TWIN FALLS — Living on the northerly fringe of the Great Basin Desert, Magic Valley residents are just starting to explore the art of creating garden spaces that conserve their precious water.
As the Magic Valley continues to mature and water becomes increasingly in short supply, more residents will likely consider conservation gardening — to protect that natural resource.
“When you talk about this type of gardening most people think of gravel or sagebrush,” Andy West said, who is the Idaho Master Gardener state coordinator and works for the University of Idaho Twin Falls County Extension Office.
When in fact there are many species and varieties of drought-tolerant trees, shrubs and plants that come from all across the country and even other countries that will grow in the region’s high desert climate and soils — and there is an impressive subset that falls into the category of being native to the state.
The definition of a native plant in the strictest sense would be indigenous to the person’s property before it was developed, but other wider definitions include being indigenous to a local eco-system, region or state.
LaMar Orton owns Orton Botanical Garden in Twin Falls with his wife, Rosalie Orton.
The garden is a non-profit, five-acre demonstration conservation garden, which is open to the public for tours.
The demo garden has more than 400 species and varieties of thriving drought-tolerant trees, shrubs and plants.
Orton has developed a list of 130 drought tolerant plants including evergreen trees and bushes, deciduous trees and bushes, perennial flowers, groundcovers and succulents.
They began developing the garden, tucked away on Falls Avenue North in 2002.
LaMar Orton said many of the people touring the garden are from the Magic Valley and are interested in conservation gardens, but a good percentage of them come from across the state or from outside the state.
“The percentage of people actually doing this type of gardening in the Magic Valley is pretty small,” Orton said. “But, I see that changing as time goes on.”
Adapting to the high desert
On average, south-central Idaho receives annual precipitation of only 10 inches.
This year 80 percent of the state is experiencing drought conditions, the Idaho Department of Water Resources told the Times-News in June.
And at some irrigation districts across the state, water managers are talking about cutting irrigation flows off early.
The availability of water, West said, will only worsen as time goes on.
West said in Twin Falls the average water usage in the summer months increases about three times over the usage during the rest of the year.
“We live in a desert, the high desert plain,” he said. “People like to think that water’s always been there in the past and it will always be there, but we are pulling out more and more of it and there is less available.”
West said a US Environmental Protection Agency report on water usage calculates that 50 percent of all outdoor water use is wasted through overwatering, runoff or evaporation.
“There is absolutely a need for conservation here. The Magic Valley depends on water and it is a precious commodity,” West said.
Drought resistant and native plants, which often go hand in hand, will need more water to get established, he said, but once they take root the water requirements go down and often they need only stewardship.
The more people who begin looking at the availability of the future water supply, and adapting to it, he said, the better.
And as interest for water conservation gardening grows in the Magic Valley —the supply of those types of plants on the market will follow, he said.
A field of green: At what cost?
Average bluegrass turf takes four times as much water as anything else planted, West said. And the Long term costs of mowing and fertilizing turf areas should also be considered.
Orton said their water conservation garden is watered a maximum of six times a year for an hour using overhead sprinklers.
If everyone planted only one-fourth of their front yard with drought-resistant plants, West said, it would help.
Or they could develop their front yard landscape using drought-resistant species and have lawn for their children to play on in the backyard.
Homeowners wouldn’t have to convert their entire yards to make an impact, he said.
Designing a garden
When designing a water conservation garden space the first step is developing a plan.
Consider where turf will be planted, the land contour and climate and soil type along with how the landscape will be watered.
West said people should group drought-tolerant species with other plants having similar water requirements.
Much of the soil in the Magic Valley has a high clay content and may need additions of materials to increase drainage. Many succulents and native plants will not grow in clay-based soil.
“You don’t want the water sitting around the roots or the roots will rot,” West said.
At Orton’s garden, they brought in 4,000 cubic yards of gravelly soil and constructed berms for additional drainage, which shed the excess water after heavy rains or during snowmelt.
How does your garden grow?
At Orton’s garden, care was taken to include types of plants that flower all season long to deliver constant color and interest in the garden.
Blossoms throughout the season provide the pollinators with a stable food supply, Orton said.
The garden is chock full of trees, bushes and plants including fern bushes with leaves revealing the origin of the name, but that really belong to the rose family, majestic towering Yucca plants, including 23 varieties and 4 o’clocks with delicate blooms that open when the sun goes down — along with all types of succulents.
Many of the plants have unusual and interesting characteristics, like the chocolate flower plant with cheery yellow blossoms — that really do smell like chocolate and a Desert Willow, that isn’t really related to the willow, but is a small tree with slender willow-like leaves and purple blossoms so stunning, they look unreal.
The Prickly Pear cactus flowers only last for a day, like many cactus blossoms, Orton said, and each flower on the Prickly Pear starts off yellow morphing to orange followed by pink at the end of the day.
The Agave century plant, a long-leaf succulent, does not bloom for decades, depending on the climate. Many species flower only once and die.
The pups, or offshoots from the original plant, will then take its place, Orton said.
Yucca plants need Yucca moths to pollinate, but the drought-tolerant plant is not native to Idaho, so there are no moths to pollinate them — or are there?
Until this year the Ortons never had any Yucca plants develop seed pods, but this year there are pods dangling from some of the stalks. Whether or not the seeds will be viable — has yet to be determined, Orton said.
The Ortons don’t use any insecticides in the garden and rely on natural methods, including the introduction of natural predator insects or by using pure cinnamon to get rid of ants.
“Many people don’t realize that 90 percent of the insects are beneficial or benign,” Orton said. And they can help promote the overall health of the garden.
To learn more about water conservation gardening and native plants visit Orton Botanical Garden, Idaho Native Plant Society, which has a Twin Falls chapter called Loasa, University of Idaho Extension Office in Twin Falls which has some water conservation demonstration gardens at the Twin Falls County office and Native Roots, a nursery and farm that specializes in native plants.