Components of a Water-Wise Garden
Here's how to make every drop of water count in the garden.
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If you live in an area that has ever experienced a drought, you know how tough it can be to get water to your plants. Cities often limit watering to one or two days a week, which can be the kiss of death for some plants.
People who garden in desert-like conditions and receive very little rainfall each year learn how to make every drop of that rain count by using xeriscaping techniques. That means using drought-tolerant plants, harvesting water wherever possible and using efficient irrigation practices.
Use water-wise plants. Thoughtful plant selection is key in a well-planned waterwise garden. Ornamental grasses, for example, require very little water. The same is true of a number of other commonly grown plants, such as tickseed (Coreopsis), blanket flower (Gaillardia), daylilies (Hemerocallis), beardtongue (Penstemon) and culinary herbs such as rosemary and thyme. Of course, the most water-wise plants of all are cacti and succulents. They come in a myriad of shapes, sizes and colors and need very little water.
Make every drop count. Collecting rainwater has become extremely popular, and kits are available from a variety of catalog and online sources. You can funnel this water to supplement your weekly watering.
Ideally, you should water in the morning when water pressure is usually highest and winds are calm. Deep soak each time you water, but watch for wasteful runoff. Water only when necessary. If you have an automatic irrigation system, switch it to manual mode and fire it up maybe once a week. Let it run for about 20 minutes or so, rather than have it run every day or every other day for only five minutes, as many people do. Use drip irrigation whenever and wherever possible. It's by far the most efficient way to water.
Routinely inspect garden hoses, faucets and sprinklers for leaks. Just one small drip from a faucet can waste hundreds, even thousands of gallons of water a month. So make repairs when necessary to all your watering devices. Sometimes the solution is as simple as a 10-cent washer.
Dry creek beds are a good way to harness rainfall because, in the desert, when it rains, it pours; all of that water from once or twice a year rainfall has to collect somewhere. Dry creek beds are functional, and they don't look half bad either. The creek beds meander through the garden to help slow the water down and to look nice, even when they don't have water in them.
When the rain doesn't come, it's time to look into other options. A bubbler or drip irrigation system fits right into a xeriscaped area. These systems slowly deliver water directly to the base of the plant. This reduces moisture loss from evaporation and wastes less water than other methods. They can put out two to eight gallons of water per hour. Drip systems are good for the environment and your bank account.
Hardpan is not your friend. Caliches, or hardpan, are hardened calcium carbonate deposits that form when minerals are leached from the upper layer of soil. They then accumulate in the next layer, which is typically three to 10 feet below the surface. An impermeable layer of caliche can keep plants from draining properly, which can take away a plant's essential oxygen supply.
Sometimes when gardeners are working in a desert-type situation, they encounter caliche. The depth a caliche might occur varies from area to area. Some people find it buried about one foot deep in their yard, while others may not find it for six feet or more. Sometimes someone will plant a tree, and in a couple years they notice that it's declining. This is a result of the caliche because the water just might be sitting on top of the soil, unable to penetrate through the hardpan. The only way to break it up is by using a jackhammer.
Gardeners who live in more temperature climates add organic matter and compost as amendments to the soil. However, xeriscape gardeners don't necessarily have to add anything to the soil. If they did, they would essentially be creating potted plants. So they just dig a hole, put the plant in and add mulch and water, and the plants take off.
You don't have to give up on having grass. If you're interested in incorporating xeriscaping into your landscape but aren't quite ready to give up on grass, fear not. Even in a water-wise garden, you can have turfgrass, especially when it's something as drought tolerant as buffalo grass. It's a slow-growing turfgrass that only needs to be mowed a few times a year.
Keep a three- to four-inch layer of mulch.
Another key component to a water-wise landscape is mulch. Mulch helps retain soil moisture, stabilizes soil temperatures and keeps weeds in check. It also makes the soil more hospitable to the critters who call the soil home. Apply a layer of mulch three to four inches thick; it breaks down into the soil and helps improve the organic matter content and structure of the soil over time. In areas of high winds, use mulches that have thick and heavy pieces, such as pecan hulls or pine bark; gravel is another good mulch that is often used to simulate the arid look of a desert.
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