Water-Wise Gardening Tips
By Fritz Kollmann - Water Conservation Garden Crew Leader
Break with convention! The long overdue conversion of thirsty, poorly adapted lawns and gardens can only happen if homeowners, property managers, landscape architects, garden designers and businesses can implement a sustainable ‘new normal’ by installing and properly maintaining attractive, low water gardens and landscapes.
Low water gardening is much like regular gardening with some key differences in plant selection, soil preparation, and irrigation systems.
- Ideally, your garden site will receive a full day of unobstructed sunlight and be free of large trees which can make establishment of new gardens somewhat more difficult. Shady, treed sites can be planted with low water use plants but keep in mind that the existing watering regiment will need to be maintained or even increased to ensure the health of the existing trees. Carefully observe your garden site over one or more seasons to determine how much light it receives, how well the soil drains, and where water collects or drains away from. Knowing your site characteristics will help you make informed decisions regarding soil preparation and plant selection.
- Prepare soil by clearing existing plants and weeds. Cover the garden area in a thin (up to 1”) layer of fine compost and any other necessary soil amendments, and till in or double dig roughly 4-6” deep.
- Many Utah soils are high in clay and drain poorly. However, many low water plants, especially succulents, require well drained soils. Incorporating a 1” thick layer of Utelite or other drainage improving amendment will greatly improve your chance of success.
- Drip irrigation systems provide the greatest water savings over time. There are several styles that work well for the home landscape. Surface drip tubing can work well but is somewhat unsightly unless pinned in place and covered with mulch.
- Converting your existing spray heads to large droplet spray heads also helps reduce water loss through evaporation and can save you the cost of renovating your entire irrigation system.
- Use a programmable timer with a rain or soil moisture sensor to provide a consistent watering schedule and avoid watering during or immediately after a rainstorm.
- Water deeply and consistently. Set irrigation run times to ensure that your soil is being moistened at least of 6” below the surface. A cycle soak program will help on slopes and in heavy clay soils, by giving water time to soak in rather than run off.
- Hydro-zone your plantings and irrigation zones. Grouping plants with the same water needs will ensure the success of your garden.
Plant Selection & Design
- If the thought of converting your whole yard to a water-wise landscape is intimidating, start small. Pick one area of your landscape to start with. There are many resources to help with the process. Consider hiring a garden designer and landscape company to install and maintain your garden. Let your chosen designer/landscaper know that you want a low water landscape! Check your designers plant choices to ensure that they are truly low water plants before approving a design.
- Be aware of the difference between water wise plants and drought tolerant plants. A water wise plant is one that requires less water than traditional garden plants in order to complete its life cycle. A drought tolerant plant is one which can survive an extended period with very little or no water, but may require regular watering to thrive. A drought tolerant plant will not necessarily perform well with less water over time while a water wise plant will.
- Select plants that are considered water wise for your region. Keep in mind that the term “water wise” is often used to describe plants that are well suited to a particular climate, rainfall amount and geographical area.
- Native plants, provided they are appropriate for your conditions, are often a good choice. However, not all native Utah plants are low water use plants. Utah natives from riparian zones and high elevations require regular watering. There is also a tremendous variety of plants from similar climates that make excellent garden subjects, both visually and ecologically. Visit Red Butte Garden or your local nursery and ask a horticulturist for recommendations.
- When planting (everything except succulents), create small berms around the edge of the root ball, on the surface of the soil to ensure deep, properly located water penetration. Watering deeply is essential in establishing all plants.
- Deep, regular watering (2-3x/week) is necessary during the establishment phase (approximately 2 years) of any garden, including low-water gardens.
- Once established, allow the soil to dry out 4” deep for clay soils and 2” deep for sandy soils before watering. If you’re unsure of your soil type, perform a soil test. Send a sample away to your local agricultural extension or do it yourself.
- Home soils tests are simple and free! Click this link for directions www.youtube.com/watch?v=XU6_lqCzxf0
- Improper planting depth and constantly wet conditions around the crown of low water plants often kills them. Be sure to plant your plants so that the top of the root ball is level with the surrounding soil and that water drains into the soil quickly.
- Mulch helps retain water and can prevent some weed seeds from germinating. Inorganic mulches such as gravel are best for low water gardens. Organic mulches can be problematic due to high nitrogen content, which can injure low water plants that hail from areas where rich, natural mulches and high nutrient soils do not occur. A thin (organic mulch applied at planting time, as long as it is not touching the base of plants, can provide some benefit during plant establishment.
- A hot, windy day can kill new plants! Be sure your plants don’t stay dry for too long on windy days until they are established.
- Even the toughest low water plants in xeric gardens benefit from occasional watering. A deep soaking every two to three weeks during the dry hot part of summer will keep your garden looking good it may also encourage plants to flower over a longer period and set seed, both of which are tremendously beneficial to pollinators and other wildlife.
Utah Low Water Demonstration Gardens
- High and Dry: Gardening with Cold Hardy Dryland Plants. By Robert Nold
- Plant Driven Design. By Lauren Springer Ogden, Scott Ogden
- Cacti and Succulents for Cold Climates: 274 Outstanding Species for Challenging Conditions, Leo J. Chance
- Combinations for Conservation: Recommended Plant Groupings for Low-Water Landscapes: Center for Water-Efficient Landscaping, Utah State University
- Water Wise -Native Plants for Intermountain Landscapes by Wendy Mee, Jared Barnes, Roger Kjelgren, Richard Sutton, Teresa Cerny and Craig Johnson
- Xeriscape Colorado: The Complete Guide. By Connie Lockhart Ellefson and David Winger
- Water-Efficient Landscaping in the Intermountain West. By Heidi Kratsch Utah State University