Easy Care Less Water

11/23/2012 | Ken Lain, mountain gardener Uncategorized, Xeriscaping

Several studies of western gardens show that homeowners overwater their landscapes by 50 percent. My experiences at the garden center concur with that finding. I can say that 80% of my customers’ plant replacements are to replace plants killed by over-watering. The primary reason plants fail in our mountain clay soils is over-watering, a fact most landscape owners stubbornly refuse to concede. This results in many drowned plants and unnecessarily high water bills.

So pronounced is this habit to overwater that I’m suspicious that gardening is not the hobby, but that standing behind the hose each morning is! With the heat of summer coming on, this tendency to over water becomes more pervasive. So, the rest of this column is devoted to what I call ‘smart gardening’, aka xeriscaping, drought hardy, or low care landscapes. Simply put, it is working with nature instead of working against it which is what gardeners do when using too much water.

This week’s photo is from my home garden; it’s a gaura and carnation combo surrounded by a rock wall. It receives not a bit of shade, little to no care, and yet is so-o-o-o, good looking. It’s an eye pleasing combination of plants that like intense sun and prefer their soil kept on the dry side. This section of the garden is drip irrigated twice a week, which provides adequate moisture. Also, regular irrigation conveniently releases the nutrients from the 7-4-4 ‘All Purpose Plant Food’ applied earlier in spring.

Other successful “low water user” companion plants are junipers & violets, snapdragons & mint, Russian sage & Mexican primrose. I don’t like the word “xeric” because is sounds so prickly, and “drought tolerant” conjures up visions of above ground drip tubing. “Water thrifty” is a really good term I heard from my grandmother as she worked in her garden, a tissue tucked up her sleeve. However, “Yavapai Friendly Plants” sounds like an appropriate, yet softer and prettier, label for growth that can survive dry regions.

Typically, “Yavapai Friendly Plants” have waxy, fuzzy, or thorny foliage. Many have smaller leaves and some, such as yuccas, agaves, and brooms, have no foliage at all. Expand your plant palette to include ornamental grasses, bulbs, shrubs, natives, succulents, and most plants from Mediterranean climates. Incorporate into your garden any or all of these YFP plants and you’ll significantly reduce the amount of water necessary to maintain a striking landscape.

“Yavapai Friendly Plants” is the title of a new page created this week with more companion plant ideas that reduce water use in landscapes. As always, this garden handout is free; ask for it the next time you visit the garden center.

Besides selecting water thrifty plants here are suggestions for reducing garden water demands:

Provide shade – The easiest way to stay hydrated is to stay in the shade, a principle that works as well for plants as it does for gardeners. Start with shade trees that help keep the landscape shaded, cool and moist, especially during the summer.
Don’t waste water – 50% of landscape water is wasted in overwatering, runoff, and irrigation leaks. Keeping careful watch over your irrigation system makes a big difference, for your water bill and for our environment.

Control rain runoff – Create permeable areas of the landscape or depression areas called rain gardens where water can gather before it goes into the watershed. Your plants will be glad you did and so will your neighbor downhill from you.

Mulch like there is no tomorrow – I’m still impressed by the difference a three-inch layer of mulch makes towards retaining the water we must use. Use shredded cedar bark and enjoy the added benefit from cedar’s natural repelling action towards insects.

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Plant of the Week – this week’s featured plant is definitely a low needs plant. ‘Gold Finger Potentilla’ blooms the entire growing season well into November. Deer are no threat to this showy mountain beauty; it is utterly unappetizing to any critter with fur. Maintenance is the easiest for this knee high globe-shaped perennial. Regarded as the brightest yellow flower in any garden, the pot tag picture just doesn’t do it justice. It is the ultimate flowering shrub for mountain gardens; it’s hardy, tough, critter proof, and adaptable to all condition except wet soils. At this time large specimens will be in full bloom and cost well under $30.

Garden Alert – Bark Beetles are making a comeback. Examples of their damage have been flooding the garden center for the last couple of weeks. This is such a devastating pest that it is worth a walkabout in the landscape to check pine, spruce, cedar, or cypress trees. This tiny beetle burrows through the bark and girdles the cambium layer just under the bark. Look for pinholes in the bark or oozing yellow sap; both are indications of this pest’s activity. Treat with “Plant Protector”, fertilize with “All Purpose Plant Food” 7-4-4, and deeply water one time in June. This is the best cure for stressed trees.

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This Saturday’s garden class starts at 9:30, and is entitled ‘Maximize the Vegetable Harvest’. Next week’s class focuses on ‘Gardening for Newcomers’. Classes are free, informative, open to all gardeners, and a lot of fun.

Until next week, I’ll see you in the garden center.