The WaterWise Garden: An introduction to Xeriscaping and reducing the amount of water you need for a beautiful garden year round.
As we get into summer, many of us are concerned about how well our gardens will survive as it gets hotter and we have to work within the city’s water restrictions. The key to a beautiful, drought resistant garden is Xeriscaping – which really just means ‘water wise gardening’.
It may seem complicated, but once you understand the principles, it makes sense and it has the added bonus that it will not only save water, it will also save you time and money.
It’s all about having the right plant in the right place.
It’s about grouping plants in the garden according to their needs and the site conditions. You are already used to grouping plants according to whether they like sun or shade or a bit of both. Xeriscaping takes that just a step further by also grouping them according to how much water they like. The obvious advantage of this is that you don’t damage plants that prefer dry conditions by overwatering to satisfy the needs of ‘thirsty’ plants and visa versa. You also contain your watering to specific areas instead of having to water the entire garden.
As we wrote in a previous article, good gardening begins with conditioning your soil. The most effective way is by adding compost which helps retain moisture in dry, sandy soil and also improves drainage in clay, wet soil. If you have either of these types of soil, you should know that they both have upsides and downsides. Clay retains nutrients while sandy soil allows good drainage. Adding compost helps to maximize the good points while alleviating the bad ones. Adding a few inches of mulch on top of the soil will also help to retain moisture by slowing down the rate of evaporation.
Once your soil is prepared it’s time to begin assessing your current plants.
Make a note of those that need to be watered a lot and those that don’t. The ones that need more water are those that tend to go pale and droop in hot weather or when you haven’t watered for a day or two. Conversely, the ones that don’t like too much water will droop if you water them too much.
Next, think about the situation of your garden. Do you have wind channels funneling through it during the windy season? Winter winds can freeze plants while summer winds can dry them out. The solution is to create wind breaks with hedging.
Do you have a lot of lawn? Grass is ‘thirsty’ and can require up to 3″ more rainfall in some areas to keep it healthy. If you want to reduce the amount of watering you do and if you could do without mowing the lawn, consider reducing the amount of turf or even replacing it entirely with less thirsty landscaping. There are a number of drought resistant ornamental grasses and groundcovers that provide a suitable alternative.
If you must have lawn, then make sure you have at least 4″ to 6″ of good top soil and don’t mow the grass too short. Longer grass has deeper roots meaning it’s able to find water more easily without help from you.
Do you have a sloping garden? If so, you might not have thought about this, but you are losing a lot of water. Water runs down slopes. ‘The solution is to either flatten the slope or to terrace it.
Do you have berms? Berms are raised ridges often used to add depth and interest to a garden. Having them along curbs or walkways is another way to lose water, for the same reason that slopes lose water. They’re useful in areas where the plants are drought resistant as they funnel the water away. If you’re looking to conserve water and use it where needed, channel out these areas so that the water collects and then funnel it to where you need it most.
What about vegetable and fruit gardens? Yes, they can be waterwise too! If you have raised beds, then these will dry out quicker than either flat beds or beds situated on gentle slopes. The solution is to add compost and to mulch at least 4″ deep in order to minimize evaporation and maximize absorption. Before mulching, wait until the weather warms – if you mulch too early, the soil will be too cool. After a good watering or rainfall, add to mulch to beds where the plants are tall enough. If you are having a very wet summer, remove some of the mulch to prevent rot and slugs and snails.
Mulches for vegetable gardens can include: straw, leaf mold, grass clippings and even newspaper. Generally vegetable beds require an inch of water a week, administered as half an inch twice a week.
No matter how carefully you choose drought resistant plants, remember that even they need some water, especially during their first year. It’s important to water consistently until they’re established.
The best time to plant is when it’s cooler, during spring and fall when there’s adequate rainfall. This helps their roots to become established so that later they will need very little watering during the hot, dry season.
If you’re stuck for ideas about how to make your garden water wise, ask us for help. We also encourage you to visit other water wise gardens and demonstration gardens. Take note of which plants in your neighbourhood tend to do well with minimal watering during the heat. Plants such as Iris Germanica, Daylilies, Peonies and Lilacs seem to thrive no matter how much they’re neglected.
Read up on the topic. Join a garden club. Follow web sites and blogs that feature water wise gardening techniques. With a little planning, you can have a water wise garden that looks great no matter what time of the year it is. All using less water than your lawn!
Look out for our next article on “How to Spot a Drought Tolerant Plant.” We’ll also share some sketches of different water wise garden layouts.