Water-saving ideas for your garden

Photo: iStockphoto.com/Solidago
Simple xeriscaping techniques have a big impact.

Nature usually knows best. When it comes to designing our backyards, we can all emulate nature by using xeriscape techniques, a term coined to describe creative landscaping practices that minimize the use of water. Many assume that xeriscaping means growing only cacti and yuccas, or covering the soil with gravel, but nothing could be further from the truth. Lauren Springer, in her book The Undaunted Garden, refers to her xeriscape as a “lush, dry garden.” Plants classified as xerophytic require less water, or have better methods of obtaining water (for example, a long taproot system) or retaining it (for example, waxy leaves that slow transpiration). Xeriscaping doesn’t mean avoiding water-guzzlers, such as astilbes or ligularias, altogether. It is simply a matter of organization – grouping plants together according to their water requirements.

Xeriscaping has become a way of life in areas where water is scarce. Since the 1995 drought and severe water restrictions in England, signage saying “drought tolerant” has been seen at all British nurseries. In Colorado, many homeowners leave a buffer zone between their lawns and the street, so that runoff water from lawn sprinklers doesn’t run down the gutters. In some cases, this is simply a mulched area planted with low-growing junipers and large rocks, or it may be a flower garden that needs only the lawn’s excess water. In Europe, the formerly pristine lawns at Versailles, Vaux-le-Vicomte and Tuileries Gardens are now low-growing, flowery meadows. City parks in Germany also feature low-maintenance perennial and annual plantings that never need watering.

Xeriscaping is also becoming popular in Canada. To educate consumers about water-wise gardening practices, Ontario’s Durham Region decided to develop a demonstration Water Efficient Garden in the town of Whitby. The beauty of this garden, watered only by Mother Nature, has educated and amazed many of its visitors.

Besides the desire to conserve water, there are several other reasons to consider xeriscaping. Your property may have sandy soil, steep slopes or a garden that you can only tend to on weekends. You might find the cost of irrigation equipment and water prohibitive, or simply hate hauling hoses around. Whatever your reasons may be, follow some basic steps to create a beautiful xeriscape:

1.     Planning and design

Limit your manicured lawn to a flat, easily irrigated shape (no long, narrow strips of grass), and convert large grass areas to natural meadows with mown pathways. Plant slopes with xerophytic plants, or terrace them for better water retention. Group plants according to their moisture requirements – place the ones needing the most moisture near the water source.

2.     Soil structure

Add organic matter to the soil to improve water retention and increase fertility.

3.     Plant selection

Select drought-tolerant plants. Good choices are native plants or naturalized species from dry habitats; plants that have fuzzy, waxy or finely divided foliage; or plants that are dormant during summer’s heat.

4.     Planting techniques

Planting techniques are important – dig a hole, fill it with water, and wait for the soil to absorb the moisture. Then open the plant’s soil ball, spreading the roots so they will quickly grow into the earth. Place the plant in the hole and fill with soil, then water again. Water regularly until established, then gradually reduce the frequency. The ideal time for installing a xeriscape is late summer to early autumn, which allows for maximum root development before the drought of the following summer.

5.     Irrigate efficiently

Water turf and garden areas no more than once a week, but apply at least two inches of water at a time. This forces the plants to develop extensive root systems between waterings. Drip irrigation (with soaker hoses) cuts down on the amount of water lost to evaporation by sprinkler systems. Harvest the water from your roof using rain barrels – a quarter of an inch of rainfall on a 1,000-square-foot roof provides up to 150 gallons of water. Learn to measure weekly rainfall, and irrigate only when necessary.

6.     Mulch

Mulching bare soil to a depth of two to four inches prevents water evaporation, maintains an even, cool soil temperature, and prevents the germination of weeds. Choose a mulch that is as natural in appearance as possible. The best time to apply mulch is in late spring, after the soil has warmed and before summer’s heat begins.

Xeriscaping is a fun and sustainable way to garden. For more xeriscaping and eco-gardening tips, be sure to visit the Canada Blooms: Canada’s Largest Flower and Garden Festival, held March 16-25 in Toronto.

Also enter Green Living’s contest for your chance to win a rain barrel from www.rainbarrel.ca!

Have comments, questions or xeriscaping tips to share? Contact editor@green-living.ca.

Landscape Ontario is an association representing over 2000 horticultural professionals. They promote the benefits of landscaping, horticulture, and outdoor living.