Bee here now: Xeriscaping teaches enviro lessons
By Nicolette Toussaint
Sopris Sun Correspondent
“That bee is humongous!”
The comment comes from my 5-year-old neighbor Sam Stableford. Sam and his sister Annabelle, who is 7, showed up and began lugging rocks into place the day I first started to build my xeriscaped meditation garden in Crystal Village. I was surprised that kids would be interested.
I laid out the path in the snow in early 2012. As soon as the ground thawed, a contractor stripped out the lawn – about 800 square feet of it – and I began installing the spiraling flagstone path and berms with help from my two young volunteers.
I designed the spiral with four goals in mind: to save fuel, water and bees – and to deliver an environmental message.
Most of the plants are drought-resistant natives, including sage, rabbit brush, artemisia, speedwell, salvia and three kinds of ground-covering sedum. Wildflowers add color: orange poppies, golden wallflower, warm-hued Indian blankets; blue, white and red columbines, purple larkspur and pink-and-plum lupines.
The spiral attracts bees and children. Today, I have tallied at least four different types of bees, and I count that as a victory. My interest in replacing lawns began four years ago when I enlisted in the Great Sunflower Project, a nationwide effort to grow bee-attracting plants to counteract the decline of honeybee and native bee populations. Each year since 2008, the Sunflower Project has conducted a nationwide bee census.
I didn’t count officially this year, but I see that Sam’s humongous bumblebee has been joined by three smaller bees. The bees favor lamb’s ears and sunflowers, crawling in and out, their hind legs heavy with pollen.
We depend on bees to pollinate about one-third of our food crops, but from 1972 to 2006, the U.S. suffered a dramatic reduction in the number of bees. Personally, I find that terrifying. The reasons for “colony collapse” range from pesticides, mites and urbanization to “mono-culture” – humans’ tendency to replace natural landscapes with sweeping vistas of a single plant, such as lawn grass.
We still have some lawn, but I don’t like to grow it to mow it, first dumping on fertilizer and pesticides, then using fossil fuels to cut it down. To my way of thinking, lawns are fine for Scotland where the rain is plentiful and sheep will do the mowing, but they’re not appropriate here.
Lawsuits and secrets
The idea of yanking out a lawn in favor of xeriscapes or vegetables has sparked lawsuits in places like Orange County, California, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, but judging from the comments I hear, it’s mostly a hit here in Carbondale. Recently, when a notary checked my address, she said, “Oh, are you the people who pulled out the lawn and put in that amazing garden?”
The other day my friend Sue Edelstein remarked, “Nicolette, this has grown more in a year than my garden has grown in five. What did you do?”
The secret, I think, lies in the soil. After the lawn was scalped, revealing hard clay and river rocks, we brought in soil that came from Zeigler Reservoir, near the ice-age fossil finds.
Along the spiral path, I have placed river rocks painted with pictographs that memorialize Zeigler’s vanished ice-age animals and others that once lived in this valley. On the outskirts are a velociraptor-like othnielia and a plesiosaur that swam in an inland sea here 200 million years ago. Near the garden’s center is a camel that lived upvalley 100,000 years ago, along with Snowy the mammoth. They were part of the spiral of life and death, extinction and evolution that includes us too.
Because of all the lush plantings, passers-by may miss the pictographs, but the neighborhood kids know where to find them.
One Sunday morning, I heard voices in the front yard. I looked out to see a tow-headed girl leading a gray-haired woman around the spiral, and was surprised when the girl turned out not to be Annabelle! It was Sophie, another 6-year old neighbor. I hadn’t given Sophie a tour, but she knew all about the spiral; she brought her grandmother “to see the terminator pig.” Apparently, I have an environmental teaching tool in my front yard. I have that on the authority of Sam’s mom Megan Currier, who teaches middle school.
If so, I’m glad. Bring on the kids and the flowers, as well as the bees.
Editor’s note on the “terminator pig”: Nicolette reports that terminator pig is an extinct animal that lived in this valley about 35 million years ago. He’s painted on a rock in Touissant’s garden, along with that date. Other animals painted on the garden’s rocks include the mammoth and sabre tooth tiger. Here’s how Wikipedia describes terminator pig: Entelodonts, sometimes nicknamed hell pigs or terminator pigs, are an extinct family of pig-like omnivores endemic to forests and plains of North America, Europe, and Asia from the middle Eocene to early Miocene epochs (37.2—16.3 million years ago), existing for about 21 million years.