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Montana Spotlight: Xeriscaping in Missoula

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

To her delight, Autumn Berry walked out of her home last June to the gentle humming sound of bees pollinating a lavender bush by her front door.

In the fourth summer since Berry purchased her Missoula home, she says she’s opted out of the traditional manicured greenery she inherited and instead raises plants native to Montana in her front yard – a technique called xeriscaping.

“I always wanted to xeriscape because I hate watering and mowing,” Berry says. “The garden takes care of itself now.”

Dry Gardens

A xeriscape, the word is pronounced with a “z” sound and derived from Ancient Greek (xērós, “dry”), is a landscape style that requires little or no irrigation – the term is also loosely used to describe a native plant garden.

Berry grows lavender, tick weed, black-eyed Susan, common yarrow, mountain-ash, spiraea, and much more. She knows her garden well and can readily identify each species.

“This summer we were camping up at Twin Lakes in the Bitterroot and saw spiraea growing everywhere,” Berry says, referring to one of the many plants growing in her own garden.

“It’s wonderful to come home to that,” she adds.

Berry’s husband, Mike Huberman, laughs as he showcased a picture of their house pre-transformation. In the photo, the house sits neatly atop a grassy knoll in the same location.

“My back hurts just looking at this photo,” Huberman says. “Getting the grass out was the worst!”

Their front yard now bursts with colorful flora: pinks, yellows, purples, and greens. Berry has planted everything in her garden herself aside from one elm tree that hovers sixty feet above the house. The garden’s diversity is evident, though some traditional grass still pokes out between plants.

“If we had an apocalypse grass would still grow,” Berry says.

Grass is largely unquestioned as the ideal estate accessory in mainstream American culture.

Marilyn Marler, University of Montana Natural Areas Specialist, says that the traditional landscapes of grass lawns were an invention of French Royalty and inspired by English manors.

“It’s become a status of wealth in American culture,” Marler says. “You expect it.”

Marler says Americans have unknowingly formed a monoculture across the nation with their affinity for traditional lawns. This leads to ecosystem biodiversity loss.

“Lawn grass is the number one irrigated crop in the United States,” Marler says. “It takes a lot of water, especially here in Montana where it’s dry.”

Back to Nature

Marler says that prior to European contact, the plants thriving in Montana were already adapted to the dry climate. Reinstating those plants, not only increases biodiversity but supports local pollinator populations. In addition, the hardiness of native plants gives them a higher survival rate without tons of water.

“Personally, I got tired of watering plants and mowing,” Marler says. “I’d rather have birds and butterflies.”

Sandy Perrin, a plant horticulturist at the Missoula County Weed District, says she’s seen a growing number of Missoulians transform their yards over the past 10 years. Perrin says although a xeriscape takes less water and is less maintenance in the long run, it’s not necessarily easy to start one.

“People don’t realize you can’t just plant native plants and turn your back away,” Perrin says. “It’s a process. You need to get things well-established in your yard before the xeriscape becomes true to efficiency.”

As locals join the xeriscape bandwagon, plant businesses have blossomed in response.

Shiva Solaimanian, resident designer at a landscaping company called Reforestation in Missoula, says nearly every week the business gets a xeriscaping request. Only a few years ago similar requests came in only once or twice a month. “Most want to convert their lawns or help pollinators.”

“We created a lifestyle that doesn’t make sense to the West,” Solaimanian said. “I don’t understand why anyone wants an ugly lawn when they could have a mini thriving habitat with epic wildflowers.”

Low-Cost Landscape

Gregory Monk, CEO and President of Nature’s Enhancement Inc., says he has also noticed an increase in inquiry, but for a different reason.

“As people’s water bills go up, it’s getting more concerning,” Monk says. “People sometimes get hundreds of dollars of bills per month and they could look at xeriscaping to save money. They could save hundreds of dollars or 65 percent on their water bills depending on the summer.”

Because of a prolific aquifer, Missoula has a good water availability outlook for the future but this is not the case universally across the state. Growing population in any area of Montana in combination with a changing climate can change what once might have been predictability in many locations.

“To ensure our high-quality waters remain, it is important that everyone considers their water consumption, use and impact,” Elena Evans, hydrologist for the City of Missoula says. “Each individual should ask themselves if they can increase their water efficiency.”

According to Evans, xeriscaping could decrease the amount of water that is being pulled out of the aquifer locally. In Missoula, the average metered consumption in winter months is around five million gallons of water per day. In July it peaks at around 21 million gallons per day. That spike is largely due to summer irrigation.

“Often, it’s the bigger issues that seem the most pressing, but it’s up to everyone to look at what they can do. One easy place to look is your backyard,” Evans says. ”

—Geneva Zoltek

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