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Crow’s Nest: Xeriscaping in the East

July 21, 2016

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager

We don’t think about xeriscaping much in the East—but perhaps we should. Honestly, it takes me back to my urban forestry days (Morris Arboretum, USDA Forest Service, and various small town street tree councils) to think about it.

Xeriscaping is landscaping for low levels of water, appropriate to places that receive little rainfall. Usually it involves planting native species that are adapted to needing little water. Not lawns, but not necessarily cacti either.

We usually get generous amounts of rainfall in the East, but it can fall in uneven patterns. And certain landscapes, whether due to extensive concrete, rain shadows from surrounding buildings, or poor soils, can be drought-prone.

The landscape outside the intern apartment at Crow’s Nest is one example (you can read about planting it here). The slope outside the house is imported fill, and this west-facing exposure is at the top of the hill and subject to blazing conditions daily. I chose to plant only plants that could survive these conditions, a tall order since drought-tolerant species of the East are typically so-adapted because of sandy soils that drain too quickly, not the clay soils we have.

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We are aided by the addition of a fountain in the garden; the sound soothes even as it cools the immediate area. Though it recirculates the water and is on a timer so that it is not always on, it does evaporate about two gallons per day, about twice as much as the whiskey-barrel water garden at our old house that was on the east side of the house and in more shade.

But a fountain is not the spirit of xeriscaping—ours is really there to create an aural separation between the two dwelling units. Now it also has the advantage of masking the new radon-exhaust fan with the sound of burbling water.

Xeriscaping is achieved with the choice of plants. And those on this hill are doing pretty well despite the nearly complete lack of rainfall this summer (you might have gotten rain where you live, but we managed to miss most of it). Lawns are dormant, shrubs and trees are flagging, even warm-season crops are stressed.

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This planting has not yet had a chance to mature, to fill in and hide the mulch, which I planned that it will do. And although most of the plants have not yet bloomed this year the bed still delights. Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) and rattlesnake master (Eryginum yuccafolium) shrug off the drought with their grey-green leaves. The mint makes a nice scent to brush past on the way to the intern apartment porch.

The native prairie grasses lend their fine texture and adaptability to difficult conditions: Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) are among them.

The flowers that fill in the spaces include the feathery-foliaged tickseed (Coreopsis verticillata), wild petunia (Ruellia humilis), butterfly weed (Asclepius tuberosa), sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), and a couple species of prairie asters (Symphotrichum or Aster, depending on the day of the week).

If there is a criticism to be leveled at this planting, it is that it likely creates a novel community—that is, it includes species which might not normally grow together and create the kind of natural habitat that we are maintaining elsewhere on the preserve. On the other hand, it uses native species that will support pollinators and insect herbivores, and thrives in a location that might otherwise be barren. It looks beautiful and brings joy.

This residence is at the far end of the Creek Trail as you work your way back toward Piersol Road. A hiking trail runs right up our driveway so feel free to stop over and see this garden for yourself!

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