrounds their one-acre Hulen Meadows property. The garden looks planned, but natural. It hosts many flowers one might see on an early summer hike through Adams Gulch, but the colors have been carefully chosen to fit Bundy’s purple, blue and white color scheme and she has purposely clumped the flowers instead of letting them spread. “I don’t want the garden to look like a meadow,” says Bundy. “I prefer clusters of color instead of single blossoms.”

And she has succeeded in creating a lush, naturalistic garden that thrives in our arid summer climate with very little water.

When Bundy and Brown moved from Seattle to Sun Valley with their family seven years ago they brought with them a passion for environmentalism. Brown has a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Washington and spent the first part of his career working in the high-tech industry. However an opportunity to relocate to Sun Valley presented him and his family with a chance to live a more friendly life in the sunshine of the Wood River Valley.

Here in Sun Valley’s high-desert climate the average humidity is only 30 percent, and there is a mere 15 inches of precipitation per year. In addition, the northern latitude creates long days, with up to 15 hours of sunshine in the summer. Brown and Bundy feel the importance of being “water-wise” when choosing to live in a climate such as this. “We both came from well-educated, environmentally-conscious families in Seattle, so our choices came naturally,” says Bundy.

Since moving to the area, Brown has founded Sun Valley Solar, a renewable energy company, and, more recently, Whole Water Systems, a company that designs natural pools, swim ponds and water treatment systems using plant-based water purification. Bundy’s firm, Rebecca F. Bundy Design for Sustainable Living, specializes in passive solar architecture and she has designed several “green” homes around the Wood River Valley.

Brown and Bundy had just completed their own model green, solar home, designed by Bundy, and launched the garden to fit into their eco-friendly plan for the property.

Bundy was lead designer for the garden project while Brown did much of the hands-on work, including laying the stone patio and building a recirculating stream down the center of the yard. Now, four years later, they have a garden awash with color, surrounding a lush lawn, a water feature filled with reeds and rushes that attracts the occasional thirsty critter, and a stone patio covered in soft thyme. They have it all without daily watering, let alone an underground irrigation system. >>>



Brown waters the garden by hand every two or three weeks in the peak of summer with soaker hoses and an occasional sprinkler. “That’s just to keep the flowers blooming a bit longer,” says Brown. “Our goal is to have plants that could survive with only the natural precipitation. They may go dormant, but they won’t die.”

According to the National Wildlife Federation, the average 1,000-square-foot lawn uses 10,000 gallons of water over the course of a summer and by some estimates, watering lawn and gardens accounts for 50 to 70 percent of average household use. Brown does not know exactly how much water he saves each summer, but “I can tell by observation that we use much less than other homes. Even when we were getting the new plants established in the first couple of years we would only do a deep watering every other week and then only if there was no precipitation. Now that it’s largely established, we’ll water much less frequently and then only with a deep watering if it’s been hot and dry.”

Brown and Bundy have been avid gardeners most of their lives. “Even when we lived in Munich, we filled our tiny balcony with potted plants,” says Bundy. More recently, while living in Seattle, they hired a landscape architect to help transform their 5,000-square-foot city lot. They asked him to design a landscape with native, drought-resistant, bird-attracting plants and to provide a private sanctuary amidst urban bungalows separated by less than a dozen feet. “We learned quite a bit working with Keith Geller [the architect],” says Bundy. “It is the same theory here [in Hulen Meadows], just different plants.”

While in the planning stages for the garden, Bundy talked to a few of the local specialists about growing drought-resistant plants, but mostly “read books and relied heavily on my Sunset Western Garden Book.” Bundy says she also found a great reference guide in the High Country Gardens catalog which gave her design ideas as well as instructions on how and where to plant particular flowers and shrubs. “The challenge has been part of the fun,” says Bundy.

“We were on a pretty strict budget when we started the garden, so I grew many of the flowers from seed,” says Bundy. “And we personally planted everything in the yard except three trees. Nothing was bigger than a 5-gallon bucket.” It took about three years for the garden to fill in. “Now, the only thing I have to keep up with is weeding and dead-heading,” says Bundy.

In more scientific terms, Brown and Bundy have created a xeriscape garden (xeri, meaning dry, and scape, meaning vista). Xeriscaping follows several basic principles:

First, take the time to plan and design your garden comprehensively from the beginning.
Next, designate grassy areas of manageable sizes. There is no reason to get rid of grass altogether but you may not need as much as you think. Use native grasses whenever possible.

Choose native plants over non-native species as these plants are best adapted to the local climate. Then group these plants in separate zones according to their water needs and appropriate yard conditions—sunny, shady, damp, dry. This allows you to water efficiently and not over-water plants that do not need as much moisture.

When you do irrigate, water deeply but less frequently to encourage deep root growth. Soaker hoses and drip irrigation systems are generally the best choices as they ensure that up to 90 percent of the water you apply to your garden is actually available to the plants. (Sprinklers are only half as efficient). Drip irrigation minimizes evaporation loss and keeps the areas between plants dry, helping to limit weed growth.

Create healthy soil with organic matter like compost or manure and use mulches such as bark or wood chips to help retain soil moisture and keep weeds away.
Finally, maintain the landscape appropriately by mowing, pruning and fertilizing and choose organic products whenever possible.
Brown and Bundy followed these basic principles and thus have saved water, time and money in the process.

“In choosing the plants for our garden, we haven’t insisted that they all be native to this area, but they do need to be native—like in that they’re drought tolerant,” says Brown.

Finding the specific plants was no easy task. When Bundy would choose a plant from one of her books, she and Brown would visit all of the nurseries in the Valley looking for that particular species. “Local nurseries told us that since there wasn’t a great demand for drought-resistant plants here, they didn’t carry an extensive collection.

We bought plants wherever we could find them,” says Brown. “Some came from the Sawtooth Botanical Garden plant sales, some from local nurseries, and some we grew from seeds from [local native plant expert] Bill McDorman.” There are still a few species they are looking for, including drought-resistant evergreen shrubs.

Along the way they made a great discovery in Trail Creek Nursery in Victor, Idaho, near the Wyoming border, which specializes in native and drought-tolerant plants. “So we took an empty truck over one weekend and brought it back full,” says Brown.

On an encouraging note, “It has been slowly getting easier to find plants as environmental awareness in the area is improving,” says Brown.

Brown adds that they were lucky with some of the choices they made to save money on their landscaping. For example, when they were first building their berms, they were on a strict budget. “We were looking for free dirt,” says Brown. “Our excavator was happy to unload 15 dump loads from another project in Elkhorn.” Unlike the natural soil in Hulen Meadows, which is mostly porous, river-bottom rock, this soil had a lot of clay. “In this circumstance we lucked out because the clay helps retain the moisture better than a smaller berm of just expensive topsoil.” As a result, the plants have thrived with less water.

So what is Brown and Bundy’s favorite aspect of their garden?

“I love that our garden is continuously evolving,” says Brown. “As the trees grow, there will be more shade and we will adapt the garden accordingly. And it is practically indestructible.” Brown and Bundy don’t bat an eye when their two dogs wrestle amongst the flowers.

“Nothing in my garden needs to be coddled,” says Bundy. If animals or kids run through the flowers, they will still come back. In fact, native plants tend to be hardier than non-native species because they have adapted to the local conditions.

The garden has also provided a good visual and physical barrier between Brown and Bundy and their neighbors. Not only is it beautiful, but with each passing year their carefully designed outdoor spaces become more private.

When asked why they think more people don’t follow the xeriscape theories, Brown replies that having a sustainable garden can take more time and planning. “You don’t have the instant gratification with a sustainable garden,” says Brown. “The plants take a while to establish themselves and require extra water over the first few years. “However, once you get beyond the first few years, a xeriscape garden can be lower maintenance and less cost to keep up.”

So what is next for Brown and Bundy’s property?

“On what we call the ‘Back 40,’ I am planning a natural swim pool,” says Brown. Water filtration will be through a constructed wetland that will double as a water garden. “I love water gardening and that may seem incongruous with xeriscaping, but it doesn’t have to be as long as you don’t overdo it. Evaporation from a well-designed water feature is said to be about the same as the water requirements for normal turf grass.”

Within the next year Brown and Bundy also plan to bury a 10,000-gallon cistern on the northern edge of the property for rain water harvesting. “We already have the system in place, we just need to install the tank,” says Brown. They hope to be able to meet the needs of their large vegetable garden as well as make up for any evaporation from the water features purely with captured water.

“The variety of options available with xeriscaping is wide–from an austere landscape with few plants, to more elaborate gardens. I believe a sustainable garden can be achieved on any budget,” says Brown. “People are surprised that a xeriscape garden can be lush, attractive and not incongruous with our climate.”

Just take a drive past their Hulen Meadows home and you will find that their garden is a gem and, in fact more spectacular than many in the neighborhood. Perhaps the most visible difference between Brown and Bundy’s yard and the well-irrigated properties on the block is a light-green lawn.

This article appears in the Fall 2007 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.