Garden expert offers water conservation tips

Garden expert offers water conservation tips

Photo courtesy of Nan Sterman – This tapestry of colors is thanks to a "Desert Museum" palo verde tree, red leaved cone flower, yellow blooming Mexican tulip poppy and germander sage.

by Nan Sterman

Directions to my house: drive down my street to the last house on the left. Watch for terra-cotta colored stucco and a green metal roof. You can't miss the garden!

My directions work every time, in part because of the unusual colors, but, primarily because they spot the garden. It's a riot of color, texture and interest - all without a speck of lawn.

In winter, the succulent aloes bloom orange. Wispy green and brown ornamental grasses rustle in the summer breeze. Fall brings billowy shrubs that flower in watermelon, lemon and cherry.

My trees are all textural. One has branches lined with diminutive, pale green, triangular leaves. Another's trunk and branches are bright green. In summer's heat, it blooms gold and orange.

I've long regarded my garden as an experiment in creating beauty without water. After all, the annual rainfall is only 10 inches, all of which arrives in winter. My plants are from parts of the world where the amount and the timing of rainfall are similar: California native plants of course, along with plants from southern and western Australia, the west coast of Chile and the Mediterranean basin.

Do plants ever die in my garden? Of course. But if they can't tolerate the conditions, I try something else.

Plants aren't the only things that make my garden low-water. My garden practices do, too. No overhead sprinklers for me. Spraying water into the air means too much lost to evaporation. Instead, I use drip irrigation to put water directly onto the soil above the roots.

I also mulch. A 3-inch layer insulates the soil and slows the rate at which moisture evaporates. Above all, I don't overwater. If you fill the soil with water, there's no room left for air to reach roots. Plants literally drown. While all plants need water regularly their first year or two, you then can cut back how often you water.

How does that translate to my water bill? Five people (including a shower-loving teenager) live on our two-thirds acre property. Our extensive gardens include a vegetable garden and more than 20 fruit trees, but no lawn. In the hottest month of summer, our water bill peaked at $120.

Compare that to the garden consultation I did a few weeks back. Two adults live in a home about the same size as mine, on a lot a third of the size. There are overhead sprinklers, no mulch, not much garden, but lots of lawn. Their water bill is $200 a month. Guess who uses less water?

Nan Sterman is a garden journalist, horticulturist and gardening designer who lives in Encinitas, Calif. She contributes to regional and national publications such as Sunset Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune and Organic Gardening. When Nan isn't at her computer, she's talking to audiences about gardening, either in person, on the radio, or on "A Growing Passion," her TV show. In her own garden, Nan loves to prune!

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