Late last summer, the Little Wood Reservoir and Magic Reservoir water levels were frighteningly low, with both boat ramps completely out of the water—graphically illustrating the true meaning of drought. As Wood River Valley residents have been experiencing drought conditions for most of the last 15 years, local gardeners, landscapers, homeowners, and developers continue to be faced with a critical question: What can be done to preserve our invaluable water resources?
Landscaping using native plants is one way to conserve water in our yards and gardens. Take a walk out into a local meadow or follow a hillside trail, and see what beauty can thrive in the small amount of water we get each year. Visualize loose-flowered lupine (Lupinus argenteus), Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus), and sulphur buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum); throw in some orange globemallow (Sphaeralcea munroana), scarlet gilia (Gilia aggregata), and prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), for a virtual rainbow.
With xeriscaping—landscape design using plants that require little if any water beyond rainfall, water use can be reduced by more than 50 percent. The term xeriscape comes from xeri, meaning dry, and scape, meaning vista. In this water-efficient approach to landscaping, appropriate plants are zoned according to their need for moisture. By observing little microclimates in planting areas, we can still choose from a wide variety of plants.
One tiny triangle on the north side of my house never sees the sun and gets runoff from the roof. I recently planted sword ferns, hostas, and ajuga in that spot, and they seem quite happy. The rest of my yard sits in blazing sun all day, so, except for the the north-facing wall, where I can plant a few specimens that like sun/part shade, I must plant drought-tolerant varieties that appreciate our Valley’s mostly dry conditions.
Kelley Weston, of the local landscape design firm Native Landscapes, points out that the concept of xeriscaping and using native plants works well here, but most native plants for this area are spring and summer bloomers. These, however, can be supplemented with other drought-tolerant plants to produce a full season of color. Weston emphasizes that it is important to learn about these types of gardens if we still want to have our little sections of perennial favorites. Most books advise gardeners to plant favorites near the house and let things get a little wilder farther out from the living spaces. Weston also suggests planting lawns on the east side of the house with drought-tolerant fescue.
Bill McDorman of High Altitude Gardens (who comments, “Native is where you start discussion about your landscape, not where you end it”) suggests getting to know local plants by observing them throughout the season. Learn to recognize the seedpods as well as the flowers, because the pods most often stay on the plant longer than the blossom. A fun way to learn about native plants is to travel up and down the Valley: what has gone to seed in the south may be in bloom mid-Valley, and in bud north of Ketchum.
McDorman supports the gathering of plant information in the wild, but strongly cautions against gathering actual plants. “It’s much better to start from seed than to collect the whole plant,” he emphasizes. “Digging it up just doesn’t work because the environmental conditions can’t be matched.”
Of course, a failed experiment with a transplanted wild plant means there is one less healthy plant in the ecosystem to provide seed or shoots for future generations. There is considerable debate in gardening circles about wildcrafting, or gathering wild plants in their native habitats. There are no restrictions on personal seed collecting if you choose to do it yourself, but be certain that what you are collecting is not rare or endangered. Take along a good field guide. Also, collecting seeds from several plants of the same species will assure a good sample, but never take more than one-third of the available seed from any one plant or plant population. Remember, the goal is to propagate, not decimate.
Idaho Master Gardener and revered local plant expert Carol Blackburn points out that native landscaping and xeriscaping follow the path of least resistance: “It’s a matter of living correctly in the space you’re in, instead of trying to make your space look like somewhere else.” Good news, of course, for gardeners who don’t want to have to work so hard. With the busy schedules most of us keep, this type of gardening is an intelligent choice—less time spent tilling and toiling!
Establishing these types of gardens requires patience and a good plan. Experts agree that a yard with less turf and more garden area is best. Design a watering system that is efficient (covering only the intended areas for the necessary amount of time), and then use that watering system to establish healthy root growth. Eventually, watering will be necessary only every week or two, depending on the weather. Use mulches to keep moisture in the soil, and maintain the landscape with mowing, pruning, and fertilizing as necessary. The primary rule for fertilizers is to take it easy. Too much can actually make plants weaker; even more to the point, arid and semi-arid plants do not need supplemental fertilizing in most soils. The optimal goal in nurturing plants is to do so without additional fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides. As one Master Gardener instructor says succinctly, “When you kill the enemy, you inherit their work.”
A great local place to learn more about using native plants and xeriscaping is the Sawtooth Botanical Garden, located just south of Ketchum. Their website states, “The Garden celebrates the unique beauty and diverse plant life of our region. Our mission is to educate and inspire people to appreciate and live in balance with the natural world.” A tour of the grounds demonstrates different grasses and how they grow, as well as a riparian garden, sagebrush garden, and xeriscape garden.
As Bill McDorman says, “Take on the excitement of being an experimenter. It’s a process, but make it fun.” With constructive changes in our gardening practices, we just may see the boat ramps at Magic and Little Wood Reservoirs floating again, giving some respite to the sandy-loam shorelines that have been bare for years. Outdoor recreation could be what it once was at these locations, and farmers could have the water they need. And, as a more immediate, personal reward, instead of pulling weeds all summer, we could be “puttering” in our yards, with more time to sit back and enjoy the birds, butterflies, and beauty with a tall, cool glass of ice tea. Don’t forget to add a sprig of Sawtooth Mountain mint (Agastache urticifolia)!
Poo Wright Pulliam has spent many years getting to know the nuances of Idaho’s environments. She reads soils, birds, plants, weather, and ridges the way some people read the newspaper—daily.