Contemplating Garden Survival This Summer
Summer has arrived! Here in California we are facing our second driest year in history with water supplies plummeting precipitously, resulting in mandated restrictions on water use in the home and especially in the garden – and it only promises to get worse. Keeping our gardens and landscapes alive this summer will indeed be a challenge for many homeowners and businesses. Some may have to make tough choices about what lives and what dies, including their lawns, annuals and perennials, and even food crops. I met one woman the other day who said with a definite tone of guilt, “I’m trying to keep my cut flower garden alive, but worried about the water I may be wasting”.
Before you shut off the water and pull up your petunias, here are some tips for reducing water use and helping your garden make it through a hot, dry summer:
Don’t Kill Your Lawn – Yet!
If you are ready to “lose your lawn” – great! But before you turn off the sprinklers, check with your water agency to see if they offer rebates. Many Cash for Grass programs require a meeting with a representative to verify you have a lawn to replace and/or photos of your lawn while still green. Once that step is complete, sheet mulch your lawn in place – it is easy to do, saves a lot of back-breaking labor, does not require chemicals and composts the lawn in place. For more information and a demonstration, visit: www.loseyourlawn.org
Mulch, Mulch Mulch!
Cover your entire garden with a thick layer of recycled wood mulch – at least 3” deep. This layer will keep the soil around your plant’s tender roots cooler, and reduce water evaporation by as much as 70%! This in turn will reduce the amount of water you need to apply to your plants. Just be sure to keep the mulch away from the plant’s root crown where the extra moisture could invite pests and diseases. You can often get ground up tree trimmings from tree care services for free! In addition, my watering agency is offering discount coupons for purchasing mulch from local suppliers: http://ebmud.com/water-and-wastewater/water-conservation/mulch-discount-coupons
Build Watering Basins.
This simple step can save gallons of water. Construct 3”-4” high berm around the perimeter of each plant. Place your drip emitter(s) inside the berm to keep water at the base of the plant where it will reach the roots and prevent runoff that often ends up watering the adjacent paving!
Understand Your Plants’ Watering Needs.
I see many gardens that are overwatered which not only wastes this precious resource, but can also be harmful to the plant. Plants native to California and other Mediterranean regions of the world have adapted to our dry summer climates and can survive with very little supplemental water. Some, in fact, do not like any summer water once established!To calculate how much water your plants need, per week, go to: http://ucanr.edu/sites/UrbanHort/Water_Use_of_Turfgrass_and_Landscape_Plant_Materials/Plant_Water_Needs/Easy_Calculators_for_Estimating_Landscape_Water_Needs/ Note that these estimates are for plants that have been established in the garden for at least one year and are averages – more drought tolerant plantings will require less.
Water Your Trees.
We need trees to provide shade, clean the air, provide habitat and more. Protect your investment on these natural air conditioners by ensuring the root zones are well mulched (keep at least 8” away from the root flare – where the trunk meets the ground) and apply water slowly so it sinks in where and reaches the roots. To get the water into the root zone more readily some arborists recommend drilling vertical holes 3” – 4” wide and 2’ deep within the tree’s root zone, being careful to avoid large roots, and fill with compost. Use your hose to apply water to these “wells”.
Check and Upgrade your Irrigation System.
Check your irrigation system for leaks and overspray – many water agencies will send a water audit expert to come to your home to perform a free survey to assess how you can save water, indoors and out. Check to see if your water supplier offers rebates for purchasing and installing more efficient drip systems or high-efficiency rotating nozzles, pressure regulators to improve system performance and self-adjusting timers. Making these adjustments and upgrades can reduce the water used in your garden by as much as 30%.
Install a Greywater System.
Greywater is the water that normally goes down the drain from your washing machine, bathtubs, showers and sinks (except the kitchen sink). You can re-direct and re-use that water in your garden, as long as you follow your local codes. Note that you’ll have to use soaps and detergents plant-friendly – biodegradable and non-toxic, salt (sodium) and boron (borax) and chlorine-free. Yes – they do exist! For more information, see: http://greywateraction.org/, http://oasisdesign.net/ and https://www.whollyh2o.org/. Also, just start today by putting a bucket in your shower and sink to capture the water coming out of the tap as it warms up!
Re-evaluate your Garden.
While you are applying more mulch and building plant basins, take a hard look at what is growing where and consider which plants are most suitable to our regional climate and drought conditions, as well as your garden’s microclimates. Start planning changes to implement after summer as passed, including replacing old plants with native and climate-adapted species. Sheet mulch over your lawn to let it start to work its magic on the soil and wait until fall to plant. While you are at it, find a shady spot to place a bench and have fun imagining your renovated garden – one that invites birds and butterflies, conserves water and is a pleasant space to sit and enjoy.
Collectively, these steps can save water and keep your garden happy (or at least alive) during the hot, dry summer.
Keep cool and save water!
Sarah Carolyn Suttonby