Low-water gardening

Low-water gardening

With rainfall and snow pack totals well above average for this
time of year, gardeners might be eager to abandon that nagging
sense of guilt when reaching for the hose to water. But drought
remains a threat in California, and despite the panic some feel
when told to grow a garden and save water simultaneously, it can be
done.
With rainfall and snow pack totals well above average for this time of year, gardeners might be eager to abandon that nagging sense of guilt when reaching for the hose to water. But drought remains a threat in California, and despite the panic some feel when told to grow a garden and save water simultaneously, it can be done.

Knowing what to plant, where to plant it and when to water is a starting point for producing a bountiful, flourishing yard while conserving water, said Shawn Novack, water conservation program manager for the San Benito County Water District.

“We’re at 135 percent of needed snow pack for this year, so our reserves are good. That being said, we live in a perpetual state of drought,” he said. “The main thing is to look at your area and decide what’s going to grow well there.”

Plants native to California are prime choices for gardens, Novack said, because they require little water and live long. Most natives are perennials with slow growth rates, requiring less maintenance, such as pruning and clipping, over time.

Some examples include the toyon or the California glory, both evergreen shrubs, and the California fuchsia, a flower shrub with tube-shaped, vibrant red blossoms.

Native plants also have a greater tolerance for insects and diseases. Many beneficial insects such as butterflies and songbirds are attracted to natives, reducing the need for pesticides and increasing the chance for a healthier garden overall.

Natives grow best in California’s typical cool, wet winters and warm, dry summers, Novack said. Even during hot summer months, many natives don’t require a great deal of supplemental irrigation.

Getting to know your plants is a lot like getting to know a person: It requires time and attention.

When grass gets dry, it tends to lie flat after having been walked on, and when plants need moisture, they start to look generally unhappy, with wilting, droopy leaves that lack shine and luster.

“The usual rule of thumb is to apply only the amount of water that can be absorbed at one time,” Novack said. “It’s important to stop watering before there’s runoff and puddling. The best time of the day to water is early morning and late at night, to avoid evaporation.”

If a more scientific approach to knowing when to water seems more practical, Novack recommended watering to the plant’s root depth.

Insert a trowel or probe into the soil to find the depth, which usually is about eight inches deep for turf grass and two to three feet for shrubs and trees, Novack said.

Water the plant with a steady of stream, and time how long it takes the water to reach the plant’s depth.

Before watering again, record how long it takes the soil to dry several inches deep. A heavy, clay-like soil doesn’t absorb water very well, while a fine, sand-like soil doesn’t absorb water well enough, Novack said.

Finding the happy medium might seem a frustrating ordeal, but to prove it’s not impossible, the California Department of Foresty’s Santa Clara Unit in Morgan Hill showcases a low-water, fire-safe garden every year outside the facility, featuring fire-resistant plants and flowers that require minimal water.

One example is myoporum, a low-growing groundcover with small white flowers that attracts butterflies. The plant is ideal for flat terrain as well as moderate hill slopes. Caltrans uses myoporum to landscape several interchanges.

“The garden is there to show people how they can plant around their house the proper, fire-safe plants,” said fire prevention specialist Chris Morgan. “We want to be able to show people what a mature plant looks like, as well as how people can use spacing, mulches, trees and groundcovers in their gardens effectively.”

The garden uses drip irrigation, a low-pressure method of watering.

Also featured are different styles of walkways to demonstrate how concrete, stone and other dividers can separate areas of a garden, eliminating the need for a blanket approach to watering – a common habit for many people, especially when it comes to grass, Morgan said.

“If people are going to have lawns, it’s important to really think about how much lawn you want to put in,” he said. “A lawn is nice, but it takes a lot of water. It’s always good to do some research on the proper type of sod or grass to put in, so it takes a minimal amount of water to maintain. There are some grasses out there that require huge amounts of water.”

Many well-intentioned people install timed sprinklers in their lawns in an attempt to water efficiently. The problem is, often neither the systems nor their schedules are well maintained, leading to excess runoff, Novack said.

“Turf is a totally inefficient use of water,” he said. “Most people’s irrigation systems have a timer, but they’re not adjusted for the season. So, it’ll be raining, and they’re still watering twice or three times per week.”

More information

For more tips and pointers on how to water your garden effectively, visit your local library, or call the San Benito County Water District at (831) 637-4378 or visit www.sbcwd.com. The California Department of Forestry can be reached at (408) 779-2121 or online at www.fire.ca.gov.

Leave your comments