Monday, June 25, 2007

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D.

The word “xeriscape” has a harsh, Puritanical ring to it, indicating bans and curbs rather than opportunities and possibilities. Sad it is, but some purist xeriscapers smack of a dismal self-righteousness that loves to say “no,” whose horticultural ethics are anti-excess rather than pro-beauty. Actually, xeriscape means dry landscape or a garden congenial to Coconino County, the Colorado Plateau, a real simpatico for the sere of the Southwest.

The real issue then is the means to have lush, beautiful gardens on less water than a tropical rain forest, something like a water budget. The vice against which purist xericapers rail is excess, and, indeed, excess is a threat to a budget. Also, excess is bad taste. G.K. Chesterton observed that art is how people respond to their limitations. So how do we spend less and have more beauty? What it takes is imagination!

Happily, God has given us imagination and the Mexican feather grass (Nasella tenuissima,) a gardener’s delight. Its leaves are so fine they sometimes tangle, but sadly not a tangle with which to dally. Yielding to a breeze with the grace of a ballet dancer it does a light fandango with castanets and in triple time in a good wind with which Flagstaff is blessed (no smog.) Its tall (2ft to 3ft), light green set amongst the lower blue green of a blue fescue (Festuca ovina ‘Glauca’) make an beguiling accompaniment to a small cluster of bearded iris (Iris germanica). As in all art, gardening, especially landscaping, is compare and contrast.

All of these survive, even prevail, on budgeted water, needing water only during dry spells. They can make it on water from dishpans or washing machines. The blue fescue gets even bluer with less water. The voluptuous blooms 0f the bearded iris are one of the few beauties of the world who flourish on a benign neglect and low maintenance. Of course, benign neglect doesn't mean abuse. They need some water and appropriate nutrients. Some bearded irides (plural for iris amongst Hellenistic purists) also come as rebloomers, blooming again in the summer and sometimes in the fall.

The word “iris” is a Greek word meaning “rainbow” or, metaphorically, “halo.” The unknown John of the Apocalypse writes a lovely verse using iris, “Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face was like the sun, and his legs pillars of fire (10:1.)” The setting reads like a thunderstorm over the peaks with flashes of lightning, a rainbow threading its way in and out of a virga, and the brilliance of the sun blazing through gaps in the clouds. All the colors in that scene can be found in irides whose beauty can become, as the Book of Common Prayer reads, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”

Perennial grasses and bulbs and rhizomes are all available for gardeners on a water budget. Unless a lawn serves as a playing field, a golf course, or a place for children’s play, grasses suitable to the Southwest offer an intriguing texture. Creeping red fescue (Festuca rubra), a finely-textured, dark green grass, does well out of the sun, forming lazy swirls in the shade. Sheep fescue (Festuca ovina), a dark green, lies flat and in mounds in various patterns and needs mowing with a weed-whacker a couple of times a year. Both of these need only 12 inches of rain annually.

Many bulbs and rhizomes love gardens on a water budget. A lushy xeriscaped garden can have color spring, summer, and fall. Beginning with Wordsworth's "fluttering and dancing daffodils" (Narcissus) and tulips (Tulipa) in late winter and early spring, the list continues through the bearded iris and the western blue flag (Iris missouriensis) and perennials such as the fire wheel (Gailardia pulchella), blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata) and various penstemon such as the Red Rock penstemon (Keckiella corymbosa), Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus), and pinelead penstemon (Penstemon pinifolius). The drought tolerant geranium-leaf larkspur (Delphinium geraniifolium) is a long-blooming perennial as is the Russian sage (Perovskia atriplocfolia) and the old-time favorite of cottage gardens, the hollyhock (Althaea rosea). The list is extensive.

Two resources are Janice Busco and Nancy R. Morin's Native Plants for High-Elevation Western Gardens and a color wheel xeriscape poster through Hattie Braun at Coconino County Cooperative Extension (928-774-1868 or Bon sec jardinage.

Copyright (c) Dana Prom Smith 2007

Photograph of iris by Debbie Shepard

No comments: