Water conservation in the garden

Photo courtesy of Ellen Goff This beautyberry - Callicarpa americana - is a native shrub of the Southeast and is very drought tolerant.

Photo courtesy of Ellen Goff This beautyberry - Callicarpa americana - is a native shrub of the Southeast and is very drought tolerant.

Photo courtesy of Ellen Goff – This beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) is a native shrub of the Southeast and is very drought tolerant.

by Ellen Goff

These are tough times for home landscapes as the third year of drought descends on our region. However with some advance preparation, you and your garden will make it through, providing you rethink landscape priorities and expectations.

Care for your high-value trees and shrubs, but let the lawn go - expansive turf lawns are an unsustainable luxury. Speaking from years of drought endurance and decades of highs and lows in the garden - you can do this. Here's how:

Test and improve the soil

Learn what your soil conditions are with a simple soil test kit available at any garden center. Or contact your county's Cooperative Extension office for testing help. The results will show what nutrients are weak or missing and how to improve soil conditions. The test will also register soil pH, that is, the degree of acidity and alkalinity. Every plant has a limited pH range that enables it to absorb nutrients. If alkalinity is too high or acidity is too low, the roots cannot access food. Test instructions should indicate how to raise or lower the pH as needed.

I've seen the lush results of good soil preparation in my garden. But by nature, I'm a lazy gardener and my plants have paid a price when I bypass such seasonal prep. Adding missing conditioners such as compost helps the soil, too.

Mulch around all plants

Spread at a depth of 3 to 4 inches, mulch will help retain soil moisture, defuse heat and reduce weed growth.

Plant in the right place

Where you locate shrubs, flowers, herbs and vegetables in your landscape is as important as the plants you choose. In areas receiving full sun all day, I plant rugged native species such as butterfly weed, black-eyed Susan and muhly grasses along with tough Mediterranean herbs like lavender, rosemary and thyme. After a few months, I ignore these plants completely, leaving them to bake and thrive.

Along the border where the morning sun hits, I plant a mix of delicate sun lovers like hydrangea, dogwood and anise tree, and partial shade perennials such as astilbe, columbine and hosta.

Water smartly

Irrigate thoroughly and deeply to encourage deep root development. Most established plants need about 1 inch of water per week, somewhat more for newly planted trees and shrubs. I rely on drip irrigation for the perennial beds and vegetables. It's very water efficient and keeps moisture off the plants which curbs disease.

To retain moisture in patio containers, I place a planted pot inside a slightly larger pot, filling the space in between with moistened vermiculite. For thirsty water hogs like tropical hibiscus, I use cooled cooking water from pasta or corn to supplement their needs.

Set watering priorities

Trees, shrubs and vegetables are the most important. Lawns, annuals and perennials are lower priority since they're less expensive to replace.

Ellen Goff is a freelance horticulture writer and photographer. She is passionate about plants, water quality and protecting the environment. Aside from working with words and pictures, she stays busy with her home landscape and its inhabitants along the shores of Lake Wylie, S.C.


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