Water-Wise Gardening Tips

It’s dry out there. We had pretty good moisture over the winter months, but the early spring has been unseasonably warm (OK!) and dry. We’ve come to expect that in New Mexico, and a few days ago, I wrote about the wildfire danger. Today, let’s review a few tips for water-wise spring landscaping that help homeowners here and just about anywhere in the country where drought can be an issue.

  • Set out your rainwater harvesting system. If you live in a climate zone that’s warm enough to leave rain barrels out all winter or have underground cisterns, your system has been efficiently gathering water all winter. In other climates, rain barrels can freeze in winter. Ours are on the south side of the house and should be past danger of long and hard freeze. Now, all we need is rain.
rain barrel in New Mexico
A simple rain harvesting system that came as a kit. All we had to do was shorten our downspout.
  • Update your irrigation system to a low-volume method. The most practical and water-efficient way to hydrate ornamentals is with drip irrigation. When you use spray heads, water evaporates into the air. It also hits leaves and nearby plants. The spray can cause leaf disease in some plants, plus it’s more efficient to soak roots deeply than to water the entire plant.
  • As you plan your irrigation, or check out your current system this spring, make sure to adjust the water amount for the plants or areas where you have bubblers. For example, succulents and many xeric plants need no water at all once established, unless you’re in an extreme drought. You can cap those bubblers off. Too much water can actually harm some xeric plants. Use drips at the base of low- and medium-water flowers and groundcovers. Increase the flow rate for larger shrubs and trees, and add a few extra emitters around trees, especially while they’re becoming established. Remember that tree roots grow out, just like the canopy.
drip system for xeric gardening
A drip system irrigates rosemary, yucca and other plants in this xeric garden.
  • Water in the morning to get your plants through the heat of the day, and when less evaporation occurs.
  • Use raised beds. Raised beds and containers concentrate water, so if you want a few herbs or vegetables or some medium- to high-water ornamentals, confine them to an area that takes a little more water than the others. If you place the raised bed near your drip system, you can add it to the mix and adjust the flow on your emitter if necessary. Just remember, some containers, such as clay pots, dry out more quickly, even though they use less water each time. It’s like having a smaller tank on a fuel-efficient car. It’s not necessarily using more gas, just needing more frequent refilling.
  • When adding plants to your garden, build a small well around them to hold water. This helps the plant soak up the irrigation and keeps water from running down and off the plant, wasting your precious resource.
well at base of tree
This well helps hold water until this small tree is established, especially since it’s on a slope.
  • Use mulch when possible to help retain water and keep roots cool during the heat of the summer.

Finally, automatic irrigation is most efficient, and the consistent, timed watering is best for plants and lawns. But override it whenever you can after a good rain. I used to bemoan the waste when my neighbor’s sprinklers would come on as scheduled while their lawn already glistened with rainwater.

deer in xeric garden
Most of the plants in our xeric rock garden receive no irrigation, just supplemental watering to establish new plants or an occasional drink during drought.

Xeric Garden Zones

If you’re planning a xeric garden for spring, and especially if you’re planning to take out a grass lawn and replace it with gravel and xeric plants, try planning your garden in recommended water zones.

First, let me jump on my gravel soap box. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it every chance I get: Ripping out grass and replacing it all with gravel represents many homeowners’ idea of xeric gardening. They soon find out that it’s not the best solution when a tree left in the middle of a gravel lawn dies and their home cooling bill skyrockets.

gravel yard
A typical gravel lawn misnamed as xeriscaping. Note the grass creeping up between the gravel, but that’s a future topic.

So let’s consider zones instead.

Arid Zone

You’ll want your most arid zone farthest from your house. Choose native plants that need the least amount of water, hopefully no supplemental watering at all. Here in New Mexico, that might include cacti, yuccas and many varieties of native flowering plants like Kniphofia uvaria (Red hot poker) or Berlandiera lyrata (Chocolate flower). It all depends on your landscape and personal preference.

Cacti-gravel
Cacti can add texture, height, blooms and plenty of interest to an arid zone.

Transition or Middle Zone

Your next zone can blend some lush, medium water areas with drier ones. Here’ you’ll use plants that take low and medium water. They only need water beyond nature’s supply about once a week or less. It’s a great spot for medium-water shrubs and trees, such as Spartium Junceum (Spanish broom) and various native oaks to provide summer shade, but let winter sun shine through.

This lawn is not a perfect depiction of the transition and mini-oasis, but it shows the arid zone with low-water plants, and a Bermuda lawn. Note the unhealthy cypress, planted years ago.
This lawn is not a perfect depiction of the transition and mini-oasis, but it shows the arid zone with low-water plants, and a Bermuda lawn.

Mini-oasis Zone

If you want to keep some grass, here’s your chance. Drought-tolerant grasses like Bermuda, Blue Grama, or Buffalograss need little watering but keep your lawn green and other plant roots cool. When used in moderation, and not to cover huge areas, they’re still low- to medium-water choices for this zone. Add some annual flowers in beds or containers up close to the house. By placing lusher plants and turf that need a little more water closer to your home, you help cool your house and take advantage of water runoff from the roof and downspouts.

xeric landscaping zones
A simple example of xeric water zones.

Of course, the drawing simplifies the concept. Landscapers who understand xeriscaping concepts know how to make your zones appealing and customized for your tastes and gardening ability. And by using microclimates, mulching, welling and other waterwise concepts we’ve discussed in other posts, you can push the limits in some of the zones. The basic concepts are to keep from overusing water and avoiding undermining the health of existing trees, along with the comfort and appearance of your home.

How Do Gardeners Conserve Water?

I’m a member of the Garden Writers Association, and one of the benefits to membership is access to research conducted by GWA’s foundation on consumer gardening trends. The Fall 2013 report explored how gardeners conserve water and provided three years of historical data for comparison. I have to say that the results gave me pause.

About 68 percent of consumers surveyed said they have a lawn or garden in 2013 and of those surveyed, here are the top ways they conserved water this summer:

  • Used more mulch (28 percent).
  • Used more drought-tolerant plants (17 percent).
  • Watered with drip irrigation (15 percent).
  • Used a rain barrel (12 percent).
  • Didn’t water at all (30 percent).

OK, not bad overall, but my concern is that on every water-conservation measure, the percentage was down — from two to five percentage points — from the 2010 survey. Is it a matter of awareness that peaked, then waned? Or is it simply an anomaly, something to attribute to the size or randomness of the sample surveyed? Probably not the latter, because GWA says that the sample balances the population geographically. In that case, we’ve got work to do to raise gardeners’ awareness of water conservation. That’s certainly a goal of this blog.

rain barrel
This rain barrel soon will connect to another barrel and we’ll add a third barrel on the southwest side of the house. One barrel can fill with a good summer rain.

Here are a few more findings to ponder, though. An additional 28 percent of respondents said “Didn’t think about it,” and 8 percent responded “not sure,” or refused to answer the question. So that means more than one-third of gardeners are doing nothing at all to conserve water in their lawns or gardens. It could be that many of those people, like a portion of the 30 percent who didn’t water, live in lush, rain-heavy areas that require no supplemental water. It made me think of how envious I would get when visiting the northeast or Hawaii. I get it; nature takes care of most of the watering there. Then again, the last time I went to Maui, restaurants only served water upon request because the island was experiencing a drought. That’s right. I know a tropical drought is not the same as a desert drought, but it’s all relative, and an island (even though surrounded by water) has finite resources.

plant in fence post
Plants grow just about anywhere in Maui, even during a drought.

We’ll discuss more ideas of how to conserve water, including rain catchment and whether it’s a good idea not to water at all, in future posts. For now, I just really want to raise awareness. I’m not perfect in my conservation efforts either, but I’m learning more as I write these posts. And there’s a certain degree of natural conservation that comes with the territory when you live in the desert Southwest.

Maximize Xeric Plant Choices with Microclimates

There already are plenty of fabulous choices for drought-tolerant plants, but we found that our choices narrowed a little when we moved into a slightly colder zone. We’re quickly discovering that our new location has a shorter growing season, but that it can get warm here, so unpredictability makes it a little risky but a lot fun.

With microclimates, I figure we can push the envelope on a few of our favorite xeric plants. First, let’s talk about microclimates. In essence, a microclimate is a pocket of an area that can vary in temperature and exposure to the elements. A microclimate can be large or tiny. An example of a large microclimate might be the area that runs along the river. The grass there is still green and the leaves remain on some of the trees. A combination of shelter, shade, lower elevation, and moisture contribute to the cooler temperatures you feel when you walk through there on a sunny day.

river with grass
Microclimates occur along rivers because of dappled shade, lower elevation, and extra groundwater.

Microclimates can be as small as the few feet you have to plant in front of your south-facing wall or the inside of the plastic bottle you place over a seedling to absorb sunshine and maintain humidity for a mini-greenhouse effect.

bottles_micro_web
Tim covered these transplants with cut-off plastic bottles and set them in a window for a mini-greenhouse effect.

We brought a pad from our spineless prickly pear along and to be sure it made it here, we planted it against the rock wall on the northeast side of our garden (facing southwest) to maximize sun and minimize wind exposure. You also can use microclimates to make plants more drought tolerant. For example, put a plant that needs a little more water than nature usually provides in summer where your terrain naturally comes to a slope and slight pool, creating a natural well. And avoid placing a plant that can’t handle drought on a high southwest-facing spot with no protection. In my area, at least, you might as well be putting the plant up on a clothesline to dry before nightfall.

Micro_prickly_web
This transplanted spineless prickly pear is happy in its southwest-facing wall location.

Here are a few more tips for making microclimates work for you and your plants:

  • Try even large trees and shrubs on south-facing walls to add a half-zone of heat. You’ll likely have more success if you buy a plant that’s slightly established (not a bare root, for example). An unusually cold winter might kill the plant or prevent fruiting or blooming, but it’s worth a try.
  • Take advantage of the shade from the heat-loving tree and fill in around the bottom with perennial or annual bedding flowers that need a little bit of cool shade in summer. They might even provide some natural mulch or protection for your tree on cold nights. Columbine is a great example; it’s a gorgeous flower that grows naturally in higher elevation forests, but might thrive under the dappled shade of a landscape tree.
  • Use raised beds and containers to create microclimates. Raised beds that run east to west warm up faster in the spring, and any new vegetables planted on the south side of the beds should beat others to the punch. You can move containers around to create microclimates for plants indoors and out, wintering over cacti and other heat-loving plants in south-facing windows, but setting them out on the patio in spring. Just remember that pots, especially clay ones, dry out more quickly. That’s fine for succulents, but can become a problem for thirsty annuals in the heat of the summer.
  • Use mulch or landscape fabrics and plastic to cover ground or  seedlings, adding some warmth and protection.

Mostly, what works for a friend or neighbor might not work for you and vice versa. Slight variations in elevation and exposure can make big differences to a plant’s health and happiness. But if you’re willing to take a few risks, you might be able to enjoy your favorite plant right outside, or inside, your window.

geranium_web
I’m wintering over a few geraniums. This one loves its location on a south-facing wall right by the window. Notice another transplant behind it with a plastic bag and my dog enjoying a sunny microclimate on the floor to the left…

Fall List of Water-saving Activities

The weather is cool and plants are going dormant, but there still is plenty homeowners can do to improve water saving and plant health for spring. It will keep you in the water-wise frame of mind and cut down on spring chores.

First, if you have automatic sprinklers or drip systems, be sure to adjust them for your plant’s new winter watering needs. I used to lose it when I would see my neighbors’ lawn sprinklers running full force on a windy and frosty November morning, partly because I nearly froze getting into my car, but mostly because of the wasted water. Watering plants too heavily in fall weather can soften them and make them more vulnerable to frost damage. And if you continue to water them too much in late winter or too soon in early spring so that they leaf out, they’re more vulnerable to late frost damage.

Another good fall project is to mulch around plants. Some xeric plants do better without mulching, but those that need a little more water can benefit from mulches that help retain the moisture. Mulching now also protects more sensitive plants from potential frost.

mulch in bed
Mulch in this bed helps hold in moisture. Note the manual sprinkler control near the home’s front door. It’s not much more work and avoids watering when unnecessary.

Well or shore up plants. Leaving a shallow depression, or tiny well, around low-water plants helps hold moisture in, especially right after they’re planted. If you have some trees and ornamentals that already are established, you can shore up some of the water by building up a ridge of soil around the plant’s base. This is particularly helpful for plants on grades to help prevent water from running off the plant instead of soaking in.

apple_tree_well_web
Tim built up a ridge around this small apple tree to help well the water.

If you’re really feeling industrious, start planning for spring by planning or setting up a water harvesting system. It might be as simple as diverting roof water into a flower bed against the home’s foundation or so that it runs through a dry-river bed (an assortment of rocks and gravel made to look like a river) that leads to a favorite tree. Or plan a new xeric layout for your yard.

calif_poppies
This post lacked color, so I had to add these. Called California or Mexican poppies, they’ll grow in the poorest, driest conditions.

The High Desert Just Got…Higher

side view2
View of house from the northwest side shows apricot tree, garden and view toward river.

 

We live in New Mexico, and spent the past year preparing our house with its nice lawn, beds and straw bale wall to look nice for potential buyers. It sold in the spring and in April, we were fortunate enough to move from Albuquerque to an area just outside Ruidoso, NM.
Still dry? You bet! Still short on water? Of course! We have two acres of water rights with our 4 acres of property and a river that runs through about 180 feet of the back acreage. About three weeks after moving in, it was a dry river bed. More on that another time. Suffice it to say that xeric gardening still rules for the most part, and it’s made a little more fun by hard well water and no sprinkler or drip system.
Did I mention that we also changed zones? At about 6,300 feet in altitude, we’re close to USDA Zone 6, just below some gorgeous mountains but in a canyon with strong, dry winds, along with daily and seasonal temperature extremes.
These are all minor challenges, though, and the good news far outweighs any of the water and climate issues. We’ll take the views, the river, a passive solar home, and an awesome xeric garden already laid out by the talented former owners. I’ll talk about some of our solutions and document the seasons as we go. We’ve even got some ideas for more new plantings.
Yes, life is good even when it’s high and dry.