Gardening With Less Water
For garden-loving families all over the Triangle, there’s a hot concept for spring and summer: xeriscaping.
Gardening this year is all about ways to enjoy a favorite pastime, but with less water. By using drought-resistant and native plants, smart watering techniques and planting strategies with an eye toward water conservation, you can still have your garden and enjoy it, too.
Here are some tips on how to garden with less water.
Consider your landscape
First, be sure your garden space won’t lose water because of runoff or sloping land. Choose a flat area for plants, and leave sloping property for decorative stones.
When choosing plants, group them according to water requirements. In this case, plants should mostly have low-irrigation needs. If you have a prize rosebush in the middle of drought-tolerant plants, you’ll still run the water too often over plants that don’t really need it. So be sure to keep low-water plants in groupings away from those that may need a little more water.
Also determine whether you need to enrich the soil with nutrients or organic material to help it retain water. Some types of soil stay moist longer than others.
Care for the area
“One of the best things you can do to help your garden during a drought is to weed,” says Michelle Wallace, consumer horticulture agent with the N.C. Cooperative Extension at the Durham County Center. “It’s not glamorous, but weeds take nutrients and water away from plants we love. By actively managing weeds, you’ll reduce the amount of water taken away from your garden. It’s especially important to weed during a drought.”
Ideally, you will have established plants. But if you have to start from seeds, Claire Miller, a master gardener volunteer with the Wake County N.C. Cooperative Extension, suggests covering the seedlings with newspaper.
“Poke a hole for the seedling,” she says. “A very thin layer —maybe a quarter- or a half-inch thick — will keep weeds out for a while. You’ll be able to water just your plant.”
Save water from any rainfall using rain barrels, or even simple buckets, to capture water coming from gutters. A rain barrel doesn’t have to be an eyesore, either. Discreetly tuck your rain barrel behind bushes or paint it to match your house.
Use mulch to keep the garden beds wet. “Put two to three inches of mulch around your plants,” Wallace says. “Too much is detrimental, but you need it to retain moisture.”
Depending on the type of mulch, it also can help boost the nutrients in your garden. If you use grass clippings, for example, you’ll give your garden a shot of nitrogen. A good compost is an entirely natural mulch that is nutrient-rich, too. (And if you use your own compost, you cut down on the amount of material heading to the landfill, as well!)
Another easy way to enjoy gardening, but with less water, is to let your kids try container gardening.
“Containers are a great way to go in a drought situation,” says Greg Nace, director of horticulture at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens in Durham. “Where it’s not as practical to water an entire vegetable garden, you can still grow some vegetables and herbs in a container. Many bulbs are also very easy to grow and don’t require a lot of moisture.”
Encourage kids to help find interesting containers. You can try traditional plastic pots, but also look for more whimsical and fun items, too. Line an old boot with a heavy plastic bag and fill it with soil, then plant some bright flowers to decorate your front doorstep. Or try using a brightly colored old toy that your child has outgrown to house herbs. Set old plastic egg halves into an egg carton (so they won’t tip over) and plant delicate plants like herbs or grasses.
“Because it’s small, it’s easy to rescue water to use in a container garden,” Wallace explains. “You can even put a bucket in the shower to fill while you wait for the water to warm up before your shower.”
The key to decorative container gardens is choosing the right plants. For drought-tolerant plants, Wallace suggests:
• For a “thriller,” or a plant that draws the eye, try an ornamental grass with beautiful foliage, like Muhlenbergia capillaris in pink or green.
• For a “spiller,” a plant that cascades over the sides of the container, try golden creeping Jenny in chartreuse green.
• For a “filler,” a plant that fills the container horizontally, Wallace recommends dianthus.
Little green thumbs
If gardening with your kids is a favorite family activity, shift gears a little during drought conditions. Rather than gardening with plants that require a lot of water, try some garden-themed activities instead.
When is more plentiful, you can return to the green things of summer and still have memories of garden activities from this year.
Some “no water required” garden activities to try include making garden pavers from concrete, butterfly feeders, worm composting bins, scarecrows or a garden sundial.
Kathleen Reilly is a Triangle-area writer and author of Planet Earth: 25 Environmental Projects You Can Build Yourself, to be published in April. For information, go to www.kathleenreilly.com/books.html.
The N.C. Cooperative Extension recommends the following drought-resistant plants:
Algerian English Ivy
‘Blue Pacific’ Shore Juniper