Here’s what you can do to protect your landscape during San Diego’s drought and to do it in style, incidentally.
Yesterday morning I stepped outside with my breakfast cereal to soak in the warm sunshine and see what’s going on in my garden. Following the buzz of the bees drawn by the sweet scent of Orange blossoms wafting through the garden, I found the Orange tree covered with flowers – what a joy to see!
Taking a deep breath, my eyes scanned the garden, and it struck me that the Plum tree also had started to bloom, and the first Cleveland Sages, and then, coming around my deck, I saw that the Wisteria, pruned barely a few weeks ago, had pushed out big buds ready to open at any moment! But winter is hardly over officially, or is it?
With all the delight over warmth and gorgeous spring bloom, I can’t help feeling concern about how soon summer will be here, and how my garden will fare with the watering restrictions that are sure to come?
If you, too, can’t help looking anxiously skywards waiting for rain, and wondering how you can protect your landscape from the effects of drought, read on: Here I’ll outline important ideas and tips to help you protect your garden investment and “drought proof” it through the months to come.
Xeriscape – the technique to garden sustainably and colorfully in a dry climate
Like it or not, you’ll get to hear this word more and more often as people are discussing ways to create and safe-guard a home landscape design that is attractive and sustainable with limited or no extra applications of water. (BTW: People in consistently hot and dry climates such as Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada are already well familiar with these design parameters.)
As Wikipedia describes it: “Xeriscaping is landscaping and gardening that reduces or eliminates the need for supplemental water from irrigation. “ It most definitely does not mean ‘zero – scaping’ although it’s easy to pronounce the word that way.
So where does this process of transforming and protecting your landscape as a sustainable xeriscape start?
The following steps are very important and will help you preserve your landscape and safeguard it against drought.
1. Decide what to water and what not.
Water is scarce, and watering all of your landscape will be very costly and difficult if not impossible if San Diego goes back to specific days for irrigation. Also, if you have a traditional irrigation system, your irrigation cycles will be even more restricted.
It’s therefore wise to only water what’s really valuable in your landscape. It helps to be cold-hearted and examine each plant for its benefits and assets, as well it’s cost in maintenance, water, fertilizer. This is one of the most important steps on your way to water conservation. So how do you put a value on the plants in your landscape?
I always start “from the top down”, that is with the largest specimen, the trees. A young tree that has already been in the ground for a few years and that is showing promise is definitely worthy of special watering. A mature tree is hard to replace, and it has taken many years and much care to get it to that stage so deserves saving.
But here, too, I recommend checking whether it really does what it’s supposed to do: Does is shade your house or patio, saving energy in hot weather? Does it provide fruit? Does it provide privacy or screen a bad view? Don’t forget also that if placed right, a tree is a design element that “anchors” your home to its environment and adds an important vertical element and a focal point to your landscape.
Now if your tree doesn’t do much of the before listed jobs; if instead it dwarfs your house, sheds needles on your roof or spiky seeds on your patio… If it threatens to drop its branches on your car or the neighbor’s yard… Perhaps it’s the first on your let-go-list?
2. And so you continue with the shrubs, and then the other smaller plants, and then perhaps the lawn.
In reality, we often put up with shrubs that are too big for their space and need to be pruned regularly; that easily get infested with white flies (such as hibiscus), need lots of water, and some of them are plain boring (imagine our ubiquitous Indian Hawthorne hedges).
If your shrubs have this problem or don’t do much screening or don’t provide privacy… Nor provide food for your family and don’t show a real asset to your landscape, perhaps they are next on the to-lose-list?
3. Can you imagine? (removing the lawn)
Many of our urban lawns don’t deserve having: Nobody is using them really as the children have grown and need much larger spaces. Our pets don’t mind using the mulched areas for their ‘business’…
Turf needs frequent water and maintenance. It dominates the garden scene without ever being visited by hummingbirds, butterflies or other wildlife except for rabbits and the occasional mocking bird.
If you select to let go of the lawn also, and decide to create a more sustainable landscape, the rewards are plenty, as there many options for a more colorful, more interesting landscape with fascinating, drought resistant plants that will excite you year-round.
Tip: Many local water agencies offer rebates for the removal of lawn and the installation of low volume and smart irrigation systems. Check here: TurfReplacement.WaterSmartSD.org
4. Start dreaming
Aren’t you getting excited yet about the new opportunities for a DIY landscape design that brings year-round fun and color in your garden (and incidentally substantial water savings)?
There are so many xeriscape plants that stay attractive year round even with very little extra water, that are colorful even when not in bloom, that entertain with fantastic shapes and textures, and that bring life and nature to your garden. These plants inspire landscape design ideas that could include a strolling garden instead of a lawn; or, fancy a discovery garden with exotics that only need a fraction of what you applied until now, whether California natives or from other Mediterranean climates.
This is the promise that drought tolerant plants hold. They alone, when chosen for your site and for your soil and microclimate, will not need no or only insignificant amounts of supplemental water.
The following links take you to plant and design discussions, all centered on how-to case studies, or exceptional plant suggestions. Here are a few suggestions of how to go about your design:
You can browse the UC Davis publication “Arboretum All Star Plants” that lists beautiful low-water plants by type and gives names, space and water needs, required exposure, and photos.
Read up on how to use the quiet winter months to prepare for this and next year’s success
The joys of winter – preparing for next year’s success and enjoyment of our drought
In this post I show ways to breathe new life into your landscape design while keeping water conservation in mind. DIY Landscape Design: Breathe New Life into Your Garden
Or read up on the case-study of a transformation of a very traditional, lawn-centered landscape. Sustainable landscape design – celebrating California at its best
If you are looking for exceptional drought resistant / drought tolerant plants following this link. My Favorite Drought-Resistant Plants for Southern California
If you can’t get enough of exotic looking plants that fit well into the xeriscape landscape read this post. The eye-catching bromeliad – No tenderfoot in the drought resistant landscape
In this post I write about more tropical looking plants with exuberant color and tropical appearance without the typical water needs of a tropical plants. Xeriscape Design: Hot and lush yet waterwise – Tropical look-alikes for an arid land (Part II)
How to bring your irrigation system up to the task; the importance of mulching and knowing your soil, selection of materials – all these issues are crucial elements in your efforts towards protecting your landscape from the drought and enjoying it, too. Look for these and more Resources to help you in your work in the second half of this post to be published next month.