In the Garden:
Follow the seven principles of drought-tolerant gardening to have a beautiful, sustainable garden.
Maybe where you live, you haven't experienced a drought this summer, but don't feel smug. Sooner or later, what with changing weather patterns, there'll come a time in your garden when you'll face the choice of watching leaves shrivel or indulging in watering them. Rather than being an ecological pariah, it's much better to think ahead, employing sound strategies for water conservation.
In a recent issue of American Nurseryman magazine, author Randy Burroughs, a horticulturist and landscape architect from Asheville, North Carolina, wrote about designing beautiful, functional landscapes that also used water wisely. He utilized the term "functional landscaping," which he defined as treating the garden as a system to be stewarded. The implication is that we can still have sumptuous gardens that are also sustainable. Burroughs encourages us to utilize both drought-tolerant plants as well as plants with moisture flexibility.
While "dry" is a relative condition, say, compared to many areas in the Western States, where the term "Xeriscape" was trademarked by the Denver Water Company, we can look to the basic principles of drought-tolerant gardening to guide us as we re-think our gardens in a more sustainable manner.
Basic Principles of Drought-Tolerant Gardening
Planning and Design - Don't try to fight your site. Study the topography, sun/shade patterns, soil, and drainage. Develop a design that arranges plants according to their needs. Consider your budget, what appearance and functions you want.
Soil Analysis and Preparation - Soils enriched with organic matter, such as compost, hold more moisture and support plant health. Organic matter-rich soils improve water penetration and retention, no matter what type of soil you have. Good root development lessens a plant's need for supplemental water. As a general rule, till in 4 to 6 inches of organic material before planting and regularly use organic mulch.
Select Appropriate Plants - Sure, you might still want to have a few plants that need to be coddled, but most of the plants you choose for your garden should be appropriate to the site and able to thrive in your area during low water conditions. Often, this means native plants, but even these are adapted to different soil and moisture conditions. Do your research. By selecting the proper plants for your yard, the result will be lower maintenance, longevity, environmental health and natural beauty.
Reduce Lawn Areas - Although some of us don't ever water our lawns, many people do. Even without watering, lawns still require gasoline usage for mowing. Reducing or eliminating lawn areas as well as not watering are all options. Lawn areas have a place in the landscape to provide a play surface for children and pets and reduce erosion. Consider where and how large a turf area is desired, how it will be used, and during which seasons it will be used. Consider using tough fescue or fescue-bluegrass mixtures for play areas. For areas with lighter use, consider the native buffalograss.
Mulch - Mulches limit weed growth and their competition for water and nutrients, reduce evaporation and erosion, and moderate soil temperature. Walk through a woodland, and you'll understand that mulching is a naturally occurring process, as leaves and plant debris fall to the forest floor. As gardeners, we want everything neat and tidy, so we often remove that natural mulch and bring in something more pleasing to us, like shredded bark or compost. On a practical level, our gardens usually require more mulch than would occur naturally. The bonus of mulching with materials that readily degrade is that, over time, soil quality improves. Apply 2 to 4 inches of mulch at least once a year in all garden areas.
Water Efficiently - The basics of watering include: Learn to err on the side of watering less rather than more. Plant just before a rain. Utilize rain barrels. Direct water at the roots. Soak the soil thoroughly when you do water.
Curtis W. Smith, Extension Horticulture Specialist at New Mexico State University suggests, "The irrigation system - whether automatic, manual, or hoses moved as needed - is an integral part of landscape planning. It is the foundation around which the plantings are designed. The water-use zones - low, moderate, and oasis - should be separate from each other, and each managed independently. With in-ground irrigation systems, each zone should be under at separate valve. The water should be applied as efficiently as possible. Sprinkler systems are appropriate in areas of turf, but drip, bubbler and micro-spray systems or soaker hoses are more appropriate for shrubs, trees, and annual and perennial plantings. Efficient irrigation applies water where it is needed, not where it will be wasted and benefit only weeds."
Maintenance - Drought-tolerant gardens are not no-maintenance gardens. Any garden requires some maintenance, including watering, weeding, fertilizing, pruning, deadheading, and sensible pest management. All of these activities factor into the "success" of your garden, but they will be minimized by planning your garden thoughtfully. And you'll have a beautiful, livable landscape without excess water use.
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