Utah is a desert state, attracting tourists from around the world to explore the state's unique landscapes and geological features. But looking around at the grassy lawns of urban and suburban neighborhoods, our homes seem to bear little relationship to the landscapes celebrated on everything from postcards and license plates to fine art exhibitions.
We Utahns pay for the lush look found in wetter climates: About two-thirds of the water that flows into the pipes in your house flows right back out again—and into your yard, where plants seldom use it efficiently. This means a lot of water waste—and a lot of opportunity for improvement.
The Conservation Garden Park in West Jordan is run by an offshoot of Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, the wholesaler that treats and supplies water within Salt Lake County. (Dwellers in Salt Lake City get some of their water from this source, although the majority comes from elsewhere.) The mission of the Conservation Garden Park is to educate visitors about waterwise landscaping—but the hands-on method of demonstrating the principles of conservation are so much fun it doesn't feel like work—at least until you get home, fired up with ideas and ready to get diggin'.
Created in stages, the 10-acre site that houses the JVWCD headquarters saw the construction and planting of example gardens in 2001: Six plots, each containing sample landscapes designed around different themes, were used by homeowners as a 3D inspiration board to help them tweak their own yards. It quickly became clear that the opportunities for education on this subject were ample, and, in 2003, a plan was created for the entire site. The nonprofit Jordan Valley Conservation Garden Foundation was formed to raise the funds needed to make that idea a reality—or at least, to realize an additional two and a half acres of that plan. Additional areas, completed in 2009, focus on the process rather than the product, allowing visitors to walk through each step from the initial analysis of their site to designing, installation and maintenance of their new waterwise landscape.
A third phase, the new Education Center, built to platinum LEED standards, will accommodate field trips as well as classes for homeowners and gardening enthusiasts. The Education Center was completed over this last year, and the Park's staff is already lining up some cool programs for the summer months (see the CATALYST Calendar in this issue for info about their classes and workshops happening this month).
To reach the park, you have to venture deep into the valley—the winding roads take you past a mixture of retail shops, residences, industrial parks and rural-esque plots into the heart of the Jordan River corridor. The park is situated back on the property, at the end of a long lane, but as you approach 8275 South on 1300 West, you may notice that the parking strip has been landscaped —the first example of waterwise planting. Even the parking lot of the new Education Center does its share: Look between your feet as you get out of your car—the permeable concrete and gravel-filled joints direct run-off from the parking lot and walkways through a series of biofilters and bioswales—the gravel as well as plants themselves—before returning it back into the stream that flows through the property.
But the real fun begins once you get into the Conservation Garden Park itself. From a central plaza on the other side of the Education Center that serves as an informational trailhead, you'll be able to choose paths that explore various areas related to waterwise planting.
As you walk, you may notice that the Conservation Garden is as much a museum as a park. The Garden exhibit paths, the expansion completed in 2009, live up their name: Focusing in turn on four areas—design, irrigation, planting and maintenance—these exhibits will help even the most confused nouveau-landscaper understand how to right-size their own water use. In these exhibits, visitors can handle the pieces needed to assemble an irrigation system, learn what to look for when shopping for healthy plants in a playhouse for grown-ups mock-up of a nursery, and hold different types of mulch and soil amendments to get a feel for their properties.
While these resources are invaluable for tackling the details involved in conservation gardening, the example gardens comprising the original section may be the most important. Each of the six plots has a different focus: Waterwise Woodlands, as you might expect, recreates a forest retreat, while Prudent Perennials focuses on dependable flowers that brighten a yard. Each plot contains a small pergola to indicate the position of a house on the lot in order to give visitors a better understanding of how the groupings and arrangements will translate into a real yard. The plantings themselves, scattered through the exhibits, are like a living curio cabinet; each plant has a marker with its name, so you'll easily be able to note your favorites when you head home.
Two plots focus on the ubiquitous lawn: The first, Traditional Yet Thrifty, prescribes modest changes to watering methods and schedule (new sprinklers or drip lines may be in order) to cut water use in half. Traditional with a Twist shows how to cut water use up to 70% by switching Kentucky bluegrass and other thirsty turf—or any other plant not adapted to our arid climate —with waterwise species that preserve the look. (For visitors who like a good head-to-head competition, a metered system on the Irrigation exhibit path tracks the different grass types' water use over the season, so you can see conservation in action.)
The typical lawn requires 29 inches of water a year to thrive. Rainfall in the summer provides six inches on average, but many people will dump as much as 60 inches onto their lawns. The results of right-sizing irrigation is enough to help achieve the goal of cutting water use by 25% by 2050: "Our goal can be achieved without taking a single lawn out, if people water more infrequently and more efficiently," says Eric Klotz of the Utah Division of Water Resources.
The Desert with an Altitude plot is perhaps the most inspirational. Planted entirely with Utah natives or other extremely drought-tolerant plants, this plot was irrigated the first two years to help the plants get established, but no longer requires additional water. If the thought of cutting 60-70% of your water bill while having a landscape with style and bioregional integrity appeals to you, this plot could help you revolutionize your yard. Rather than barren and blasted, which may be the image that xeriscaping evokes for many, the plot shows off the rich and varied colors and interesting shapes that make up a desert-based landscape, and may tempt more people to re-invite the post-card pictureque landscapes that make Utah unique back into their homes.
With all of these educational and informational resources available to the public, the goal of 25% reduction is on track for the target date. According to Linda Townes at the Conservation Garden Park, the conservation initiatives have already yielded close to 12% reduction in water use. "We're definitely on track, although some of the credit does go to the wet years we've had recently," she says.
Klotz is similarly optimistic with the progress of the conservation project, although he suspects they've already harvested the low-hanging fruit, and that the second half of the goal will take significantly more effort to achieve—but between the playground the park provides for the gardening-inclined and the events that the new Education Center will host for both school groups and adults, it should be impossible for Wasatch Front residents to resist soaking up the message.
• Get the full experience of visiting the Conservation Garden Park, then refer back to the park's detailed website for steps, tips and tricks. Their "Find Plants" feature is a searchable database that allows you to get more info about the plants you like. It's searchable by name, by affinity for water and light and by type. If you are ready to go hardcore waterwise, the database even has a feature that lets you constrain your search to Utah natives. Images capture the appearance of the plants in all four seasons; you'll be able to plan a garden that looks great all year. conservationgardenpark.org/plants
• If you are looking for a helpful cheat-sheet to help water your lawn effectively, the Utah Division of Water Resources offers a weekly summary of how much lawns need, calculated for locations around the state. Find it here: tinyurl.com/lawnwatercheatsheet
• There are a few other locations around Utah where you can see similar exhibits—although the CGP is the largest. Check out the others here: slowtheflow.org/index.php/gardens
Pictured: Lauren Springer Ogden, horticulturist and author, in her Colorado low-water-use garden. Ogden will speak at the Conservation Park Garden June 9. See website for times and other activities: conservationgardenpark.org
Lauren Springer Ogden visits the CGP
If you're getting ready to try your hand at waterwise landscaping but are looking for a little more guidance and some serious inspiration, join horticulturist and author Lauren Springer Ogden at the conservation garden to explore the design possibilities of water-conserving gardens and discover plants that will be at home in your yard.
Ogden has worked in a panoply of public gardens both in the United States and abroad as a horticulturalist and propagator (the person who coaxes one plant into becoming many plants through cuttings, seeding, divisions—whatever it takes... or whatever will take), which has increased her appreciation for planting in tune with the local climate.
Originally from Philadelphia, Ogden has lived in Colorado for 25 years. She has noticed a change over the last two decades: When she first moved out west, drawn by the beauty of the landscape, her neighbors didn't quite get her interest in native landscapes. Ogden says at first they were surprised that she was trying to grow the very native plants they were seeking to eradicate from their own yards. Now, though, Ogden says, "People are becoming more open to it, partly because they have to be—more people are moving here, we've had a few droughts, and water is getting more expensive."
But it may be the people moving in, rather than the long-established natives, who are embracing local climates and planting accordingly: "The people who seemed the most concerned about it being a dry place were not from Colorado. The people who move to the west choose to come, and they embrace that it is a dry place... We don't want it to look like Philadelphia or Indiana." In fact, the tide of garden fashion now seems to be turning the other way, with people from wetter parts of the U.S. envying the bright colors and architectural structures of traditional desert plants. "Gardeners like the whole southwestern look, and they aren't as insistent now on the English delphinium-and-rose thing."
For the would-be waterwise landscaper, Ogden recommends looking at the plants themselves for inspiration: "Look for what really appeals to you: If you don't like plants with orange flowers or you don't like cactuses, you don't have to have those." Once you've assembled a list of waterwise plants that suit your personal taste, it's time to look for garden styles that you find similarly inspiring.
Ogden's newest book, Waterwise Plants for Sustainable Gardens, can help you assemble your horticultural dream team. Unlike her other books, which are aimed more toward experienced gardeners, this book is meant to be broadly accessible, providing almost a shopping list of 200 plants that do well under low-water conditions. A handy key indicates how the flora will interact with the fauna, highlighting plants that will attract bees and butterflies, or will repel deer.
Once you know what you want, though, the next step is to find it at a nursery. While you'll find more selection than ever before, there is room for improvement. Linda Townes, of the Conservation Garden Park, notes that you'll come up against this issue sometimes when looking for native or other drought-tolerant plants here in Utah, but she and Ogden both stress that you have to be vocal about what you want, whether working with an independent nursery or a big-box home and garden center: "You have to ask," says Townes, "or the nurseries will never know that people want native or low-water plants."
Want to learn more? Join Lauren Ogden Springer at the Conservation Garden Park's new Education Center. Cost is $20, and you can register online: tinyurl.com/ogdenatcgp