West Coast Gardener – Creating a Water-Wise Garden

by Matt Hall, Red Feather Horticulture

After a summer of record heat and extended drought, it’s becoming evident that local gardeners are going to have to contend with hotter, drier and longer summers in future years. As garden designers, we are increasingly suggesting planting schemes that require less water. Whether you’re planning a full xeriscapic landscape or just trying to find some water-wise plants to help you reduce your irrigation budget, here are some tips on creating a garden that will flourish with only a minimal amount of watering.

Site preparation is key. To ensure planting success in any garden, you must have good soil to start with. This fact is especially true in low-water gardens, as soils rich in organic material hold more water and will provide the nutrients required to get the plants established quickly. The more extensive a plant’s root system is, the more drought resistant it becomes, so the quicker the better. One complication is that most drought-resistant plants require fast-draining soil so that is a factor that has to be balanced when choosing your dirt. Heavy, clay soils will also bake hard in the heat and make life all but impossible for plantings. That said, most good quality soils are more than sufficient for your needs. If a total soil replacement is not feasible, make sure to dig a big hole (two to three times the size of the root ball) to give your new plantings a great start. Also, don’t forget to create a “catchment basin” ridge around the drip line of the plant to help secure water where it’s needed.

Choose the correct plants. Plant selection is the most important decision towards creating a drought tolerant garden. There are plenty of local, Mediterranean, African and South American plants that can provide variety and beauty to a dry garden. Some of our top choices are:
• Purple rockrose (cistus purpureus)
• Creeping thyme (thymus praecox)
• Mexican feathergrass (stipa tenuissima)
• Lamb’s-ear (stachys byzantina)
• Coral carpet stonecrop (sedum album “Coral Carpet”)
• Bloody crane’s-bill (geranium sanguineum)

If you’re in doubt whether a plant will flourish in a drier garden: one general rule is that plants that have gray foliage and/or small leaves are often drought tolerant.

Mulch. One of the main functions of mulch is to help prevent water loss from the soil which makes it doubly important for a garden where watering may be infrequent. In most of our drought-tolerant gardens we use gravel for the cosmetic effect but a good bark mulch will also prevent water loss and is a much cheaper choice.

Water wisely. It’s important to remember that new plantings, no matter how drought resistant, will need more water in their first couple of seasons. As mentioned earlier, a drought-resistant plant needs an established root structure so you’ll have to water well until the plant has rooted down. Also, infrequent but deep watering is critical as short periods of dryness will push the plants to establish deep and extensive root systems.

If you feel a need to save water on your property or just require some help in your garden, please feel free to drop us a line at info@redfeatherhorticulture.com. Good gardening!

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