January 2013

Studio w/Honeysuckle & St.John's Wort

Drought-Tolerant Landscaping

By Dorothy Ainsworth

What would a homestead look like without any trees? Mars comes to mind: Barren, windswept, desolate, and uninviting. There would be nothing alive to climb on, play hide and seek from, sit and read a book against, or have a picnic under. There'd be no shade, no birds, no fruit and nuts, no autumn leaves, no branches to hang a swing from, and no bark for lovers to carve their initials in and revisit when they're old. Oh, and no oxygen to breathe!

Desolate "before" photo 1982
Something green for Martian landscape

Trees are the magnificent culmination of evolutionary genius. They run on solar energy and give back oxygen, so not only do they decorate the earth, but they clean the air. They help slow climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide, and they conserve topsoil. In the world of solar technology, plants of any kind are waaay ahead of the game of harnessing the sun's rays, and their diversity of leaf design is mind-boggling.

Prickly Pear Cactus
Maple leaves

Note: According to the Arbor Day Foundation, a mature leafy tree produces as much oxygen in a season as ten people inhale in a year!

Landscaping decisions are tough and not always what we would aesthetically prefer, but each plant we choose has to fit the soil and climate conditions we have to offer. In this article I will tell what trees and bushes I chose for my property, and why. Well, in 3 little words: dry is why.

Leland Cypress

When I bought 10 acres back in 1981 on the hot thirsty side of Ashland Oregon, all there was on the land was star-thistle, poison oak, buck-brush, and a couple of old live-oaks that looked half-dead. I was determined to change all that, so for starters, as soon as I drilled a well and hooked up a hose, I bought 50 one-gallon-size Leyland Cypress trees at $5/ea. and planted them 5-feet apart along the front of the property that runs parallel to the road.

Dorothy & barren property 1981
Dorothy & Leyland Cypresses 1983
Tiny cabin 1982
Leyland Cypresses 1985
Tiny cabin years later
Tiny cabin protected in winter

I would have liked buying larger trees but with more time than money I had no choice but to be patient. I was too engrossed in developing the property and building a house to do anything but VISUALIZE what those tiny trees would look like someday. That illusive someday is now here and the trees are 10 feet wide and 50 feet tall---in fact SO tall that the power company had to trim them from their lines last year! They provide a thick barrier against traffic noise and fumes and are a gorgeous sight to behold.

Power Co. trims Leyland Cypresses
Leyland Cypresses our view

Leyland Cypresses are drought resistant, insect resistant, deer resistant, and the fastest growing evergreens there are (at least 2-feet a year). They are low-maintenance, grow almost anywhere in any kind of soil, and look lush, plush, and beautiful. They form a dense privacy screen and a formidable windbreak. They even keep free-range errant cows out of my yard!

Leyland Cypresses road side view

Leyland Cypresses thrive well in Zones 6-10 but their kissin' cousins, Thuja Green Giants, hold up better in colder climates, Zones 5-8. They both like plenty of sun and do best in fairly well-drained soil, but then, not many species of trees like wet feet all the time.

Southern Oregon only gets 20 inches of rainfall a year so I store well water in a large holding tank and let gravity do its drip-irrigation all over the property via a maze of inexpensive 3/4" poly-pipe, with an ice-pick hole punched wherever there's a plant. This poor-man's system works great and I've had very few casualties even during extreme drought years.

Deodar Cedar and Juniper

Deodar Cedars are another species that does well in harsh conditions. I found that out 'the easy way' by buying a 4" seedling in a 4" pot for $1.79 at Sprouse-Reitz 30 years ago (now extinct like Woolworths). I poked it in the ground where I could keep an eye on it and water it with a cup, and now that eye has to look 60 feet up to see the top. Before long I'll need binoculars! I have planted a couple of others over the years and they've all taken off the same way. They grow pyramidal and fast and their sweeping branches hang elegantly like flared skirts with lacey edges of velvety new growth. The needles are soft and touchable and the wood is fragrant. They are beautiful trees, and I highly recommend them.

Young Deodar Cedar
Deodar Cedar boughs
Juniper berries

Every once in a while a tree chooses me. A small Juniper with its tiny roots intact jumped off a logging truck as it went by my property and I scooped it off the road and stuck it in the ground. Now it's a huge and handsome bluish-green tree with Juniper berries galore on it. If I were a drinker I could make my own gin!


I'm too busy multitasking to fuss over any ONE task (such as landscaping) so whatever I plant better be able to mostly take care of itself. Drought tolerant Hybrid Poplars fit that description, so I bought 20 of them at $10 each back in the 80's, and planted them 12 feet apart along the west side of my future house site. The house is now finished and they provide shade in the summer and dazzle us with golden leaves in autumn that create a natural bed of mulch when they fall. (No, I don't rake leaves!) I planted some evergreens behind them so when the poplars are bare, the Douglas Firs, Ponderosa Pines, and Blue Spruces take over the job of wind protection.

Log house landscaping looking south
Log house surrounded by trees

Poplars send out runners (surface roots with new shoots sticking up) so I took cuttings with a sharp shovel and transplanted dozens of them all over the property and around a pond fed by a windmill. Those lucky trees at the pond got all the water they could drink so they've grown HUGE and now provide a cool heavenly oasis where the dogs and kids hang out when it's 100 degrees in the summer.

Hybrid Poplars at pond
Zane rafting at shaded pond
Zane & Peaches enjoy shaded pond
Peaches guards while Zane naps

A combination of evergreens and deciduous trees for practical as well as aesthetic reasons grace the land with plenty of seasonal color and a variety of shapes, sizes, and textures to gaze upon: globes and ovals, wide-spreading, columnar, open-headed, pyramidal, and weeping. Alternating the two types in the same row or with one row behind the other means back-up wind protection in the winter.

Lombardi Poplar, Deodar Cedar, & Red Pin Oak
Leyland Cypress, Silver Poplars, & Staghorn Sumac

Another drought resistant tree is the Silver Poplar. Twenty five years ago I took root cuttings from a friend's yard (Yes, I'm The Root Bandit) and planted a double row of what looked like scrawny little stems poking out of the ground alongside the road that curves around a piano studio I built. From those tiny starts grew long graceful trunks supporting high branches filled with shimmering leaves that sway in the breeze. The leaves are green on one side and white on the other and they quake in the wind like their close relative the Aspen.

Studio floor & Dorothy 1982
Young Silver Poplars
Studio w/Poppies & Silver Poplars
Studio landscaped
Studio & Oak tree
Studio entrance landscaped

I have since taken cuttings from those second generation trees and let nature help me create even more beautiful windbreaks in other problem areas, such as near my son Eric's house. I used a tight row of Leyland Cypresses again to deflect the strong winds coming up his hill from the southwest, and planted a row of Silver Poplars in front of them for color and shade in three out of the four seasons.

Young Leyland Cypresses at Eric's
Eric's house late summer

A local nursery had a rare sale on 10-foot Lombardi Poplars several years ago, so I bought 50 of them at $10/ea., and planted them eight feet apart along the northern boundary of my property. I ran 400 feet of irrigation poly-pipe along the fence line and those trees are now about 30 feet high. Their fall color is breathtaking!

Young Lombardi Poplars
Dorothy planting Poplars
Lombardi Poplars 5 years later
Lombardi Poplars in autumn
Tree of Heaven

Another friend offered me root cuttings from what most nurseries call a weed but is one of my favorites: The Tree of Heaven. Talk about drought resistant! This one gets the prize. You can propagate them anywhere and they grow rapidly into big strong widely-branched beautifully-leafed shade trees similar to Black Locusts. The multi-fingered pinnate leaves (resembling a feather's design) are delicate-looking as they hang from slender stems, but don't be fooled; these trees are tough!

Young Trees of Heaven
Fall color looking east

I planted 10 of them strategically around the property where I want BIG shade and they are here to stay. Everywhere I look around town I see these survivors growing and flourishing where no other plant would dare to tread. Some have more than one trunk and support canopies that are 60 feet high and 40 feet wide. (They originated in China and were used in Chinese medicine and for hosting the silkworm moth for silk production.)

They are called invasive, but to me, that's not a bad word. That's exactly what I want where nothing else will grow without being pampered. Their life span is only about 50 years, but they colonize by sending out root sprouts, and the seeds have wings. That means free labor!


Bamboo is another plant that has a bad reputation for being invasive. I say: "Bring it on!" It will only spread if it gets a surplus of water, and on my dry land it doesn't. Dense walls of Golden Bamboo surround one of my decks and it extends our indoor/outdoor living space. The deck is totally protected from wind and sun and the segmented trunks and long skinny leaves of bamboo are simply divine. It is easily transplanted from root cuttings wherever one wants a beautiful stand of green and yellow bamboo that filters the light and offers privacy and protection.

Pole barn with deck & bamboo
Deck & Golden Bamboo "wall"

A large stand of bamboo is so impenetrable that you could hack a narrow trail into the middle and clear a flat spot to use as a meditation room or a kid's clubhouse or whatever. Bamboo is unique, versatile, and fast growing. It comes in many varieties including Timber Bamboo which is used for construction in Asia, and wood products such as flooring. In my opinion bamboo is one of the most visually appealing ornamental plants there is.

Young bamboo in wine-barrels

I've transplanted many bamboo starts from root cuttings, and they took very well if I kept them damp until established. They look nice along utility fences, and they camouflage anything unattractive.

Ground Cover

For large and hilly areas I prefer ROWS of trees and BANKS of plants, with accent bushes placed here and there for bursts of fall color. St.John's Wort is a great solution if you have a steep bank and want to prevent erosion. They are drought-resistant fast-growing creepers that spread their tangled roots in a formidable grid to hold soil and water. I've covered two such banks with tiny starter plants the size of a quarter (and the cost of a quarter) and now they are carpeted with a dense layer of soft green leaves. The deer don't like it, but lady bugs and honey bees abound in great numbers when the foot-high foliage blooms with bright yellow flowers in late June.

Bank & St.John's Wort 1991
Bank & St.John's Wort 1992
St.John's Wort set in weed cloth
St.John's Wort years later
Maples and Oaks

In addition to the rows of low-maintenance trees, I've been unable to resist buying a few trees for sheer beauty. I am wooed by trees that accent the landscape with dazzling fall colors. Among those gorgeous trees are the maples. The October Glory is big and hardy and turns crimson red in the fall, and the Autumn Blaze is so brilliant it looks like it's on fire when the leaves turn a phosphorescent red-orange.

Autumn Blaze Maple
Phosphorescent leaves

I planted a Red Oak for size and longevity, and a Sugar Maple for height. The latest addition to my family of maples is a columnar Karpick Maple, which stands stately like a sentinel at the end of a long row of Red-tipped Photinia running along the dirt road to Eric's house. Someday it will tickle the sky 50 feet up, but remain slim at 20 feet wide. In the fall, its bright red and gold leaves look striking against the deep blue sky.

Row of 50 new Red-tipped Photinia
New row Red-tipped Photinia 2012

It was an impulse buy at an annual nursery sale of their more mature trees. There was only one 20-foot "Karpick" and I'd never heard that name before, but I fell in love with it at first sight and didn't hesitate to shell out $150 for it.

Zane helps Grandma plant Karpick Maple
Digging hole for Karpick Maple

My own variation of Joyce Kilmer's famous poem was running through my mind as the worker was loading it in the truck: "I KNOW that I shall never see a poem as lovely as THIS tree". Later on I learned that the Karpick Red Maple is a lesser known variety of Sugar Maple. Whatever it is it will give us years of visual pleasure.

Royal Empress and Mimosa Silk Tree

There are two other trees that are an absolute must to plant on just about any piece of property: The Mimosa Silk Tree and the Royal Empress Tree. They are BOTH tough and fast-growing, but their beauty belies their durability.

The Royal Empress is one of the fastest growing deciduous trees there is (3-feet a year is common), and will reach 50 feet tall and 40 feet wide in just a few years. The large leaves hang from widely spaced branches, forming a dense canopy of delicious shade by summer. Oddly enough the empress is late to come to the ball in the spring but stays long after the party is over before letting her hair down at midnight (late fall).

In the winter its smooth branches are covered with furry little buds that burst into fragrant pinkish-purple blossoms in the spring, like something you'd see in Hawaii. Its fragrance is a cross between Jasmine and Gardinia. It grows almost anywhere and has no significant pest or disease problems. It tolerates drought and most soils, and is a hardwood that lives to an old age. All this in a tree that you don't have to baby! It's incredibly beautiful but almost indestructible. Even Oprah got in the act and recommended it.

Bank w/new Pampas & St.John's Wort
Royal Empress 2 years old

When I bought mine, it looked like a tiny squash plant with a pliable green stem (trunk?) in a 6" container, but it cost $25! I remember thinking: THIS is a TREE??? I really had my doubts---but not for long. It has been in the ground only 4 years, is 12-feet tall, and already spreading it's arms far and wide and waving gracefully like a royal empress should. I did it a favor by planting it on the lee side of Eric's house so its huge leaves would be buffered from the wind, and indeed, it is flourishing flawlessly.

Bank & young Royal Empress tree

The Mimosa Silk Tree---another remarkable beauty---is unsurpassed as a hummingbird magnet. It is easy to grow, drought-tolerant, adapts to almost any soil type, and can be planted in full sun or partial shade. Its fragrant hot-pink tropical-looking blossoms grow in clusters and face UP like shimmering cups offering nectar to be sipped. Its smooth greenish-gray trunk supports a fluttering umbrella of fern-like leaves that is wider than the tree is tall and lends wonderful shade on a hot summer day. I like to sit and watch the show---where at least 20 hummingbirds at any given time flit around from flower to flower, drinking, fighting, flirting, mating, and singing. I could go down to the local bar and see the same thing, but, no thanks, I'll stay home where it's much more entertaining---under the silk tree.

Mimosa Silk tree in yard
Mimosa Silk tree in bloom

Note: The Mimosa Silk Tree is another late bloomer. Just when you think it must have died in the winter, it finally shows signs of life in late spring, but is still going strong in late fall long after all the other trees are skeletons of their former selves. One lingering hummingbird took its last sip in November last year.

Zane climbs Mimosa Silk tree
Zane conquers Mimosa Silk tree
Flowering Hawthorne and Golden Chain Tree

Two more ornamental trees that offer unusual visual treats are the Flowering Hawthorne and the Golden Chain. Both do well up here on the arid savannah. As serendipity would have it I planted them in close proximity to each other 20 years ago, not knowing they would bloom at the same time and compliment each other as beautifully as a multi-cultural beauty pageant. The Flowering Hawthorne's tangled hair reminds me of a Jamaican's dreadlocks adorned with an extravagance of dark pink rosettes, and the Golden Chain Tree's bright yellow pendulous blossoms hang like Goldilocks' ringlets. Side by side, the contrast is stunning!

Flowering Hawthorne & Golden Chain
Golden Chain & Foxglove
Giant Cottonwood

When I first bought the property I cut down what I thought was a huge dead Cottonwood Tree, leaving only a 3-foot high and 3-foot diameter dry cracked stump. It miraculously grew back with a vengeance and is now an amazing 80 feet tall, making it the largest tree on the land! I'm still in awe.

Barn & Cottonwood tree 1986

A few other deciduous species of trees doing well on my land are: Elm, Sunburst Locust, Sycamore, Paper White Birch, and Liquid Amber (AKA: Sweet Gum). A Prickly Pear Cactus I acquired (gift) felt right at home here and has taken over a rocky area where nothing else would grow.

Liquid Amber trees
Staghorn Sumac
Fruit and Nuts

Being a big advocate of EDIBLE landscaping I planted a small orchard years ago and another one recently. I've found that cherry trees require the least maintenance. Apples and almonds are next, then plums and pears. Apricot and peach trees are prone to leaf curl and other diseases and need to be sprayed and pruned regularly. Apricot trees are the first to bloom in the spring and have to be protected against frost bite.

Dorothy planting orchard 1982
Orchard 1985
Almond tree in spring
Apricot tree autumn

Nothing seems to bother cherry trees. I prefer STANDARD Bings because they grow impressively huge and I'm perfectly willing to share the crop on the very top with the birds. I planted one bare-root Bing for grandson Zane the year he was born and they are growing up together---both 12 this year!

Zane's Bing Cherry tree 2001
Zane in Bing Cherry tree 2012

His mother Cynthia bought a Spanish Fir as a live Christmas tree for Zane's first Christmas and they too are growing up together. The Spanish Fir is interesting looking but not commonly stocked in nurseries, but has proven to be a good thriving specimen on this hot dry land. It is slow-growing but very unusual and exceptionally handsome---just like Zane! (Am I a grandma or what?)

Zane 5 & Spanish Fir
Zane 10 & Spanish Fir

The Halls Hardy Almond and the Hardy English Walnut trees I planted are extremely low-maintenance and very productive. Nuts are excellent survival food when all else fails. They store well and are loaded with protein and healthful Omega-3 fatty acids.


Ceanothus ( buck brush) is native to this land so I leave it alone to do its thing. It is also known as Wild Lilac and is buzzing with bees in the spring, which also help pollinate the fruit trees. It is fast-growing but stickery so I prune it back on trails or if it gets too close to a structure (fire danger) and that's it. An eye-catching variety called Blue Ceanothus is available at nurseries. The blue is so intense it appears fluorescent.

Native Ceanothus bushes
Pampas Grass accent at house

Pampas Grass is one of my all time favorite grassy shrubs. It makes an attractive impermeable hedge (the sharp-edged leaves can cut like a knife) but has a whimsical flair and gorgeous spires that burst into feathery bloom in the fall. It is native to southern South America so it's drought friendly and self-pruning (old spires die and make way for new ones). Because I prefer tall and wide hedges I always buy the large standard size, but the dwarf variety would look pretty in a smaller yard as well as in containers.

Barn fence before Pampas
Barn fence after Pampas
Storage shed landscaped
Storage Shed & Leyland Cypresses

I've had excellent luck with Lavendar shrubs, Lilac bushes, Scotch Broom, Oregon Grape, Burning Bush, and Staghorn Sumac. Red-Tipped Photinia is a given; it grows anywhere ( even along a freeway), and can be trimmed into a hedge or allowed to turn into a tree (8-feet tall and 6-feet wide). The rich red tips (new growth) that come out in the spring are like eye candy wherever you look.


Forsythia is a large shrub that is the first to bloom in early spring with bright yellow tentacles of blossoms reaching out wildly in every direction and announcing spring is here even though the calendar says it isn't.


Rose Hips (good source of vitamin C) volunteer all over the place. Boysenberries and blackberries go crazy up here as long as I water them. Wild strawberries carpet certain areas of the land but I also plant regular strawberries and they are hardy and productive. Luckily they propagate themselves by sending out runners, so there's never a shortage for smoothies and shortcake. I mulch them with straw to withstand the winter.


I've chosen flowers that do well in full sun: Sunflowers, old-fashioned Hollyhocks (think grandma), Morning Glories, and my all-time favorite: Foxglove (adorable speckled hanging bells). I've planted hundreds of BULBS: Daffodils, Narcissi, Poppies, and Irises. Every year we get surprised anew when those harbingers of spring poke their pretty little heads out of the snow. Bulbs are one of nature's most ingenious inventions!

Purple Irises

I adore flowers but I don't clip their heads off and put them in a vase. I like everything to be free, including me.

Welcomed clouds in hot summer
Volunteer Sunflowers

Using the land as an artist's pallet, nature paints the sloping hills knee-deep in purple Vetch and blue Lupine every spring. The sight is spectacular! Then when it dries up it adds nitrogen to the soil. Beautiful AND useful---how perfect is that!

Vetch in spring
Dry property in summer
The Plan

My landscaping style is pretty loose and I'm certainly not an expert. I do some google research first, then just up and plant whatever catches my eye and is recommended for my area (zone). My general philosophy is: "let nature take it course" and "survival of the fittest".

From the beginning I've had no big master plan or grand scheme, but I know what I like: balance and beauty and practicality. I do a lot of artistic visualization so the overall landscape will end up looking natural and pleasing to the eye. Sometimes I've bought shrubs and trees on impulse ( on sale) and figured out where to put them after I got home. Nurseries thrive on plant lovers like me who let green emotions run away with their purse. (Warning: It's an easy addiction to acquire.)

My homestead is a work in progress and nature is doing the finish work for me now. I water everything enough, fertilize occasionally, and mulch with hay and/or straw for winter. I SHOULD spray my fruit trees (organic oil spray) and prune them regularly but I seldom get around to it. Heck, I don't even prune my own hair very often!

Young landscaping around new house
Eric's house view from tree house
Smoke Tree

I'm trying my best to wind down from buying new plants because we're on a well and I am forced to conserve water, and I also maintain a vegetable garden. But there's a special tree I've always wanted and it doesn't drink much---but it smokes! Smoke Trees are like giant shrubs with unusually eye-catching clouds of gossamer pink, white, or purple haze hovering over the inner branches which are camouflaged by the billowing smoke. Artists have portrayed them in western desert paintings because they are so unique and enchanting. Once you see one, you'll never forget it. I may be tempted to plant one in each color....

What will Stan say?
Bearded Iris

Every hot summer while tromping around irrigating, I think enough is enough, but every spring I get the bug to dig in the dirt again. It doesn't help that a horticulturist named Stan Mapolski keeps egging me on to plant new things. I listen to his Saturday morning radio show called "The Rogue Gardener" (AM 1440) where locals call in with their landscaping and gardening questions to get advice. He's very serious and thorough in his answers and never seems to get stumped. I'm dying to ask him this one but I just hope I can keep a steady voice: "My Bearded Iris has a mustache. What should I do?"

Closing Thoughts

It feels good to look about the land and know I planted everything on it by digging each hole with a pick and a shovel. It was mildly back-breaking but not bank-breaking. It was tremendous exercise and I still have the muscles to show for it. That's the benefit-in-disguise of being economically-challenged: you HAVE to do all your own labor, and nature pays you back with strength, endurance, and a feeling of satisfaction you can't put a price on. About half my landscaping has been free for the digging. I never pass up a green gift, even if I have to turn red to get it.

By plugging away over the years, I've inadvertently created a diversified eco-system that is virtually alive with birds (60 species documented so far) and a multitude of other critters running to and fro night and day. When I first bought the property only lizards, scorpions, and rattlesnakes were scurrying and slithering around. Now there's an environment that invites and nurtures all kinds of wildlife, and we're all sharing the land and enjoying the heck out of it. What could be better than that!

Cynthia, Zane, & Zorro find heavenly shade

My trees have provided not only shade and fruit, but priceless memories (and photographs) of dogs, cats, and kids who have had great fun playing on, under, and around them. Laughter still echoes from the tree-house whenever Zane comes to visit. It's music to my ears.

Daughter Cynthia picks cherries 2012
Zane 11 in 2012

My advice to new property owners is to plant NOW and do everything else later. Dig a hole, add water, and nature will do the rest. The labor is short-lived but the beauty and usefulness are forever. Grab your shovel....time is not a renewable resource!

Fall color looking north
Eric's house landscaped


Dorothy The Weedwizard of OZ