WE’RE SMACK in the middle of Northwest drought. Most years we have arid weather from mid-July well into September, even here in rain country.
While we may relish this short interlude of warm, dry weather, especially after the wettest spring on record, most plants do not. Don’t be tricked by mist, fog or the marine layer because gloom doesn’t do thirsty plants any good.
Vegetables, newer plants and those that hail from regions of the world with year-round rainfall, like Japan and China, need regular irrigation. Then there are thirsty-by-nature plants like lawn grass and tomatoes that rely on frequent watering.
So how to keep water bills down, plants healthy and your time with a hose manageable?
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There’s no substitute for paying close attention, checking your plants regularly and digging into the soil to see how deep the water is penetrating. A watering system doesn’t solve the dilemma. A Seattle study showed that those with irrigation systems used the most water, because the systems usually go on whether they’re needed or not. That said, drip systems and soaker hoses deliver water to roots where it’s most needed.
Start drought-proofing your garden by amending the soil. Plump up sandy, free-draining soil with compost so it retains more moisture. Mulch with gravel, wood chips, more compost or ground cover to help prevent evaporation and keep roots cool.
Get rid of the flip-flop sprinklers. They’re great for kids to run through on hot days, but they’re laughably inefficient. Half the water evaporates before it reaches the ground; the other half just wets down foliage, causing potential disease problems.
A smart strategy is to harvest water in rain barrels, cisterns and swales. Anyone can fit a rain barrel or two into their garden. Cisterns store enough water for a summer’s worth of watering. Swales running through the property help direct water runoff to where you need it most.
Plant selection is key to limiting watering expenses and chores. This may seem obvious, but we forget that trees and large shrubs send their roots deep into the soil to find the moisture they need. Once established, most are pretty drought-resistant, while perennials and annuals need watering far more often than the big guys do.
You’ll cut down on your water bills by growing drought-tolerant native plants like mahonia and winter-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum). Replace lawn grass with gravel, permeable paving or drought-tolerant ground covers. Spring-blooming bulbs flower at a time when irrigation falls freely from the sky, then go dormant and non-needy in summer. Sedum and other succulents need little or no supplemental water, and in recent years we have way more hardy, diverse and colorful varieties to choose from.
Placement of plants is equally important. Group thirsty plants like hydrangeas and hostas together where soil is naturally damp. Find warm, dry spots for sun-lovers like rosemary, salvias, sages and lavender and leave them alone because they resent supplemental water once established.
For inspiration, pick up a copy of the classic “Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden: Drought Resistant Planting Through the Year” (Francis Lincoln, price varies). The famed British horticulturist applies tough love and no water to grow a beautiful garden in the driest, harshest conditions.
Closer to home, you’ll find detailed, expert advice on everything from mulch to natural lawns and soaker hoses on the Web page of the Saving Water Partnership, a coalition of Seattle and other King County water utilities dedicated to saving you water and money: http://www.savingwater.org/.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.