Hardscaping is use of anything other than plants, really, in the garden. So it includes rocks, fences, walls, walls made of rocks, pavers, stepping stones, lighting, gravel (made from rocks) and found or repurposed objects. Did I mention rocks?
Here’s the problem: When people think of xeriscaping or converting high-water lawns and landscapes to more waterwise plans, they often turn to landscape gravel, rock borders and concrete to fill their landscape. Done! But the best xeric landscapes mix functional and attractive hardscaping with plants for full effect.
Pros of Hardscaping
I find that after touring a public or private garden, my photos often include fences, garden art and other hardscaping features. I guess I’m drawn to them. Any plant can shine when placed before a solid wall or large boulder, but those with tiny flowers and foliage really pop with a backdrop. And you don’t have to use large, expensive artwork or structures. Sometimes, all you need is a well-placed rock or container.
Aside from aesthetics, hardscaping features provide function in the landscape. Pathways lead the gardener, visitor and the eye in the best direction, or help a homeowner get from one point to another more easily. Fences and walls improve privacy and arbors and pergolas add to shade in sunny garden spots.
Finally, homeowners often put in hardscaping to minimize watering and plant care. Most nonplant items in the garden require little to no care and last for years.
Cons of Hardscaping
Replacing lawn and plant materials with hardscaping can lower maintenance, but can create too much heat in the lawn and garden. A concrete patio or gravel-covered yard is way hotter than turf and plants. That being said, a mix of both helps lower water use and costs. If done right, homeowners can enjoy their gardens and save water.
Only plant materials provide important food and pollen for animals and insects; bushes and trees also provide better shelter than the eaves of your home. Adding birdhouses and beehouses near plants can help nature’s garden visitors. Too much concrete and gravel also makes a garden seem unfriendly to people. You probably want privacy and a place to sit or walk, but don’t you also want flowering or edible plants nearby? If a big patio is necessary for entertaining, add container plants on the ground, walls or even the furniture.
Finally, be sure to consider existing trees and other plants you plan to keep when converting lawns to gravel. Trees need deep watering, and the roots stretch out at least to the tree’s canopy, which is how far out branches and leaves extend. So providing a pretty little circle of mulch around the trunk likely isn’t enough.
Some of my favorite xeric landscapes combine a few featured plants such as a shade tree or colorful bush with low-growing annuals or groundcovers that cascade over steps or rocks. Combining hardscape and plant features is a smart xeriscaping strategy and a way to enjoy your lawn for years to come.
Wildflowers that reseed are a perfect plant for busy and cash-strapped gardeners. Once you get them going in the garden, they’re sure to come back for years. The trick is to deadhead or cut the flowers for arrangements while in peak bloom and then let some spent flowers go to seed.
With that in mind, choose a few plants or seeds for your favorite low-water annual and enjoy the colorful rewards for years. Here are six favorites of mine, most of them in the Aster (Asteraceae) family:
No. 1: Cosmos
Start with annuals or easily grow cosmos from seed. They come in a number of colors, including several versions of pinks and purples and white. The flower is a native of Mexico and can reach various heights depending on the mix and growing conditions. With too much water, they get a little tall and leggy. Sow cosmos after your last spring frost. Let several go to seed in fall to feed birds and provide next year’s color.
No. 2: Blanketflower
Gaillardia, or blanketflower, is an annual or a perennial in zones 3 through 11. It reseeds in our garden and lawn. This drought-tolerant beauty adds yellows, orange and rust tones to the garden. The blooms attract bees and butterflies. Blanketflowers bloom best if the gardener deadheads spent flowers, cutting the stem just above the next set of leaves down the stalk. You can also cut the plant by about one-third at the end of summer instead of regularly deadheading. If you want the flowers to reseed in your garden, leave some dried heads on the plant well into fall.
No. 3: Mexican hat
Called Mexican hat or prairie coneflower, the Ratibida columnifera is yet another member of the Aster family that reseeds easily. Mexican hats can bloom all summer long with little to no water, adding earthy colored blooms to xeric gardens. They attract bees and are considered an herb with touted use to ease stomach pain or headaches. When planted from seed, they might not bloom until the second year, but will reseed. Because the seeds need cold to help them germinate, those dropping from a plant in fall in zones 4 through 9 stand an excellent chance of becoming new plants in spring.
No. 4: California/Mexican gold poppy
These wildflowers in the poppy family love sun and drought, but bloom best after summer rains. We call them California poppies (Eschcholzia californica). Mexican gold poppies are a subspecies of E. californica that thrive in desert settings. Both have feathery leaves and flowers about 2 inches in diameter that resemble a cross between an oriental poppy and a tubular or cupped flower. Deadheading the remaining seedhead helps them produce more flowers, but letting the seeds develop late in summer could lead to a new stunning poppy across the yard!
No. 5: Coreopsis
Yet another member of the Aster family, coreopsis is a great self-sower. It might take over a garden in the right conditions, but our Lanceleaf Coreopsis, a classic yellow bloomer, spreads nicely in our dry climate. If you want more color, coreopsis won’t disappoint. Here, Sunset Magazine lists a dozen favorites for western gardens. Some varieties such as lanceleaf are perennials, depending on zone. They’re a fun, natural looking plant with flowers suitable for cutting.
No. 6: Wild daisies
Like their relative the sunflower, native daisies in the Aster family can spread easily and pop up in unexpected locations. We have several that bloom in late fall and spread mostly by seed. The trick is recognizing these gems among a stand of weeds so you can let them grow to maturity and bloom, then reseed. Some wild daisies are invasive, but they’re easy to control in our dry climates. Bidens alba, also called common beggartick or Spanish needle, has tiny white flowers on lanky stems. They’re pretty and are touted to have herbal or medicinal uses, but as friends of mine pointed out, they have needle in their name for a reason. The seedheads not only help the flower spread, but get caught in nearly anything they touch, including dogs’ coats.
You don’t necessarily need to gather seeds from these flowers unless you want to try the plant in a different area. We’ve had mixed success with that, maybe because a particular flower tends to reseed where conditions are best for the plant.
If you’d like to grow some of these reseeding flowers in your garden, check with your local master gardeners or a regional garden book or blog to see which types grow best in your region without becoming invasive. Of course, I go with the premise that I can always thin volunteer flowers if they get out of hand. That usually only means smack-dab in the middle of a walkway…
You know, I hate to sound ungrateful. We always need rain in New Mexico, if not to water all of the grass, trees and native plants, then to replace our valuable water tables. But in a climate of extremes, especially this summer, we’ve had several weeks of too much water and cool temperatures.
Typically, New Mexico and many Southwestern states receive monsoon rain in the summer, and it accounts for at least half of the rain we receive in New Mexico and Arizona. Monsoons can start around mid-June and end late in September. Ours typically begin around the 4th of July. Monsoons consist of short but strong bursts of rain, usually in the afternoon. They’re fueled by the sun’s warming of Southwest land and nearby oceans at different rates. Water evaporation creates humidity over land, forming the clouds that then depend on temperature, atmospheric pressure, winds and mountain slopes to turn into storms.
Typical is key here, however. This year, we had few to no monsoon storms. Instead, we had unseasonably hot and dry, followed by weeks of unseasonably cool and wet. The first rains did wonders at greening up our native grasses and plants. But then in August, the rain and clouds just kept coming. We just had a break, but now Hurricane Newton has struck Mexico and its remnant moisture is headed for southern Arizona and New Mexico.
If arid areas need rain, why is so much rain bad? Flash flooding is a big problem in desert and mountain areas. But how does heavy rain affect xeric lawns and gardens?
First, plant roots need more than water to survive and thrive; they also need air. When you place a new plant in the ground, for example, you should press the soil around it lightly and avoid compacting it to the point that air can’t reach the roots. When excessive rain falls, the water replaces air in spaces around soil particles. As the water drains through the soil, air can again enter the spaces. But if the water keeps flowing from the surface, or especially pools, the spaces fail to open. Eventually, roots can be damaged and fail to even take up the water that surrounds them.
The second danger of too much water is disease. Any fungal organisms in the soil can more easily attack wet plant roots and cause root rot. Xeric plants are not used to so much water on their leaves and roots. Even leaves are affected by too much water falling and sitting on them, especially without sun and heat to dry them again. Plants are more susceptible to leaf diseases such as leaf spot or blight and have less chlorophyll, which affects appearance and photosynthesis. Eventually, poor leaf health can lead to the breakdown of most of the processes that keep a plant healthy and send energy to fruit and flowers.
Many xeric plants also like sun and a little heat. Native plants have adapted to the Southwest monsoon patterns that usually rule their growing season: A gradual, sunny warm-up in the morning, followed by scattered building clouds. They get a nice drink in the heat of the afternoon, and then the sun comes back out and the air and ground warm up again. This pattern helps dry the plant and soil, and gives the plant plenty of heat and sun. Although nights can be cool in many areas of the high desert and intermountain regions, mornings warm up again after sunrise. Extended periods of cloudy, cool weather lead to too little sun for plants, along with too little heat than they need to thrive and flower.
Even edibles can have problems from too much water. They’re susceptible to root rot, depending on lots of other factors such as soil quality. Leafy vegetables and herbs flower early. Tomato fruit tastes better with moderate water. Too much water, especially inconsistent amounts, can cause fruit to crack.
Keeping Xeric Plants Alive During High Rain Periods
Make sure all plants, and especially those susceptible to root rot, are in soil that drains well. Raised beds, mounds or berms, and suitable containers can help drain soil around plants much better than compacted soil. If you’re not sure how well your soil drains, you can typically tell when it pools or soaks in hours after heavy rains. Or you can try the test in this handout from TreePeople that times water drainage.
Provide air circulation. We all have a tendency to place new plants and seedlings too close together. You might as well get as many cucumbers as possible in the limited space you have, right? But lack of air circulation in crowded plants hides bugs, causes the leaves to maintain moisture, and even can shade ground around roots. Wet conditions harbor new problems that native plants in particular can’t take.
Another problem with extended periods of rain is weed control. Although mostly native, the darn weeds seem to love excess moisture. And before you know it, they crowd and wrap around important garden plants or shading grasses. It’s hard to control them if the ground is too wet to mow or you can’t even get outside.
Build raised beds or transplant susceptible plants to higher ground. We’ve had some drainage problems near our patio and are working on a dry river bed to divert water away from the house foundation and down into a grassy area, where it can soak grass and eventually add to groundwater. One step we took was to divide a blue mist spirea (Caryopteris clandonensis) and move the portion near the patio onto a small burm. The xeric plant is so much happier now.
Whatever you do, don’t water! Turn off drip or sprinkler systems during and after periods of rain; it’s just the responsible thing to do. And don’t assume that yellowing leaves indicate the need to water. With too much water, the leaves look sort of floppy, but too little water usually causes dry, brittle foliage.
Finally, don’t stress. You can’t control weather, so simply keeping your plants as healthy as possible within time and weather constraints is all a gardener can do!
A droopy, wilting plant. It’s a gardener’s instinct to automatically assume: It needs water. And sometimes, that’s a good instinct. But low-water plants just as easily can be killed by kindness as by neglect.
For example, several problems with tomato fruits are caused by too much water, or especially irregular watering. Plants, like people, need some regular hydration. You wouldn’t avoid drinking water for five days and then gulp down a liter, right? One reason drip systems are effective is the consistency (assuming you set a timer) of the amount of water they deliver, along with the slow rate of flow and the fact that they water the soil/roots and not a plant’s leaves. The delivery and slow flow help retain more moisture and nutrients around the roots.
What’s the prognosis?
There are reasons other than drought stress that cause plants to wilt, including problems with the roots. That’s why plants you’ve just transplanted from seed or a nursery container tend to wilt for a few days or weeks. The roots suffer some damage when taken from a pot and replanted. Understand that this is part of the natural course of the plant’s life and help it through without stressing too much (meaning you, not the plant). Even though a plant is waterwise, it still needs extra water until the roots heal and begin to grow, more efficiently pulling water into the plant. If the ground is dry at root level, the roots can’t do their work. Plants that are overwatered sometimes wilt, too, further complicating the “diagnosis.”
Speaking of, most gardeners jump to the worst possible scenario when determining a plant problem. Although disease is a possibility, look not only for symptoms of a particular wilt or fungal disease, but also for possible causes. Do you have evidence of bugs that might have damaged leaves or carried a disease to your plant? Is the plant getting enough air circulation? Is water running off and away from the plant? Has it just been super hot for several days?
The best way to distinguish drought stress from other causes of wilt is by looking at and feeling the soil. Damp soil means the plant has water available; adding water at this point likely won’t help. You should feel an inch or two below the surface. One way is to stick your finger in the dirt to about the first knuckle joint.
Prevent plant stress
When a plant needs water, it’s more susceptible to damage from bugs and diseases. Pests attack the weak. You can prevent plant stress from underwatering by:
Checking the soil as mentioned above; see if there is water for the plant.
Looking for signs of underwatering. These usually include leaves turning yellow and brown, and even falling off. Typically, drought stress begins with lower leaves.
Thinking about the plant’s environment and how it might have changed. Is it windy and hot or muggy and cool in the evenings? Did you last water a plant in the afternoon out of necessity instead of your usual morning routine?
Using a meter or records when in doubt. We have an inexpensive moisture meter for our farm area. If nothing else, it helps confirm or deny my suspicions about the need to water and gives me a basis for comparing soils or drip rates around certain plants. Keeping records of watering, fertilizing and other activities can help manage and diagnose plant problems.
It’s always better to water before a plant wilts, and not to wait until wilting occurs. Although plant roots need to seek water, they also have to find it! When no water is available in the soil around them, plants can begin reacting with wilt, slowed growth or flower and fruit production, and other signs.
Finally, remember there is no hard and fast rule on watering. Much of the advice I see comes from areas that are more humid, cooler, less windy, and at lower altitude than our conditions here in New Mexico. Having said that, you can create conditions that help plants retain moisture, mostly by ensuring healthy soil and mulching. Containers need a little more frequent watering because they dry out faster than the ground. Water container and landscape plants slowly so the moisture drips instead of flooding down. You probably only need to add water to a container when the top few inches of soil are dry.
Even waterwise plants get stressed when exposed to high heat, dry air and wind. Many Southwestern plants can survive hot temperatures because they’re native to the low desert. But in some areas such as the mountains and high deserts, native plants are a little more winter hardy and a little less heat tolerant.
Even in the hottest Southwest and West climates, plants can need extra attention when temperatures soar. Here are 10 tips for helping plants survive the heat of summer.
Tip No. 1. Use drip irrigation.
You save water because it can’t evaporate as rapidly as it can if in the air, and the water seeps slowly down to the roots of a plant. This helps cool roots as well as hydrate them.
Tip No. 2. Use mulch.
Something as simple as straw spread out on the dirt helps keep air from rapidly evaporating water, but still allows oxygen to reach soil and roots. Piling the straw or other organic mulch two to three inches high helps even more.
Tip No. 3. Try to get your plants established before summer heat ramps up.
Even heat-loving plants can wilt when temperatures soar. Still, recognize that wilting from sun can be temporary. The bigger the plant’s leaves, the more quickly the plant transpirates, which is the process of water evaporation through leaves. That’s why many succulents and xeric plants have small foliage. So don’t panic, but don’t completely discount it. Increase drip time on hot and windy days.
Tip No. 4. Water in the morning if at all possible.
This is a great water-saving strategy and helps prevent heat stress to plants. If the roots already have access to water, they can begin sending the water up through stems and leaves to keep the plant nourished. For most plants, regular, but spaced, deep watering always beats out frequent light watering (which leaves moisture close to the surface and can restrict root growth).
Tip No. 5. Check on your plants.
If you can’t check them during the day, do so as soon as you get home. It’s OK to water plants lightly in late afternoon to help cool them down.
Tip No. 6. Use one plant as a benchmark.
For example, zucchini leaves are large, and if they’re wilting, you can prevent heat or drought damage to other plants nearby with a cool drink of water or some shade.
Tip No. 7. Shade plants.
New or damaged plants might need temporary shade to build up resistance to heat. Direct sun can burn leaves just like it can burn your skin. So make sure even an established plant is in the right location for sun and summer exposure and if not, try temporary shade.
Tip No. 8. Use containers.
Containers offer you the most opportunity to shade plants on hot days. Although soil in containers warms faster, containers also can cool more quickly. Most of all, it’s easy to move all but the largest into shade temporarily. You can mulch the top of the soil in a container, too.
Tip No. 9. Avoid fertilizing plants during the heat of the day.
Plants should be perky and healthy before soaking up fertilizer. And the fertilizer needs to mix with plenty of water. It’s best to do this task before mid-day heat kicks in.
Tip No. 10. Control weeds.
Ha, there’s an impossible goal around here. And I know there are people who embrace weeds. I tolerate them only because I can’t keep up. But we’re really vigilant about keeping weeds off of or out from under plants. That’s especially true in the vegetable garden. Mulching can help control weeds.
Finally, if you keep potted plants, including cacti, inside during the winter, you need to protect them as they adapt to being outside. That’s true even for sun lovers. Harden the plant off if you can. If the plant is too heavy to bring in and out all day (or you have 30 of them, like we do), at least start it outside on a cooler, cloudier day.
At least 35 percent of households now have kitchen gardens; that’s an increase of more than 60 percent since 2008. Whether the point is to save money or just to have fresher produce, it’s a trend I love to see. Anyone who lives in a rural area especially understands how difficult it can be to find a variety of fresh vegetables and herbs. Expecting produce to be affordable? Well, that’s just asking too much in most cases.
Farmers’ markets are great resources for fresh, local, and often organic food. Of course, you can bring it even closer to home and grow some of your own food. If you’ve never tried, don’t let that stop you. Every gardener makes a few mistakes, and weather is unpredictable. But you’re bound to have some success, and I’ve got a few tips to help:
Grow as close to your kitchen as possible
Back in 2008, before interest in kitchen gardens peaked, I wrote an article for Out Here Magazine about edible landscaping, interviewing expert Robert Kourik. At the time, Kourik pointed out that the closer you can grow herbs and vegetables to your back door, the easier it is to use them. He’s absolutely right; I love walking out into our backyard garden to cut a sprig of rosemary for a recipe.
Although walking certainly is good for you, and my walks to and from our microfarm give me much-needed activity breaks on heavy work days, dinner prep can be a busy, stressful time. Keeping edibles close at hand means you’re more likely to use them and more likely to remember to water them! If you can’t plant herbs and vegetables in a nearby flower bed, place a few in containers on your sunny patio or balcony. All the container needs is to be clean, have drainage at the bottom and be large enough for your plant (about 12-inch minimum in diameter for tomatoes).
Involve your family
When you’re busy preparing a meal with fresh ingredients, you can also enlist the kids for help. Send one of your children outside to harvest a tomato. And even before you’re ready to harvest, have the family contribute to your kitchen garden plan. If kids choose and help grow the produce they like best, you’re less likely to have family dinner-table battles. If the kids can help with planting or watering, even better.
Convenient also means easy care
The best way to ensure success with your first kitchen garden is to start small. You don’t need an acre and a greenhouse. If you choose too many plants or get too ambitious with your space and plant variety, it’s easier to abandon the garden midsummer. That’s such a waste of your time, well or community water, and good food! So start with one or two containers or a tiny plot. We also mix perennial herbs in with our flowering plants. Many are just as pretty and produce edible leaves or stalks.
Choose easier plants to grow in your garden. If you have a short season, select cocktail, grape or cherry tomato varieties. Otherwise, choose the ones you and your family are most likely to enjoy. If you’re concerned about losing interest, start with a fast grower, such as lettuce or spinach. You’ll save more money growing your own asparagus, but you might not have stalks to harvest for three years.
If you have time to set up drip watering well before planting, you’ll have fewer day-to-day chores related to growing food. Plus, drip irrigation is better for plants and water savings. In sem cases, you can run drip to containers, or place an olla in the container. It’s a clay bottle that slowly seeps water and can be refilled every few days. This also frees you up for weekend outings. I’ve seen people make their own using milk jugs or similar items.
Have the right tools
Finally, keep a few tools on hand to save time when using fresh ingredients. Your produce won’t be prewashed (but then it also won’t have chemicals all over it).
A salad spinner. These are so handy for quickly cleaning lettuce, other fresh greens or bunches of herbs. And it’s another fun way to have the kids help.
Clean kitchen scissors. Just grab and carry outside to clip off an herb leaf or stem or to help free a cucumber. An old knife works better for zucchini and other squash.
Herb scissors. One of the best gifts ever; the multiple blades make faster work out of slicing or chopping basil, cilantro, parsley and similar leafy greens.
Other herb helpers, such as stripper tools for rosemary or dill. And Tim gave me a great storage container that keeps herb stems immersed in water, but the leaves above. I can put it right in the fridge.
Xeriscaping isn’t for everyone; most plants native to arid zones do poorly if grown in a humid, rainy region. A plant adapted to 14 inches of rain a year will go soggy or leggy, and likely die, if it soaks up nearly 60 inches of annual rain. And vice versa. A Southwest gardener might love tropical plants, but the plants would need loads of water and attention here. Our relative humidity has dropped to the single digits lately.
I’ve written plenty about choosing native or appropriate plants, and that’s still the most critical strategy for the combination of plant health, water savings and garden budget. Our zone 6B might have similar temperatures to zone 6B in West Virginia, but the state averages 44 inches of rainfall a year vs. 14 inches in New Mexico. If a 40 ft. x 70 ft. roof can gather more than 1,740 gallons of water from one inch of rain, imagine how many extra gallons of water fall on a plant where 40 more inches of rain fall than it’s used to receiving.
So, tip number one is to choose plants suitable for zone, exposure and precipitation. That’s a key to successful gardening no matter where you live.
Give in just a little to whims. If you want to indulge your love for tropical plants but you live in the arid Southwest, choose only one or two and place them in containers. Likewise, a succulent likely will survive better in the Southeast if protected from rain. You can protect it with containers that you move under shelter or indoors, or try the French solution, shown here by Debra Lee Baldwin.
Place plants with similar water needs near one another, especially if you use automatic sprinklers or drip systems in the lawn and beds. You can regulate zones or emitters, but plant roots seek water, and studies have shown that roots can even detect the sound of running water. Anyone who has had to repair pipes damaged by water-loving willow roots or the more xeric locust tree knows how this works!
Use drip irrigation in vegetable gardens or ornamental beds. It’s the most efficient way to water. And slow drip is better for plants because the water soaks in gradually without washing away nutrients. Water containers as slowly as you can, or water half as much as each plant needs, then circle back for a second dose. It takes a little longer but avoids water (and soil nutrients) rushing out the bottom of the container. If rain in one area mostly falls during certain months, turn off or completely reprogram the sprinklers and drip controls. Or look for one that senses rainfall and shuts down watering accordingly.
Prepare soil. Healthy soil makes for a healthy plant and supports drainage. If it’s too sandy, water rushes through, and little soaks into roots. If it’s too clay-like or compacted, water pools on or just under the ground. Likewise, some plants only do well in a particular soil type. Amending soil can be tough, so choosing a plant that can handle current soil conditions is a great idea to save water and money. With healthy soil, you’re more likely to have healthy plants, and not assume one that looks bad just needs more water!
Mulch. Mulching cools roots and slows evaporation. Organic mulches eventually break down and improve soil. As with plants, it’s best to get some local advice on the best mulches for your area and conditions.
Switch to plants with purpose. Growing edible plants saves or exchanges water somewhere down the line when you don’t have to purchase the food at a store. You can fill your garden with green, but harvest herbs and vegetables at the same time. Or grow plants that double as resources for crafts, gifts and cut arrangements.
Conserving water might be more critical in the Southwest, but even gardeners in states like Alabama and West Virginia should keep water savings in mind. Local water utilities spend less in the long run when they don’t have to process as much potable drinking water, which is what most homeowners use outside. Weather patterns are unpredictable and climate disruption affects plant cycles and water availability. Some areas receive more rain in spring and less during hot summers; taking steps to lessen the amount of irrigation needed to help plants through hot, dry periods makes for good sense and citizenship.
I realize some plants can get too much water, but that’s all the more reason to watch irrigation. And the best way to check plants and soil is to stroll through the garden, stopping to smell some flowers along the way, of course!
Although the drought has eased in New Mexico and some areas of the Southwest, it’s still serious in many regions. Plus, there are plenty of reasons to save water in the yard, garden or farm all year long, regardless of your region’s current drought status.
No matter where you live, the foremost reason to adhere to low-water gardening designs and principles is to conserve water, which is the right thing to do for this and future generations. I doubt homeowners in California, many of whom typically enjoy steady rainfall of 18 or more inches a year, were concerned about drought when they had their yards designed decades ago. In fact, the 1913 completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct likely marked the beginning of the phenomenon that occurs when too many residents are concentrated in a geographic area, especially one not conducive to urbanization.
The aqueduct and population are only part of the problem in California or in any region short on water. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that every American uses about 320 gallons of water a day. Nearly 30 percent of home use flows outdoors, including on lawns. All-told, home landscape irrigation accounts for some 9 billion gallons of water a day around the country.
If you’ve read past blog posts, you know that I plead for a measured and appropriate response, one that if taken before severe drought strikes can prevent community, and eventually global, water crises. That approach includes native or xeric landscape design, not the destruction of all living plant material in a lawn. As I’ve said before, replacing grass with gravel doesn’t necessarily save water or energy.
For a 2015 recap and 2016 garden prep reminder, here are the 10 easiest ways to save water in your lawn and garden:
1. Convert some turf to gravel if you like, using oasis zones and smart xeriscape design principles. Involve a landscaping professional if the job is big or the concept overwhelms you.
2. Convert high-water turf to a native, low-water grass. The best choices for high desert areas are Blue grama (Boutleoua gracilis) and Buffalo grass (Buchloë dactyloides). A new hybrid called Dog Tuff (Cynodon hybrid) also comes in plugs for quicker spread.
3. Water wisely, cutting back in winter and irrigating only in the cool of the morning during summer. Use drip irrigation instead of spray or sprinklers when possible. Add mulch around plant beds.
4. Look for signs of water waste, such as runoff. Create a dry-river bed, bioswale or terrace to capture water and place plants with higher water needs in swales or at the bottom of inclines. Well around plants that need a little more water.
5. Remember that even low-water or xeric plants need extra water the first year; if the plant doesn’t make it because it dries out, you’ve wasted whatever water you used to irrigate plus the cost of the plant.
6. Choose perennials over annuals. Every time you plant annuals, you must water them extra to help them get established for the season. Growing more perennials and letting native annuals and wildflowers go to seed is a better strategy; leave one small bed or container arrangement only for annuals each year.
7. Grow edibles in your lawn or landscape. If you don’t want the look of a full-blown kitchen garden from the curb, place perennial herbs or low-water plants with berries for your family or birds in the most visible areas of the landscape.
8. Make smart use of containers and raised beds. Containers and raised beds use less water than the ground. Just be careful to water slowly. If water pours out the bottom of the pot, you’ve probably given more than the plant needs, and if you water rapidly, you can wash nutrients from the pot’s soil mix.
9. Check and improve the soil. It’s easy to ensure good soil and drainage in containers, but less so in the lawn. Even without a soil test, a gardener can see when the ground around a plant doesn’t drain well; that can be the death of many xeric plants. Adding organic matter and loosening the soil (but not tilling) can help build soil health over time.
10. Capture and use rain water. If you don’t want to water edibles this way, at least catch rain from your roof to water your ornamentals. It might seem like one 50-gallon barrel isn’t enough, but as with all waterwise gardening, every little bit helps.
Search or browse past posts in the Archive or check my Resources page if you want to learn more about low-water gardening strategies. And here’s to 2016!
It seems that Los Angeles officials are considering installing cisterns with smart technology to catch rain water for irrigation. It’s about time. Even when rain barrels and cisterns fail to collect all of the water that falls from the skies or flows from the roof, they still make use of water that might otherwise run off and go to waste. And homeowners can use the water for ornamentals and even edibles.
I don’t know much about LA and its politics, but I do know that when I made a trip to southern California recently, water restrictions were forcing patches of brown grass more than landscape alterations. Pulling up some of the grass, replacing it with a few vegetables and herbs, and then watering those edibles with rain water seems like a really smart and sustainable solution.
We’ve been using rain barrels for many years. When we had a flat tar and gravel roof and city water in Albuquerque, N.M., we limited use of the rain barrel to ornamentals only. But now that we rely on a well, grow more food on more land and have metal roofing, we use rain water on our vegetables and herbs.
Before collecting rain water for edibles, I researched the topic and found little information, but enough to make me feel comfortable using the water. Since then, more data is out there confirming that for the most part, collected rain water from common roofing materials is safe for edibles as long as you follow a few preventive collection and watering practices. Most of my tips are about barrels, which is all I have so far. I would love to have a cistern; it’s on my wish list! To learn more about the data and specific roof material information, check out the Resources page under Rainwater Collection and Rain Barrels.
Safe Rain Water Collection
None of the research claims that collected rain water is potable. There are just too many variables. In urban areas, pollution settles on rooftops. Where I live, critters and birds fly over or hang out on the gutters, likely leaving droppings. Here are a few ways to make your collected water safer for vegetable use:
Clean rain barrels with a bleach solution before using them for edibles. Rutgers also recommends adding eight drops of bleach per month for a 55-gallon barrel, and waiting 24 hours before using the water so the bleach can dissipate.
Rinse out barrels once a year, removing sediment and using either bleach or a vinegar and lemon solution to clean the barrel.
Keep gutters clean and free of debris, which also makes good sense for roof maintenance.
When installing a new system, it’s recommended to have a first-flush diverted added. This washes the first flush of downspout water, along with debris and contaminants, away from the barrel before it begins filling.
Most commercial barrels have screens to keep debris (and birds or other small animals) from getting inside the barrel. Be sure to wipe the screens off from time to time. Even leaves can rot and drip into the rain water.
Of course, you can choose to water only ornamental and house plants with rain water if you have any doubts. I also tend to alternate watering between my barrel and well for vegetable rows, just to mix up the nutrients and potential metals from both, and because the barrel by the garden usually empties before the next good rain. For safest edible watering, be sure to follow these tips:
After a barrel fills, use the first full bucket or so on ornamentals, not on vegetables or herbs. This first flush from the barrel usually contains more contaminants because of settled water at the bottom.
Always water the soil and not the plant, a best practice for gardening anyway. And the soil absorbs the water, not the leaves. This is especially important for any edible you harvest from above the ground (or other than root vegetables).
Water in the morning and wait to harvest, after the sun’s rays have dried and disinfected the plants.
Finally, those folks in California can water their lawns (hopefully less by switching to native, low-water grasses) with cisterns, which typically have pressure valves. Most smaller rain barrels lack the pressure required to drive soaker hoses. Raising your barrel a few feet can increase the pressure to allow use of a hose or drip system, but likely not enough to run a lawn sprinkler. In the past, we’ve used stacked square pavers or cement blocks to raise ours.
Fall’s cold and wind have obliterated most of our foliage, or at least relocated it from limbs to patio and ground. But one small tree hangs in there with a full canopy of greenish-burgundy leaves. The smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria) is one of my favorite trees for fall and year-round color.
In fact, our tree held on to many of its crispy gold leaves all winter last year. Then in spring, new green foliage emerged. But the tree’s seasonal colors, which changed from greenish blue to deep burgundy or purple, to gold, are only part of its charm and drama. It also sends out puffy seedheads that resemble — and smell like — smoke. The pinkish seedhead clouds, which give the tree its name, usually appear in mid-summer here, but the timing varies depending on conditions. Regardless, they remain attractive for weeks.
Caring for smoke trees
So I love how smoke trees look, but here’s what really seals the deal for the New Mexico xeric gardener: The Sunset Western Garden Book says the tree is “at its best under stress in poor or rocky soil.” OK, I have lots of that. And it can tolerate some drought. When temperatures hover above 90 degrees F, a deep water every couple of weeks helps get it through the hottest part of summer.
The other attractive feature of smoke trees for xeric gardens is their versatility. While the trees are starting, gardeners can shape them into small bushes or short trees, depending on the location or preferred look. C. coggygria typically has multiple small trunks. Ours was trained to a small tree shape, which still works well in a large rock garden because it only grows to about 15 feet high at a rate of about a foot a year. You can train it for light shade, or as a low, bushy foundation plant and home for birds.
Until established, smoke trees might need a little more water and application of some slow-release fertilizer in the spring. But since it prefers poor soil, the tree needs no more than that once it’s on its way. And if you’re shaping the tree, Judith Phillips recommends that you cut back or stop fertilizing once you begin those pruning cuts. You can add some mulch to save water and cool the roots, but since the tree loves rotten soil, there’s no need to add organic matter. And if you add mulch, be sure to keep it away from the trunk. The tree can thrive in full sun or partial shade. Suckers will begin to show up around the base of the trunks; you can just pinch or cut them off to send energy back up into the main trunks.
Smoke trees are subject to verticulum wilt and leaf roller mines in early summer. We also had to remove about 40 io moth caterpillars from ours this year because they were stripping entire branches. But those stinging nasties were making their way around all the small trees near the house.
More about smoke trees
The C. coggygria varieties do fine in USDA zones 5 through 8. The purple varieties look great on their own or as a bush planted near a silvery conifer or perhaps with an artemesia or gray santolina planted in front of them.
The C. coggygria is sometimes referred to as the European smoke tree. Another species of smoke tree called C. obovatus is called the American smoke tree. It is slightly larger and has bigger leaves, but has similarly striking seedheads. The Dalea spinosa (Psorothamnus spinosus) also is called a smoke tree. It is a grayer tree native to Southwestern low deserts.