Sierra Magazine

Hearth & Home

A Downpour of Color

Lush landscaping doesn't require loads of water

By Kris Wetherbee

Almost half a century ago, Dwight Eisenhower noted that water was "fast becoming our most valuable, most prized, most critical resource." Today, urbanization and increased population, as well as continuing drought conditions in much of the Plains and the western United States, have made Ike's analysis particularly prescient.

Traditional home landscapes can account for up to 70 percent of residential water use, but you don't need to hog the H2O to create a lush and colorful garden. Pioneered in the 1980s, the technique known as drought-resistant, waterwise, or Xeriscape landscaping can be implemented anywhere. And a waterwise garden is not necessarily an arid one: It's simply one that conserves water by planting native and other site-appropriate species. It also saves money by eliminating the need for the automatic irrigation systems and heavy fertilizer applications usually required by traditional lawns.

Whether redesigning your current landscape or starting from scratch, you should first consider the characteristics of the site. Is the area shaded by structures and trees or open to bright sun? South and west exposures dry out more quickly, making these areas ideal for your most drought- and heat-tolerant plants. These could be yarrows, artemisias, sedums, cacti, and many of the euphorbias, all of which thrive even in the desert Southwest; better suited to cooler areas like coastal Northern California are seaside daisies, dudleyas, and Pacific reed grass.

For parts of the yard that don't see much sun, consider shade-tolerant plants that can handle an occasional drought: Evergreen huckleberry is great in coastal climates, while hosta and sweet woodruff suit all regions save the hottest parts of the South. Irises, lilies of the valley, geraniums, and blue-eyed grass are good bets just about anywhere. Before you start digging any holes, group your plants according to their water needs. Once established, plants with very low water requirements such as cacti, sedums, and yuccas need no irrigation; low water-usage plants like buddleias, some ornamental grasses, and California fuchsias need less than half an inch of summer moisture every two weeks; plants grouped in the "moderate" category, like cosmos, poppies, or bee balm, will do fine with three-quarters of an inch of water each week throughout the summer.

Even areas that receive little summer rainfall can sustain a few showy plants from the moderate category, as long as you keep the planting area small-for instance, in a strip bordering the house or entranceway. For outlying areas that need little maintenance, ornamental grasses are a good choice. Grass authority John Greenlee, author of The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses, says that there are native grasses for just about every chunk of the ecology. He recommends Pennsylvania sedge for the Midwest and Northeast; western meadow sedge and California meadow sedge for the West Coast; and Texas or catlin sedge for the South.

You can enhance the drought-tolerance of most any plant by improving the tilth, or structure, of the soil first. (Native plants are the exception, as they are ideally planted in native soil.) Whether your soil is sandy, heavy clay, or any consistency in between, its water-holding capacity can be improved with organic matter. For alkaline soil, ample addition of an acidic organic matter such as sphagnum peat moss is beneficial. A three-to five-inch layer of organic mulch will also conserve water by stabilizing soil temperatures, protecting soil from drying winds, preventing weeds (which squander water and nutrients), and reducing evaporation. Several good mulching materials are compost, shredded leaves, and grass clippings, along with straw, bark, and aged wood chips.

Certainly, gardening the drought-resistant way leaves you with less need for water, fertilizer, and fuel. But it also leaves more time to smell the flowers and soak in the view.

Kris Wetherbee is a freelance writer and an organic gardener.

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