For most of us, having access to water means simply turning the faucet handle. Voila! Water in abundance, right? Well, this convenience is incredibly deceiving.
Although 75% of our planet is covered with water, only a minuscule 1% is available as pure, clean water for use by the entire world population. That’s right – 1% for everyone on Earth to use for drinking, bathing, cooking, and irrigation.
Now, factor in the growth rate of the world population – how many people are using that water – and you can see how access to usable water shouldn’t be taken for granted. Of that usable water, approximately 25-40% goes toward watering our lawns and landscapes, and of that amount, the EPA reports that nearly 50% is wasted. That waste is a pretty tragic statistic. You don’t have to be a math whiz to realize that there are many reasons to take a waterwise approach to landscaping. There is so much room for improvement.
Additionally, have you considered the amount of energy used to move water to and through your home? Providing water to our cities, pumping water from our wells, pushing water to that second story bathroom – all these activities use a lot of energy. In most urban areas, water needs to be imported from a remote source. In California, for example, 20% of the state’s entire energy budget goes toward transporting (from areas like the Sierra Nevadas) and purifying water. That’s a huge expense of energy, and that’s just one state.
Although commercial agriculture certainly has a big role to play when it comes to water conservation, it’s the homeowner who can have a huge impact. With nearly one billion weekend warrior gardeners, the combined results of our efforts (or lack thereof) really add up. As a collective group – a global neighborhood of water consumption – we have a significant opportunity to make a difference.
Making a difference doesn’t mean a lot of work either. In fact, it can save you time and effort overall. To that end, I’m bringing you this 5-part Efficient Watering blog series to share with you best practices for keeping your landscape watered and healthy. Let’s dive in.
Using Native and Climate-Similar Plants
There are so many ways to conserve water – and save you precious time – when caring for your landscape. Just as importantly, using a waterwise approach to gardening will result in healthier turf, trees and plants. That means, less money spent in replacement and pest or weed control.
The first step is to use the proper plants. When adding plants or trees to your landscape, plant for your climate. There has been plenty of focus the past few years on using native plants. One of the benefits of using natives is the inherent systems within those plants for dealing with the conditions of your area.
Native plants have passed down traits that allow them to withstand heat or cold, drought or flood – without the intervention of a gardener’s loving care. An added bonus, they have developed systems to fend off the pests and diseases which are also native to your area. So – less water, less pest and disease control, less of your time and resources. But wait, there’s more… more benefit to your native pollinators too.
Your county extension office can provide you with a list of plants, trees and shrubs native to your area – meaning varietals that live or grow naturally in your particular region without direct or indirect human intervention.
You can, however, extend your garden palette beyond those plants native to your region. Take advantage of similar traits developed by plants native to similar climates.
Perhaps, the yarrow native to your region doesn’t stir your gardening passions. You can expand the list of plants appropriate to your area by looking for similar climates across the globe and designing with their varietals. If you live in the high desert of Colorado, look to the high deserts of Argentina for additional plant choices. If you live in the humid heat of Florida, look to the humid-, heat-loving flora of South America’s rainforests. If you live in the Canadian tundra, check out specimens native to the fjords of Norway. You get the picture.
Finding the Right Plant for the Right Place
As a horticulturist, lifelong gardener, and creator/host of TV’s Growing a Greener World®; I have had opportunity to interview many experts on the subject of smart and bountiful gardening.
Every one of them has said that the first and foremost step is to plant the right plant in the right place. When you do that, your job as a gardener becomes so much easier, and the likelihood you will have to spend money on plant replacement is significantly reduced.
Your first step is to know your climate. Do you live in an area where drought or flooding is a problem? Does the air in your region tend be dry or humid? Are your summers intensely hot, or are your winters bitterly cold?
These are basic questions, but they can be so easy to overlook when you are taken in by the beauty of a particular flower or are eager to grow your favorite fruit. We’ve all been there, and it can certainly be fun to experiment. But planting outside of the limitations and challenges of your environment can be expensive, time-consuming – and water wasteful.
Get to know your region’s Hardiness Zone – and your home’s micro-climate. If you aren’t familiar with the zone of your area, check out the USDA zone map, the Sunset zone map, or check with your local county extension office.
When buying seeds or plants, always check the zone reference to be sure of suitability. Plants available at your local nursery tend to be appropriate for your planting zone, but it is still a good idea to check the tag.
While your city may fall in a certain zone, there are many factors which can slightly impact the climate of your specific property. This is an example of a microclimate – a small area in which the climate varies from that of the surrounding area.
Examples of elements which can create a microclimate or affect how the average temperature of your property compares to the average temperature of your hometown (on which the planting zone designation is based):
- Your home is in a valley, so you receive fewer sun hours during the day than is average for your city. Also – cooler air (the result of fewer sun hours) is heavier, so it can “pool” or displace warmer air near the surface.
- Your home is situated on a hilltop with higher-than-average wind.
- Your property is surrounded by heavily-forested land.
- Your landscape features a sheltered area. For example, a brick wall that captures and releases heat at night can create an environment a full zone warmer than the surrounding region.
You can begin to understand your landscape’s microclimate by tracking each day how the temperature in your yard compares with the official recorded temperature of your city. Ideally, you can track this variation (if any) throughout the course of a year – how much cooler in winter, how much warmer in summer, etc.
Microclimates and zoning designation also help you select the right place for your plants. A shrub that is good for zones 4-7 and is indicated as wanting full sun, may do better in afternoon shade of your yard – if your property is in 7B and tends to be a degree or two warmer than your area.
There’s another aspect to bear in mind: water requirement. Placing plants with similar water requirements within the same space is called hydrozoning. For example: Keeping drought-tolerant plants together, or grouping tropicals. Hydrozoning allows you to water the entire bed at the same rate and frequency, without having to micro-manage flow rate or hand water those thirstier plants.
While it is one more thing to think about when designing those beds, hydrozoning will definitely have a positive impact on your watering efficiency and garden health.
Soil Structure & Chemistry
Soil type is another key to determining which plants are right for your landscape. Sand, clay, silt – we all live in an area with one primary soil type. The geography in which we live also determines the typical pH factor of our area soil – acidic vs. alkaline.
We can amend our soil with things like compost and minerals to achieve the best possible soil in which to grow our plants. However, it is important to understand what you are working with and where you are starting from.
There are a couple simple tests you can do at home to better understand the soil you’re working with.
- First: Grab a handful of your soil, and clench it in your fist to determine texture. Does it break apart quickly? Your soil is comprised of mostly sand. Does it form a firm ball? You are working with clay- or silt-based soil. Healthy soil with plenty of organic matter should come together in your fist but separate easily if you press on it with your finger.
- You can also test your soil’s drainage by digging a hole approximately a foot wide and deep. Fill the hole with water and allow the water to seep into the hole cavity. Then, fill the hole with water a second time. Soil with ideal drainage should allow the second round of water to seep completely into the hole cavity within 10-15 minutes.
- Finally, it’s a good idea to take a soil sample and send it to an independent lab for an inexpensive soil test. Your local county extension office can provide suggestions on soil sampling and testing resources.
Understanding your soil’s basic structure and chemistry will provide two benefits:
- Guide you to the plants which prefer and will do best with the least amount of soil amendment – prefer acidic vs. alkaline, prefer sandy vs. soggy, etc.
- Guide your soil amendment – adding sulfur vs. mineral lime, increasing drainage vs. increasing soil absorption, etc.
Additional Plant Considerations for Success
Take note of – and abide by – the light requirements indicated on plant tags. Oftentimes, those tags can provide pretty generic guidance, so when in doubt, take a moment to research. Check online for more information.
Pay attention also to durability. If you will be placing a delicate shrub in a heavily-trafficked area of your yard, that plant will probably always be showing some signs of stress.
Don’t place the sapling of a mighty oak in a garden bed alongside your home. Know how tall and wide your plant will be at maturity, and plant it accordingly.
When first installing a garden bed, we want the instant gratification of generous foliage. It’s so easy to pack too many small, new plants into an area which they will outgrow and overcrowd within a few years.
All these aspects are a lot to consider when you are planning your landscape, but taking that time at the outset will always reward you with healthier results and easier maintenance. If – over the course of time – you observe that you may have misjudged the placement of a certain plant, remember that you can often correct these mistakes.
One of the great things about gardening is that nature can be forgiving. Many plants, shrubs and young trees can be transplanted to a better spot during the fall (or late winter). Starting out right is best, but remaining observant can help you continue to improve your garden over time or in changing conditions.
In Part 2 of this series, I will cover watering new plants, watering frequency and more. Plus, watch for the rest of this 5-part series as I provide details on watering methods, how to know how much to water, and setting your landscape up to be drought resilient.
I hope you’ll join me for all of that.