A Xeriscape in Vermont

The front bank.

I have an awkward garden, an awkward property actually. I have a house on the east side of the road. In front of the house is a bank at about a 75° downward slope. That is, it’s more like a cliff than a slope. At its highest, it is about eight feet high. I’ve not measured, but it towers above my head and I’m rather tall. It really needs a retaining wall, except I learned in sedimentology class that those never work. So my goal is to plant things with substantial roots, things that will live a long while, preferably spreading and seeding new generations. I like scented plants, so I’m going with the mint family, which includes just about all the familiar perennial herbs, most of which will colonize a large area quickly. I’ve also got a few trees and large shrubs planned. So it’s difficult, but not impossible.

The other side of the road is a bit more of a challenge. On that side of the road is the garage and about a quarter acre of weedy wood lot. The ground drops sharply off behind the garage. This slope is covered in trees. These are mostly of a scrubby variety — alder, honey locust, sumac (though no females that I can see), and great deal of Virginia creeper — but there are a few nice maples. The lot runs down hill to a point at the northern end. The town has cut down all things in a ten foot wide swath along the road so that nothing interferes with the overhead electrical wires. I’m not sure I’m allowed to plant anything taller than the weeds. Being the north end, this is the place that should have the trees and other tall things, but that isn’t likely to happen. So it’s difficult to see what I’d do to fix the weediness.

The garage is on the most level portion of this lot, and it’s sited at the south end, meaning the garage itself shades the rest of the level space next to it. I’ve got a few raised beds in that somewhat shaded space, left over from the last folks, but most garden produce is not going to be happy in that space. (I don’t know what they grew there.) This is all irritating. But the main problem is that there is no water on the west side of the road. I planted the squash, beans, and a few other things in the raised beds over there — and I am very tired of hauling watering cans across the road.

In New Mexico, I had rain barrels. They were connected to the gutters by enclosed downspouts, and we used grey water to supplement the monsoon rains. I had the barrels arranged along the back of the house at the top of our gently sloping back yard. I could hook a hose up to the barrel tap and let gravity take the water to the furthest reaches of the garden. I still had to use the city water for parts of the herb and vegetable beds. I had a drip and soaker irrigation system for these high water use areas, but for the most part, the rain barrels took care of the watering needs.

Now, I couldn’t grow many thirsty plants. Being up in the foothills, we got more rain than many places in the city, but it was still only about 14” of precipitation a year, mostly falling as rain from early July to about the middle of September. So I planted natives and some dry-land imports (mainly Mediterranean), plants that would be fine with the low moisture, a xeriscape. I’m sure you’re picturing cacti and agave now, but that wasn’t the case. In fact, cacti are a minority in the north Rio Grande valley. Instead, there are many shrubby plants, some that are actual shrubs, others that are short and broad trees. Scrubby oaks, piñon, desert olive, juniper, desert willow, chamisa, poñil, winterfat, and a large variety of artemisias — the plants commonly known as sage brush. There are also true sages that grow into twiggy mounds and beautiful three-leaf sumacs that turn bright orange in the autumn. Rosemary and Russian sage grow into large shrubs in that climate. Grapes and wisteria will take over any vertical surface they can scale. The entire rose family — from apples to almonds to meadowsweet and lady’s mantle — does well in the dry air with only a bit of supplemental water when the rains are late. I had a lush garden in the desert. 

The xeriscape about three years after planting.

I’m describing all this because I think it’s time to start xeriscaping the rest of the country — and my Vermont garden, in particular.

Drought is going to be normal as the planet warms. This is not to say that rainfall will be less. Actually, more might fall. But rain will come as intense storms with most of the precipitation running down to the rivers and ocean. There may be flooding in low-lying places, but the uplands will be dry. Furthermore, in a warmer climate, what doesn’t soak into the soil quickly will evaporate. But drought is not an absolute lack of precipitation. It is insufficient precipitation, often defined in terms of human use. You can have drought in a rain forest like the Pacific Northwest if less precipitation falls than the region typically uses — which is quite a lot.

So the climate is going to be uncooperative. But just to aggravate the dry conditions that much more, those places that rely on pumped groundwater for irrigation even in current climatic conditions — as in many of the grain-growing regions in the world — are nearly tapped out. As an example, at current rates of pumping, the Ogallala, the aquifer that supplies a large swath of the US bread basket from South Dakota to Texas, will be about 75% exhausted by 2050. At this point, the water will be inaccessible, meaning there will be no irrigation. It’s difficult to see how corn will grow in Nebraska, the Cornhusker State, without this irrigation. Pause to ponder that for a bit.

In any case, it’s likely that drought is going to be a challenge even where rain still falls. We should probably be preparing for that. So, as a test project, I’m going to xeriscape this difficult property of mine. Which is about all that I can do to fix it anyway.

The bank in front of the house is too steep for water retention. It does have a good clay content, but rain has to fall very gently for many hours to soak into the soil — especially now, when there are few plants with well-developed root systems to slow the flow. I will need those dry-land plants out there. So the thymes, sages, lavenders and so on from the mint family of aggressive spreaders are my allies in this project. At the top of the slope, I’ve got the rose family — apples, roses, raspberries, meadowsweet — to keep the water from just spilling over the edges and washing those edges away. I’ve also got my asparagus bed which acts as a swale to catch the water running down the front lawn. (The entire property is sloped; this is Vermont, you know.) 

The other side is trickier. My first project is to put gutters on the garage and direct all the roof-top rain into barrels. These should be elevated so that I can let gravity move the water out of the barrels over to those raised beds. I’ll probably want a cistern as well, particularly because that is probably the only place a chicken coop is going to fit — and the girls will be needing water.

Beyond that, it gets a bit more long term. I have some difficult choices. Do I cut down the existing trees? Most of them are aggressive spreaders, which would be great if they were low water use. But they’re not. These are all water guzzlers — especially the alder. There are roots reaching all the way to the raised beds twenty feet away — because they know that’s where the extra water falls. These roots also send out feelers to any buried pipe. There isn’t any over there now, but I can imagine the sumacs ripping into the cistern when rainfall is curtailed. So water is a problem.

But also, it’s simply a rank mess over there. I don’t want to see that for the rest of my life, you know? However, cutting them down means quite a bit more work than I can manage on my own. And unless I take the roots out — thereby destabilizing the slope until I can terrace it and get some new plants established — all of these trees will just grow right back, probably from multiple trunks, making the rank mess even messier.

So these are things I’ll be talking about for quite a while.

Maybe for the rest of my life.

Hope you’re all good with that.

And if anyone has any suggestions — and maybe earth-moving equipment — I’m open.

©Elizabeth Anker 2021