Let’s hit re-set: Go back to April. What would we have done differently in spring of 2016 to be better prepared for the drought? If we had only known ... It is the driest season in many decades. We have received at least 8 inches less rainfall than average – so far. Even if we now get sporadic rainfalls, water runs off the hard ground. And as meteorologist Don Paul said, “Drought begets more drought.”
This re-evaluation isn’t just an academic exercise. Based on massive scientific and meteorological analyses we know that weather extremes will happen with increasing frequency in the years ahead. We can’t go back, but we can re-set for the future. Considering just our own yards and gardens, what can we do to have better gardens, healthier trees, fewer landscapes losses, more produce, lawns that live, less suffering for wildlife, and fewer hours spent with our hoses in our hands?
While the global picture is daunting – with ecological, economic, national and international challenges resulting from many climate extremes – we can at least prepare for other droughts other times. This summer was almost certainly – with apologies for the pun – a dry run.
I first gave a talk about “xeriscaping” (from the Greek word for dry) in 1991, all about low water use landscaping. At the time it sounded mighty Arizona and California-influenced, which it was. Western states faced water challenges first. At the time the horticulturists were trying to convince Eastern retirees not to plant gardens that looked like Massachusetts and to plant native plants instead. Today xeriscaping tenets are directly applicable to the East coast situation. Our yards will look different – not many cacti and sand scapes here. But if we apply the following xeriscaping principles we won’t have to hear so much “would’a, could’a, should’a” next summer.
1. Design smarter. The classic American front yard paradigm is not ideal any more for many reasons. You know: the narrow lineup of evergreens plastered against house foundations, and the typical front yard tree (or two) surrounded by lawn. What works better for several reasons: Large groups or islands in which trees, shrubs, perennials, groundcovers or grasses live together in layered, compatible communities. Whether these are enlarged “foundation beds” or placed in the middle of yards, it is an ecologically sound and water-wise way to group plants. A lone tree competing with turfgrass has a grueling fight for the available rainfall – and it’s hit by lawn mowers. But in a plant community that tree will find its root space and you can water the whole cluster deeply once or twice a week (and eventually rarely at all). Lawns can go brown and dormant for several weeks without dying. Trees – especially those planted in recent years – mostly cannot.
2. Group by water needs. It’s not sensible to put an astilbe out in the sun next to the Shasta daisies. Many perennials such as daylilies, sedums, black-eyed Susans, salvias and yuccas can live in the sunshine with minimal watering once they’re established. Moisture-loving plants such as Rodgersias, astilbes, willows, (and many water guzzling annuals) shouldn’t mix with those heat lovers. Instead, put high water-need plants together with lots of compost in the soil, in an area where you will water more often, as needed. Also, looking back at this season’s troubles, it’s smart to plant new beds all at once rather than stick a new plant here and there into the garden. Recent plantings need the deepest and most frequent watering – easier together.
3. Make conscious lawn choices. Watered lawns are the biggest water guzzlers, but most Americans won’t be giving up their lawns, especially in front yards. Garden Walk Buffalo gardeners, among many others in American cities and suburbs, are replacing lawns with flower and vegetable beds. But whatever your stand on the lawn/no lawn spectrum, decide consciously where you really need a lawn – for play or to frame your house or landscape beds. Then choose the best seed or sod for the site and care for it properly: Plant in compost-y soil; leave the grass long in dry periods; let it go dormant for a while in summer. Keeping lawns is ecologically and environmentally wasteful where they are not needed. During this drought-ridden summer, keeping a new lawn alive was especially tough. Re-establish a lawn late this summer, only where you need one and only if you can water it correctly until it’s established.
4. Irrigate wisely. In-ground watering systems are wonderful – if they are set up well by professionals so the right plants are targeted, and if the timing is set correctly, neither drowning nor parching the plants. Similarly, drip hoses are only as good as where they are placed and how the water flows through. Overhead sprinklers waste the most water so if you use them measure and adjust the water delivery. Morning watering wastes the least water. Water wands directed at the base of plants delivers water the most efficiently but many people make the mistake of watering plants daily rather than deeply every few days (when it is needed). Whatever you water, be sure that water gets to the plant roots not just the soil surface. This season Tree Gators (those green bags) would have been smart since they show you how many gallons per week the tree received. (A new tree might require at least 15 gallons per week). Or use 5-gallon buckets with holes poked in them to drip out the water slowly. This year we also learned – I hope – to water the surrounding soil whenever you plant something new or water an individual plant. Dry soil sucks the moisture away from the thirsty roots.
If there were ever a time to focus on your watering practices, this is it. And know that your systems must be flexible according to weekly, monthly and seasonal changes.
5. Planting and care. How you plant, soil preparation and weeding are most important in drought-y times. Organic matter holds moisture in the soil so be sure to use lots of compost when you plant. Spreading mulch on top of the soil reduces evaporation and retains soil moisture – but there’s a catch: The water has to get into the soil first. If you’re watering shallowly, you’re just watering the mulch. Weeds steal soil moisture, so weeding too is essential.
Xeriscape gardening is basically good gardening and this is the time to learn its lessons.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.