Gardening with sustainability in mind requires attention to detail. A sustainable gardener must focus on how every decision is made and every component installed impacts the land. This means foregoing synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, applying xeriscape principles and having site-appropriate uses in landscape design. Kelly Weston, a partner with Native Landscapes, has been a champion of green gardening in the Wood River Valley since 1988. "The exposure and climate here is very intense," said Weston. "We have dry soils that are not fertile." The key, according to Weston, is to first create a well thought out, comprehensive design, "like an architect does with a building." Take into account sun exposure, water use, dry and wet areas and shade. "This doesnít mean you canít have vegetables, lawn and flowers," said Weston. "You can, but in appropriate places."
Essential elements of planning a sustainable garden in this high-altitude, desert steppe region include knowledge of native and non-native plant habitats, creative use of space and, most importantly, water. "Everything will have to be watered unless youíre willing to plant totally native landscaping," said Weston. "Sheltering and microclimates are important (when considering water use), which is why we use south-facing walls and shade."
An example of Westonís principles can be seen in the landscaping of a home in the Bigwood subdivision north of Ketchum (pictured above), which is a perfect showcase for drought-tolerant, native landscaping techniques. The homeís owner wanted to redesign a vast lawn area (pictured below) using a native landscape. The results turned an austere driveway of pavers that had been slated for an expensive removal into a positive visual element.
It is a misconception that using native plants means sacrificing color and beauty. "Some people associate native plants with boring, but our native plants here are exquisite," says Jennifer Colson, executive director of the Sawtooth Botanical Garden, an experiment in sustainable garden practices. "We have five native plant communities: riparian, lava desert, sagebrush steppe, montane and alpine." The garden, situated just south of Ketchum, hosts a spring plant sale in early June that is a good place to find and learn about native plants.
Successful sustainable landscaping begins with good soil that is rich in nitrogen, well drained and with a pH of 7 or slightly lower. Most nurseries carry soil testers and Blaine Countyís University of Idaho Extension Office in Hailey provides testing.
"One of the things I focus on is incorporating nitrogen-fixing plants into landscaping," said Weston. Plants such as mountain mahogany, buffaloberry, lupines and buckwheat naturally contribute nitrogen to the soil, reducing the need for fertilizer. These choices also add texture to green areas and can replace the traditional, water-hungry lawn.
Still, many homeowners are adamant about a wide expanse of lawn, even though lawns are one of the biggest culprits to true ecological sustainability. But there are options. A good alternative to the thirsty Kentucky bluegrass commonly used here is blue-green colored hard fescue. Resistant to shade, disease and drought, hard fescue grows best in the north at high elevations. It also grows in adverse conditions, stays green longer and is low maintenance. Other options include native grasses and plants, such as buffalo grass or blue gamma grass, which are both low-maintenance and low-water plants.
Seeding a lawn rather than laying sod is another way to create a healthier, longer-lasting root system, although most people donít want to wait for their lawns. "Itís inverted maintenance," Weston said. "More at the front end but, after two years, maintenance drops." As well, making just a small reduction in the amount of lawn in a garden is a positive step, as it reduces the amount of water poured into it. Weston recommends designing other elements into a lawn area to break up that monotone expanse of green and provide interesting visual effects. "Itís much more viable and interesting to cover areas with outdoor spaces, walkways, edible landscape, fruit trees and shrubs, rather than just lawn," said Weston.
"Wherever you plant a water-hungry, pesticide-ready plant you create a legacy that has a long-lasting impact on the environment for years into the future," cautions Weston. Ultimately, the best choice for the environment is to mimic the natural landscapes rather than trying to create something artificial.
Alternative lawn care
A native plant guide
Native plants (bloom color)