U.S. Water News Online
BOISE, Idaho -- It's not immediately obvious this city was
built in a semi-arid basin of sagebrush and bunch grass.
These days, huge green lawns surround corporate buildings;
towering oaks and maples shelter Boise's scenic old neighborhoods. A
river runs through it all with poplars on the banks.
But Boise gets only about 12 inches of precipitation per year. Now
various gardening and water-conservation groups are trying to return
the city's landscape to its desert-like roots for both practical and
A nursery that features only drought-tolerant plants recently
opened in Boise. The nonprofit Idaho Rivers United is offering grants
to homeowners who want to tear up their thirsty Kentucky bluegrass
and replace it with water-thrifty native plants. Idaho Botanical
Garden and United Water holds classes on drought-tolerant gardening.
And a new group called the Arid Gardening Alliance is bringing
together landscape architects, botanists, and others who want to
teach Boise residents there are low-water landscaping options beyond
rocks and cactus.
"Using the native plant palette would be a huge step in honoring
this area we live in -- a beautiful place," said Katie Wilde, a
landscape designer who helped form the alliance. "There is so much
unique character out there."
History has it that Boise was named in the 1880s by French
settlers who were thrilled to see trees (and exclaimed "Le Bois,"
meaning wood, or forest). They were likely referring to the riverbank
poplars -- the area's only native trees.
The settlers who followed brought their own plant varieties from
home, and now it's not just the fast-food restaurants and other chain
stores that give Boise that look so familiar to other U.S. cities.
With carpets of acorns decorating the ground in the fall and the
always-popular rhododendrons and azaleas adding color to corporate
landscapes, Boise's plants also reflect what settlers missed about
life in the East.
"That's what the settlers knew; that's what they were comfortable
with," said Katie Wilde, a landscape architect with the Arid
Gardening Alliance. "Isn't that the idea behind chain stores? It's
the comfort of having familiar surroundings, regardless of where you
But those decades-old oaks, elms, flowering pears, lindens and
sugar maples need a lot of water, and that water is expensive.
"There are insects, there are diseases, but in my mind, the
biggest problem is water," said Dennis Matlock, who works for the
city's Community Forestry Department. "People are beginning to water
less and less. More homes are not owner-occupied; renters don't want
to go to the expense of paying for water."
Boise engineer Mike Stambulis got $2,000 from Idaho Rivers United
program last year to replace his lawn with about 60 local varieties.
"We had always had the idea to do more drought-tolerant plants; we
just didn't know how to do it," said Stambulis, who got technical
help from the Arid Gardening Alliance.
The arid gardening movement isn't new. The Denver Water utility
has held the trademark on Xeriscape -- a now nationally known
water-saving approach to landscape design -- for 25 years. The Denver
Botanic Gardens copyrighted the name Water-Smart Gardening in the
Last summer, the city of Flagstaff, Ariz., offered homeowners $500
to replace their lawn with rock or low-water plants.
Change has come slowly to Boise, where automatic sprinkler systems
have kept trees, lawns and shrubbery flourishing for decades. But
Idaho is growing faster than almost any other state in the country,
and farmers, fishermen, and other water users are competing for a
limited resource -- generating enough interest for the Arid Gardening
Alliance to come into being.
"People are skeptical; they say, `we love our lawns,"' said
Elizabeth Wasson, who helped start the group.
But nobody loves paying high water bills. And using native plants
is easier, said Panayoti Kelaidis, a spokesman for the Denver Botanic
Gardens. "One reason I try to encourage people to grow more arid
flora is that it's what surrounds us naturally, and it's
extraordinarily beautiful," he said. "Idaho is a land of sagebrush
and gaunt, dramatic mountains, and I think there's sort of an
aesthetic discord that occurs when people create an environment
that's alien from their natural environment."
That's what Diane Jones observed when she opened her new nursery,
which offers only drought-tolerant plants.
"Once we begin to look at and appreciate the natural landscape
that existed here before, we as a society become more inclined to
want to protect it," Jones said. "Understanding where you live, and
having an appreciation for where you live, translates into protecting
where you live."
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