The trend toward drought-tolerant natives requires stewardship and a focus on form and function.
It’s a Sunday morning in early June and not quite 10:30 a.m., but the temperature on the grounds of Argyle Winery in Dundee, Oregon, is tipping past 70 degrees. By 2 p.m. it will be 90 degrees.
The former English-inspired garden has been completely renovated into a Mediterranean and Northwest-inspired landscape that will require much less maintenance.
The yellow-centered flowers of the white Cistus (rockrose) wave heartily in the heat. The glossy leaves gleam and reflect the sun on the five species of Ceanothus (California lilac) reaching skyward and the red-stemmed ground cover Fragaria chiloensis (coastal strawberry) meandering outward.
Several species of hardy, easy-to-grow Arctostaphylos (manzanita), both low- and high-growing varieties, provide structure and texture down to the ground, as do the five species of Quercus stretching above it.
Looking toward the “Nuthouse,” a building off the parking lot, one can imagine the three young evergreen Q. suber (cork oak) trees as they will some day be, meeting in a majestic canopy over the roof peak.
Hundreds of new, hardy, drought-tolerant grasses, perennials, shrubs and trees in colors ranging from golden to white, blue and green are withstanding the heat, thriving and even glowing in it.
A new type of garden
For customers coming to the new tasting room at Argyle, this fresh conceptualization of the winery garden meant a huge shift, said Chris Cullina, director of sales and marketing.
“Argyle started with a traditional high-input English garden,” Cullina said, “like something out of the Midwest or the East Coast, filled with roses, boxwoods, camellias and a lot of perennials. It required a full-time gardener.”
But last fall, when the winery transitioned to a new tasting room, Cullina said it was also time to update the grounds to reflect a truer Northwest landscape, even if it didn’t match that of a typical winery.
“The plants that I pictured are now here,” Cullina said, “giving customers a sense of plants that require low maintenance, low water, are drought tolerant and include xeriscaping.”
Argyle’s evolution follows the trend of businesses and home gardeners, young (especially Millennials) and old, who are shifting their landscapes to a new aesthetic that calls for low-maintenance, drought-tolerant plants.
“Literally every single project, every single landscape I walk into these days, the homeowner tells me that low maintenance is the main objective,” said Lisa Annand, owner and designer at Verdant Garden Northwest in Oregon City, Oregon.
“Low maintenance is coming about for a couple of reasons, and one is sustainability,” Annand said. “Gardeners recognize that water is a valuable resource — and an expensive resource — and they recognize that they don’t want landscapes that require pesticides.”
As people downsize their households, conserve funds and get older, they don’t want to do as much landscape work. Even people who love to garden are eschewing great amounts of upkeep by reducing or eliminating the traditional American grass lawn and water-hungry gardens.
“They don’t want to be stuck looking at weeds,” Annand said. “I talk about eco lawns, drought-tolerant plants and ground covers with customers — a big change compared with 10 or 15 years ago. Their expectations have changed for what they want for their yard. They want it to fit their lifestyle.”
Xeriscaping and native plants are, of course, not synonymous with low maintenance, but the categories for what is considered low maintenance has begun to overlap with “drought tolerant” and “native,” both in reality and in the mind of consumers.
Simplicity in texture, form and bloom
“When I’m designing a low-maintenance garden, which is pretty much everything I’m designing these days, it’s about simplifying,” Annand said. “That means editing down the plant picks. Each plant has to carry its weight: be hardy, long-lived and have seasonal interest with form, texture or bloom, period.”
In particular, Annand said she is definitely using more ornamental grasses and specing trees that carry those traits.
Given her requirements of form, texture and bloom, some of her favorite go-to trees include:
- • Cryptomeria (Japanese cedar) for their variety of color and textures;
- • Easy-to-care-for Hamamelis virginiana (witch hazel);
- • Deodar cedars, which are drought tolerant and “indestructible,” according to Annand, with ‘Snow Sprite’ a particular favorite for its deep cover and controlled growth;
- • Parrotia for its toughness, drought tolerance and beautiful foliage displays; and
- • Stewartia, for its beautiful bark and flower.
The multiplier effect and natives
“People come to us asking for low-maintenance landscapes, and they typically want them to do more than one thing,” said Steven Paulsen, general manager at Native Roots in Twin Falls, Idaho.
The primary savings sought may be water — that’s what attracts customers, Paulsen said. But if they can mow less, use no chemicals, and have habitat connectivity and habitat functionality — plants working together to form a sense
of place — those multiple benefits cinch the sale.
“There have been unique bell curves for natives with upward stair-step trends,” Paulsen said. “There’s interest, people are gung-ho, and then it dies. Each time we’re a step higher, trending the right way for business, with shallower dips each time.”
The hurdle for natives has been consistency, Paulsen said.
“You can’t buy four sticky geraniums [Geranium viscosissimum] and have one die, one grow tall and the other two just be middle growers,” Paulsen said. “That doesn’t work in a retail environment.”
The nursery industry has trained customers to want consistency. And yet, Paulsen said, the old model of producing natives is a restoration model, of using wildland-collected seed, and then growing and selling the offspring without selection. As a result, native plants have struggled because of their nonconformity.
“The genetic diversity was too diverse, and diversity in the retail space doesn’t sell when they’re trying to buy predictability in a pot,” Paulsen said. “Native plants need to be tamed enough to be predictable in commercial and residential settings.”
Native Roots has focused on genetic narrowing to select for traits and make them stable, and then present an acceptable palette to the market. The process has taken 10 years, Paulsen said.
“That’s been the commitment at Native Roots,” Paulsen said. “To ensure that when a nursery gets a plug tray that they all grow and with known traits. It takes a huge commitment to get there.”
Stewardship versus maintenance
The idea of low maintenance gets customers through the door, Paulsen said, and then they realize the plants still need care. Especially with native plants, the term “stewardship” is more accurate.
Once established, you can’t ignore plants; you still have to interact with them. Nurseries can provide a lot of education on this front.
“While maintenance is about keeping it the way it is, native landscapes are stewarded,” Paulsen said. “Stewarding allows change.”
Even vast areas of turf and trees require maintenance.
“You can’t have a garden and not lift a finger; it’s simply not true,” said Sean Hogan, owner and principal designer of Cistus Design Nursery in Portland, Oregon. “I’ve seen some so-called low-maintenance gardens that are higher maintenance than the average landscape.”
Hogan said creating truly low-maintenance landscapes requires insight into why people garden: to be entertained, to make their surroundings beautiful, to create a sense of atmosphere and “wayfinding” (giving people directions, manipulating where they go), to provide habitat and to add diversity.
Making low-maintenance gardens interesting and functional requires focus on location and climate, with drought-tolerant plants dominating the climate considerations.
Bare dirt, for instance, requires a shift in thinking. In the Pacific Northwest, a low-maintenance landscape recognizes the time of year that weeds grow and moisture is available.
“Most of our weedy species are Mediterranean, are winter growing,” Hogan said. “When we open our installations up to bare soils, we’re opening it up for weeding. By concentrating on perennials, ground covers and shrubs that are evergreen or winter growing, we are going to suppress the weeds and rely less on chemical weed control.”
Another central aspect of low-maintenance installations is diversity. With monocultures, “what may seem low maintenance is often underperforming,” Hogan said.
It might seem more complicated to plant complementary species, but when they help each other, there is a payback. For instance, Ceanothus or anything in the pea family creates healthy soil, again reducing chemical fertilizers, Hogan said.
“If people want a good-looking, low-maintenance landscape, then there needs to be more evergreen ground covers, fewer deciduous and fewer, if any, cutback perennials,” Hogan said. “Additionally look at the resources and the sense of place, and replace some of the lawn with [something like] strawberry, which are climate-adapted.”
According to Hogan, the three rising stars of low-maintenance landscapes — highly sought after, tough and good backbones for dry landscapes — are Ceanthous, Rhamnus (buckthorn) and Arctostaphylos, excluding the bearberry types. There is such an upsurge in interest that the nursery industry hasn’t been able to keep up with demand, resulting in back orders, Hogan said.
Add in F. chiloensis, which is a Pacific native, and some Mediterranean iris, and you have the recipe for lawn replacement that is evergreen, covers bare ground and holds four-season interest.
Structurally for a low-maintenance landscape, oaks are a favorite of Hogan’s. In many of his installations, some as large as 600 acres, he fills them with grasses and oaks that may only need corrective pruning every few years.
“Many oaks are beautiful, and we have a lot of native ones.” Hogan said. Quercus garryana, for instance, takes the wet in the winter and can be bone dry in the summer. “When we do meadows, we want the grass to go golden in the spring, and the oaks to spill out into the meadows and edges with a nice dark green, creating a visual shape for the landscape.”
Instead of using Q. palustris (pin oak) or Q. rubra (red oak) in this region, oaks native to the West Coast, the Southwest, Mexico and the Mediterranean (such as Q. suber and Q. ilex) are deep rooted, and have long lives, Hogan said. Many are evergreen.
More growers need to propagate them, Hogan said, because there is never enough supply with the new demand. “They are ready for periodic drought at any point, which makes them a great tree,” he added.
Cultivating a low-maintenance culture
Creating interesting, low-maintenance landscapes requires more matching of plants with what Annand calls “naturally occurring plant communities” — not native necessarily, but related plant populations that require the same culture.
That means traditional favorites such as Japanese maples and rhododendrons are not strictly forbidden, but are designed to fit into places where water is available or plants are grouped according to the same need, and then the Mediterranean-type, low-water plants are located elsewhere.
Hogan applied that idea of a low-maintenance center and a drought-tolerant exterior at Argyle Winery.
“We didn’t want to break away from the old-fashioned aesthetic,” Cullina said, “but invoke year-round interest and fragrance with daphnes, grasses, some perennials and some magnolias, then move into more xeriscape.”
“We wanted a garden that spoke to the Willamette Valley, and as our wine industry has matured and become more sophisticated, the landscape is now following suit,” Hogan said. “It’s crunchy on the outside, with native grasses, Mediterranean plants and huge manzanitas.”
Toward the interior, he stylized it with Osmanthus, gardenia, jasmine, daphne and other plants to maintain movement and flashes of color with plants such as Salvia, wild ginger and Cyclamen. “The idea is there should never be a dead moment,” Hogan said.
A low-maintenance plant palette incorporates color, texture, shape and four-season interest while still meeting the need for water conservation, disease resistance and minimal stewardship to encourage structure as the plants fill in.
“The nursery industry has the opportunity to not only ride but also drive the availability of these kinds of plants we should be growing,” Annand said. “It’s a great opportunity. I think a lot of nurseries still want to push hydrangeas and hybrid roses, but it would be great if we got ahead of it, and had the supply to meet the upcoming demand.”