Thursday, May 29, 2014

Throwback: Reflections on my (failed) attempt at Xeriscape gardening

Our back yard in May 2014
This post is from May 2010 when I was very much looking forward to moving back to Ottawa from Colorado. 

I discovered the joy of gardening in 1993. We had rented a house that had a rather large perennial garden, and I fell in love.

When baby #4 came along and we had to move, I set about creating a beautiful gardenscape at the new house. In the process, I turned a house with almost no curb appeal into one of the nicest front yards on the block (if I do say so myself). I turned a parched "dead zone" at the south side of the house into something out of an English garden. In the backyard, I grew (among other things) a purple smoke bush that threatened to swallow any of the smaller children wandering near it.

Then we moved to a bigger house, just because, and there, with the help of Steve's sister, we created a true backyard oasis: a pool and patio surrounded by trees and perennials that invited you to take off your shoes, grab a beer and bliss out. [Update: we once again have a pool and a backyard oasis.]

A shady corner in our 2005 Ottawa garden

Blue fescue in Ottawa, 2005
Then we came to Colorado Springs: high plains, semi-arid. Dry, dry, dry. Sun, sun, sun. And we were at the tail end of a 3-year drought.

Even before we moved to the Springs, I bought a book on local gardening, called "Xeriscape Colorado." Xeriscape gardening, (which many pooh-pooh as "zero-scape" gardening because it often uses large swaths of rocks and gravel as part of the landscape design - and some people have been known to take this to the extreme, razing their lawns and blanketing their yards with nothing but gravel) is actually a very responsible approach to landscaping. It espouses micro-climates and putting plants where they will naturally thrive with minimal additional water.

The book made it all sound so easy, and a visit to the local xeriscape demonstration garden made it look quite lush. Here's a picture of the xeriscape demonstration garden (in May 2005). Notice how green all the plants are? (That's Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak in the background.)

Xeriscape Demonstration Garden with view of
Garden of the Gods, Colorado
So I dug in with zeal. I enriched the soil, I bought sun-loving perennials and hardy ornamental grasses. I planted them, I fertilized them, and I covered them generously with mulch. I even cheated by allowing the built-in irrigation system to nurture them along.

You see it coming, don't you? Fail.

First, the irrigation system failed - but only in the garden areas, not on the lawns, which put my xeriscape approach to the test. Did I mention we were at the tail end of a drought?

Then winter came. A winter where record-breaking blizzards caused chaos at the Colorado airports and alternated with prolonged dry spells. (Our neighbours would actually water their gardens throughout the winter dry spells. I derided them and decided that was coddling.)

All of my shrubs died. Including three purple smoke bushes - specifically described as "quite drought-tolerant, so useful in xeriscaping" - that I had sagely planted along the west side the patio to give us afternoon shade in the summer. I'd had visions of 8-foot-high bushes. Instead I had lots of low-growing (and slow-growing) plants.

Eventually, we got the irrigation system repaired, but I think we were too late. Or we were too stingy with the water. The lawn began to encroach on the gardens - but the supposedly hardy ornamental grasses I'd planted died! This is NOT the way the xeriscapists proclaimed it would be. Kentucky bluegrass, which most lawns are made of, is supposed to be among the thirstiest of the thirsty plants.
Blue fescue, Colorado
This picture shows a section of one of our gardens: an ornamental blue fescue ("drought tolerant" my patootie!) on the left and the blasted Kentucky bluegrass on the right. Xeriscape fail.

Today, I put my last token effort into these gardens in this hostile environment. If we owned this house and were staying here, I have to say I'd be inclined to go for a zeroscape garden! Bring on the river stone! (Though, honestly, the lawn even encroaches there!)

In the not-too-distant future, I will be back in the land where planted things actually grow. I'm looking forward to it.

As you can tell from the photo at the top of this post, I am thoroughly enjoying the easier gardening conditions of Ottawa.

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