While big areas of the country are buried in snow right now, other places are suffering serious water shortages. California is in the middle of the worst drought in state history, and scientists fear that more of the same may be on the horizon. Even mild droughts can wreak havoc on your garden, and water conservation is crucial during more severe shortages. But you don’t have to grow only cacti to keep from winding up with a brown, shriveled garden during dry spells! Instead, you can “xeriscape” your garden by using a garden design that makes the best use of the water that’s available. Read on to discover the basics of xeriscaping, and enjoy a beautiful garden even when it’s dry out.
1. Optimize your Soil for Water Conservation
Soil that is too porous will drain very quickly, allowing water to escape before your plants can absorb it. During a dry spell, when plants need to absorb as much of the available water as possible, overly-porous soil will lead to dead plants. On the other hand, soil that is too dense will trap water for too long, causing root rot.
To make sure your soil is ready to use water efficiently and keep your plants healthy, try this test recommended by Organic Gardening Magazine:
- Dig a hole about 12 inches deep, and fill it with water.
- Watch the water level for a few minutes. If the hole drains within just a few minutes, the soil is too porous.
- If the water doesn’t drain right away, wait 30 minutes and re-check the water level. After, if the hole is still full of water, the soil is too dense.
- If your soil is too dense or too porous, mix in organic material such as finely shredded leaves or compost.
2. Maximize your Space with Smart Garden Design
Some plants need more water than others, so make sure you check the tag on a plant before you buy it for your garden to see how much sun and water the plant will need to flourish. The National Gardening Association also has a searchable online plant finder that lists the needs of hundreds of plants.
Next, take a good look at your property. Determine which areas receive the most water, and which receive the least. The slope of the land will influence this, because water gathers on lower places. Places such as the area around downspouts will also have more water, and shaded areas will hold onto water longer.
Once you’ve mapped out the wetter and drier areas of your property, plant the most drought-tolerant plants in the drier areas, and the least drought-tolerant plants in the wetter areas. It might not sound like much, but good plant placement is a key part of xeriscaping, which can help your garden use up to 50% less water.
3. Choose the Best Drought Tolerant Plants
When you think of drought tolerant plants, you probably picture things like cacti and agave. But desert succulents aren’t the only plants that can survive on small amounts of water.
While no other plants can match desert succulents when it comes to survival in extremely dry conditions, plenty of plants, including many with beautiful flowers, can tolerate pretty dry conditions. Better Homes and Gardens has this list of 16 of the best drought resistant perennials, including beautiful plants such as the blanket flower (see the photo at the top of this article) and Russian sage (see photo above). For California residents, this booklet from the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District contains valuable information on native plants and drought resistant plants.
Here are some characteristics of drought resistant plants, courtesy of Organic Gardening Magazine:
- Large, fleshy roots like those of the yucca plant help plants store water.
- Fuzzy leaves, such as those of the woundwort, help reduce water loss through the leaves’ surface.
- Waxy leaves on plants such as rosemary also reduce water loss.
- Gray leaves, such as on Russian sage, reduce water loss by reflecting sunlight.
- Succulent leaves, such as those on sempervivum (“hens and chicks”) store water that the plant can use during dry spells. That’s why the name sempervivum is Latin for “always alive.” This plant’s a survivor!
Once you’ve selected your plants and planted them, don’t forget to mulch. Mulching around your plants is essential for minimizing water evaporation, and it also discourages weeds, which sap much-needed nutrients and water from the soil. Organic Gardening Magazine recommends using a 2- to 3-inch-thick layer of shredded leaves, compost, bark nuggets, or other organic mulch.
4. Rain Barrels and More: How to Water the Right Way
Even if you follow the first 3 tips for water conservation, your plants will need a boost of water once in awhile. For example, newly transplanted plants need extra water, and perennials need plenty of water for the first 3 months after planting. Watering your plants the right way is just as important to water conservation as the other 3 steps in this article.
One component of smart watering is where you get your water. Rain barrels are an excellent way to channel more of the rain to your plants and bypass the need to use municipal water or well water. This type of water conservation is especially important during droughts, when cities may put limits on water usage and wells can be in danger of running dry.
How you deliver the water to your plants is also key for water conservation. Overhead sprinklers are a bad idea, because they waste water by spraying it on the parts of your plants that need it the least, and also by feeding weeds, which can leach water from your plants. Organic Gardening Magazine recommends watering your garden through drip irrigation or hand-watering.