Xeriscaping: A Hot Topic in Santa Fe

Gardeners in New Mexico are exploring xeriscaping — landscaping that doesn't require a lot of water. Displays have moved well beyond mere cactus and rock, but the practice still stirs controversy in some neighborhoods.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's get your Labor Day going with one of the sounds of late summer.

(Soundbite of sprinkler)

INSKEEP: That's the sprinkler, key to the perfect lawn, or at least some people's idea of the perfect lawn. A lawn like that can draw a criticism, especially in parts of the country with little annual rain. Lawns are notorious lushes, soaking up water, which inspires talk of alternatives.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, NPR senior correspondent Ketzel Levine discovered a British gardener at the forefront of the lawnless revolution.

Mrs. ELSBETH BOBS (Xeric Gardener): Let's come in sweetie.

KETZEL LEVINE: Introducing the white haired, blue-eyed Elsbeth Bobs(ph).

Ms. BOBS: …to the garden first, or what would you like to do?

LEVINE: We decide to get acquainted first, so we settle into her sun room, Nemotoad(ph) the cat on her lap as Mrs. Bobs remembers her mother's truly English garden.

Ms. BOBS: My mother was a very good gardener. She loved the gardens. So I had gardens around me when I was a child. Had a tennis court with shrubbery and old apple tree. A lot of lawn. Such fun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LEVINE: In her own Santa Fe garden, behind high adobe walls, Elsbeth Bobs reveals an approach to gardening pretty much still rooted in childhood.

Ms. BOBS: I have a funky shui garden. You know, not feng shui - funky junky shui.

LEVINE: And so it is. A shaded courtyard filled with priceless, if nonsensical sculpture. A seven-foot facsimile of King Tut, a ceramic blueberry pie hanging in the sky, her whims and fancies spill over four adventurous acres of flowering arbors, southwest cottage gardens, even a little grass.

Mrs. BOBS: Well, I had a lot more grass when the drought (unintelligible). Oh my, oh my. It was in the '70s. And the weed took over, one weed. I never found out what it was. It was a horrible weed. So I thought, oh, I just can't keep the grass up with no water.

LEVINE: Not an extraordinary insight. No water, no grass. But in giving up her sponge of a lawn for more idiosyncratic options, it was as if Mrs. Bobs grew gossamer wings and flew ahead of her time. Almost a decade later, in the 1980s, water-wise gardening came into its own. It was called xeriscaping, spelled with an X from xeros for dry. It has since transformed New Mexican gardening and spelled nothing but trouble for homeowners throughout the Southwest.

Mr. SCOTT VARNER (Executive Director, New Mexico Xeriscape Council): I was spit at, got hate mail, threatening letters. The next person who xeriscaped they sued.

LEVINE: Albuquerque homeowner Scott Varner is a tough and tenacious advocate for xeriscaping, which serves him well as executive director of New Mexico Xeriscape Council. His lawnless agenda pits him against realtors and developers, homeowner associations and city codes. He's also up against sod-loving homeowners who live in drought denial.

Mr. VARNER: People come to the desert and don't figure out that this is an area that gets eight inches of rain a year. They bought homes in developments where they were told you can have grass forever, we have plenty of water. And now that we know differently, they're very reluctant to change.

LEVINE: So they were sold a promise of grass?

Mr. VARNER: That's correct. Finally, ten years later, I see that as having change, and now all your really pricy, high-end developments have no grass.

LEVINE: Instead, the best of them have drip irrigated oases of color. Water is conserved by grouping plants according to need, with maybe a few thirsty prima donnas up near the front and islands of hard working drought-tolerant plants further away. Good xeric gardens are wonderfully alive and abundant, but early on, they got a bad rep as being barren and plug ugly.

Mr. VARNER: And we call it zero-scaping because there's zero in the yard.

LEVINE: And there'd be a whole lot more zeroscapes of hot rocks, mulch and gravel if not for plant fiends like David Salman, a born and bred New Mexican with an insatiable appetite for Southwest native plants. He was already the owner of a large Santa Fe nursery when he launched his mail order business, High Country Gardens, with which he has just about cornered the now lucrative xeric niche.

I want that plant.

Mr. DAVID SALMAN (Owner, High Country Gardens): Yeah. One of my absolute favorites, Xenia grandiflora(ph).

LEVINE: A walk through his greenhouses is a pretty giddy experience: bright blues, hot reds, butter yellows, flamingo pinks. Another of Salman's not so secret passions is cactus. He shows me a prickly little four-incher, apologizing for ostentatious bloom. But his bread and butter comes from drought-tolerant perennials, lures for pollinators. And if a plant attracts hummingbirds, it's a slam dunk it'll be in the catalog.

Mr. SALMAN: I probably wouldn't have to stand here for very long and the hummingbirds will be buzzing in and out of all the greenhouses and cold frames.

LEVINE: Bird, bees, butterflies, salvia, penstemon, agastaches, these are the buzz words of xeriscaping. Another is water. This is low water, not no-water gardening.

MR. SALMAN: I have noticed about people, when they think about xeriscaping, is they start to feel guilty about using water. And xeriscaping is not about guilt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SALMAN: It's not guilt-style gardening. It's an embracing style of gardening.

LEVINE: And what could be more embracing than the pleasure garden owned by that most exuberant xeric gardener, Mrs. Elsbeth Bobs.

Ms. BOBS: I used to do everything myself. Now I'm 87. No.

LEVINE: Fair enough. But she is wholly committed to strategic, water-wise gardening, even if it still hurts, just a little, to forego an immaculate English lawn.

Mrs. BOBS: Gardening is about dreams. And it doesn't matter if the dream doesn't come off because you've enjoyed the dream. As long as I can have just a few delphiniums, that's okay. All the rest of it will xeric. But every now and then I have to put my foot down - no cactus.

LEVINE: You will not have cactus?

Ms. BOBS: Not in my lifetime.

LEVINE: With that, Mrs. Bobs scoots the black cat off her lap.

Ms. BOBS: Sorry, puss. I'm very sorry to bounce you.

LEVINE: And sets off to play.

Ketzel Levine, NPR News.

Ms. BOBS: Goodbye. Goodbye.

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