Lessons for Colorado from Otago, New Zealand
By Kenton Seth:
New Zealand seems like the last place to relate to Colorado horticulture, but in my second visit there I was amazed by the down-home innovation of a predominantly rural and agricultural country, and I began to see parallels and lessons to take home. With the same latitude (but south) as Colorado to Montana, but being wrapped in the Pacific Ocean, most of the two islands get a generous mixture of rain and sun over deep, silty, fertilized soils teeming with agricultural prosperity. A massive dairy industry shares space with meats, wool, grains, root and fruit crops. Feral deer keep every rural person’s freezer full at all times.
This time I intentionally visited the Otago district, the most central and therefore driest part of the country. Orchards and vineyards blanket the river valleys, looking very much like where I grew up outside of Palisade, Colorado. The predominant roadside weed of overgrazed land is mother of thyme. Visiting horticulturalists have looked around and remarked that Central Otago is undoubtably a steppe. While it’s one of the harshest places in New Zealand, its temperature is milder than other steppes: for extremes it is 20F degrees warmer in winter and that much cooler in summer – akin to the low-altitude Mediterranean and dry-chaparral of California. Their rain pattern is also similar: completely nonexistent in summer, reliable in winter. While they receive more annual rain, their sun is actually stronger thanks to a weak ozone layer which we tourists found out the hard way!
I’d been told about Jo Wakelin and her garden, which has been featured in garden books including Wild: The Naturalistic Garden, but when I learned it was decidedly and totally unirrigated, I was hellbent to interview her. She is a scientist and teacher by trade, principal horticulture lecturer at Otago Polytechnic. Rooted locals, she and her partner Butch are hands-on agriculturists between their dayjobs and their own cherry orchard nearby. An intellectual awareness and boot on the ground kept Jo deeply aware of water.
Before building the house and garden 17 years ago, Jo’s background in ecology gave her the confidence to garden irrigation-free without an example to emulate. She remembers her grandmother – her gardening inspiration – using a wheelbarrow that pre-dated rubber tires, reminding Jo that plants grew long before plastic-hose-fed irrigation was invented. She also knew that while she lives in the driest place in N Zealand there are much drier places around the world with wildflowers that thrive.
I think similarly. Colorado gardeners can step confidently into the no-water garden remembering that most low places west of Denver and east of the Pacific Coast ranges are almost always hotter and drier, giving us a brilliant palette of intermountain and southwest native plants to work with. Our intrepid Jo drew her initial plant palette from the survivors of a nearby historical forage-plant testing site (and one was our American Cercocarpus ledifolius, curl-leaf mountain mahogany!). In the same way, Colorado gardeners have enjoyed plant introductions derived from the Cheyenne Research Station, now called the High Plains Arboretum.
Since then Jo has discovered so many possible species to chose from that she could pare it down to only plants that struck her fancy. She has grown to hate the phrase “drought tolerant” because it suggests that plants put up with dryness, rather than expect and prosper with it. She prefers the more accurate terms “dry loving” and “regionally appropriate.” Artistically, I noticed that she had very intentionally designed her garden with the summer-dormant colors of plants in mind. It was important they were not cut down! These masses of dried plants standing in the late NZ summer February created gorgeous contrasts of fawn and sagey-blue that echoed the surrounding scenery.
Unlike most of her verdant country, but like dry gardeners world-wide, she mulches with gravel to trap natural precipitation and create a look of deliberate cleanliness and negative spaces. At first she had to charm the folks at a nearby gravel pit with fruit cake to bring her something we’d call peagravel. Now, for beer, they are happy to deliver what is actually a waste product for them. “If I get weeds, it means I don’t have enough gravel.” Like my own trials as well as real research, she finds that magic weed-free depth to be 10cm (about 4"). She fears that the gravel garden trend could be bastardized if people forget what it’s for – creating garden rather than barrens. It is important to be aware of the ecological impact a particular quarry has (or has not): gravel pits are inevitable for the creation of roads and buildings, but preferably without upsetting fragile habitats or without long-distance hauling. Mercifully, gravel is permanent, so its service life in an ecological garden can go on forever, unlike water and plastic tubes.
Interviewing Jo highlighted more patterns I have seen in dry gardens. We found we were both highly influenced by the prolific no-water author Olivier Filippi, and she especially liked his system of ranking how xeric a plant is. Once you know what level of xeric your garden is, you know a whole suite of potential species. (I think this is something Colorado gardeners need.) Additionally, in dry gardens soil work means decompaction rather than amending with organic material, in Jo’s case using a pick or crowbar when needed. Yet another universal motif of xeric gardening!
She plants new perennials in fall with the first rains, which also works in Colorado for most things except warm season plants like Switchgrass and Agastache. She says the dry garden means lower plant density but more compatible variety because plants don’t have to be on top of one another as they are in wetter climates. And embracing dryness automatically “creates a style.”
The other great thread that weaves Jo’s garden together is art – and a meaningful theme. Mixed plantings are complimented with “Lens” shaped block plantings that echo shapes of water. Recycled bridge piles (the upturned spikey end of wooden pier supports) jut from the garden like echoes of an upside down bygone water-world. Almost a tease immediately nearby, and creating great tension against her garden, is her well-sourced pond. Its surface hosts birds, its edges nourish native Austroderia richardii, and its water is only drawn for the house vegetable garden and windbreak trees. She wanted to rebel against the traditional garden’s “fixation” with irrigation by having it, but not using it up.
Jo believes that growing your own food is one of the most important and noble acts of being ecological, especially with the immense embodied energy and waste from food’s transport. The whole country of New Zealand is a testament to food resilience, tested by the pandemic. It was almost hard to find produce in the grocery store that was not grown in the country!
In the way that irrigation is often relied upon as the signal to onlookers that a garden is a garden, Jo took an unusual but calculated approach: exotic plants. The New Zealand flora has a distinct look, so she blends the vibe of the garden with that of the surrounding mountains using border shrubs with similar colors. But it is the foreign plants, mostly from the Mediterranean and California, which signal that her garden is a garden. The edges and wider expanses of her property give way immediately to all native shrubs and larger plants, habitat made for local birds. Jo balances her deep familiarity and use of native plants with foreign plants in her home garden; they provide her with an essential sense of novelty, curiosity, and excitement in that small space. This approach honors herself as an important creature for which the garden provides habitat – and food for the soul.
Jo carefully avoids potentially weedy species. The resulting group of plants creates real food for wildlife as well as food for nuanced thought. There is scientific evidence showing that gardens, regardless of nativity, often surpass rural land in biodiversity, for example, challenging our assumptions. The new, human-created ecosystem has an opportunity to be one where organisms like introduced honeybees and humans can live in something like harmony with the indigenous creatures of historical ecosystems, one where native and introduced beings supply different services. We can't take back the past – the extinct Moa and their exact habitats can’t be resurrected – but we can be active in resolving ecological damage peacefully.
Jo hopes her garden provides inspiration and outreach, that her example will inform and legitimize the inevitable worldwide embrace of no-irrigation gardening. She knew it was possible before setting out, but through actually doing it has found it to be less limiting and more empowering. She says there is “a tiny bit of laziness to it” (not working against nature) and she doesn’t feel a lack or sense of scarcity, but a liberation in going with the flow – of water, of nature, of place, of reality.
Kenton J. Seth is a Western-Colorado based garden designer and hopeless plant junkie. Recognized nationally and internationally for his crevice gardens, he also specializes in dry, native, and ecological gardening in an effort to create "future-proof" landscapes. Visit paintbrushgardens.com and kentonjseth.blogspot.com.