Ann Wright: Water wise gardening
Despite enjoying these lovely spring days, it’s evident that water, one of our most precious resources, will likely be an issue again this year. News reports and water surveys reveal with over five relatively dry months behind us, and without the series of strong storms that builds more snow pack in the Sierra, it looks like we will end up with another critically dry summer season.
In response to our recent history of drought in California, we are learning that water must be used more efficiently. In general, studies find that woody plants and other non-turf plants perform well with much less water than some gardeners provide. Significant water can be saved by reducing the amount of irrigation typically applied to new and existing landscapes. Whether or not we are gardening in drought conditions, healthy and attractive landscapes can be created in the Sierra foothills with careful planning of water use.
Here are some ways to help reduce water consumption in the garden:
- Learn about the soil — the type and water-holding capacity. Find out if you have sandy, loamy, or clay soil – or a combination. Irrigate based on soil type. For example, plants growing in sandy soil generally require watering more frequently, but for shorter periods of time than plants growing in clay-heavy soils. If your watering system is applying water faster than it can be absorbed by the soil, adjust the amount of water applied, the timing of the application, or both. It is critical for plant health and water conservation to know how much water your plants need. The addition of compost will support soil health, which in turn helps hold water in the ground more effectively.
- Irrigate smartly — Gradually reduce water use by increments of 10% over the course of a few weeks, giving shrubs, trees and plants time to adjust. Check weather conditions and soil moisture before watering, and plan to water early in the day to help decrease water loss from evaporation.
- Plant drought-resistant trees and plants. When mature, these plants may not need as much water as other varieties. However, they will need more water when initially planted, particularly for the first year or so, giving them time to establish adequate root systems. Once established, plants can be weaned to tolerate less frequent watering, allowing the development of deep roots and helping plants to better tolerate drought. Water established trees, shrubs and ground covers deeply but infrequently. In the absence of rain, most trees and shrubs benefit from a once-a-month thorough watering. When looking for low-water-use plants, always review plant identification labels and choose plants identified as either “drought tolerant” or “drought resistant.” There are a number of lists available online to help select water wise plants. The UC Davis Arboretum All-Stars offers a list of about 100 plants that thrive in a Mediterranean climate such as is found in the Sierra foothills. Additionally, the Nevada County Master Gardener website (http://ncmg.ucanr.org/) offers a section on water wise gardening.
- Hydrozoning is the grouping or clustering of plants according to their needs for water, soil, and sun exposure, helping separate low-water-use plants from the high-water users. When planning spring gardens and landscape, establish irrigation “zones,” using separate irrigation valves for each type of planting, so more drought-tolerant plants can be zoned together. Plan to plant perennials in the fall just prior to what is typically the rainy season.
- Reduce the size of your planted areas by removing the low-priority plants that are competing for soil moisture in crowded beds. Maximize the amount of garden space dedicated to low-water users by planting low-water plants. Keep water-loving weeds at bay.
- Mulch! A two-inch to four-inch layer of organic mulch will even out temperatures and can help reduce evaporation, saving 20 to 30 gallons per 1,000 sq. ft. each time you water. It also prevents soil from crusting, allowing better water penetration. Initially, mulch reduces water loss from evaporation and maintains even temperature of the soil, and as it decays it adds to the nutrients needed by microorganism in the soil – again to support the soil health. Mulching also helps with weed control
To learn more, join Master Gardeners of Nevada County for a virtual workshop TODAY at 9 a.m. via Zoom. “Water Wise Gardening” includes methods to improve soil; learn how to determine what the water requirements are for certain plants, and we’ll provide information on planning for grouping together plants with similar water needs. Other April workshops will focus on irrigation – “Functional Irrigation” will be held via Zoom, in two parts. The first part will be presented on April 17, and part two on April 24, both at 9 a.m. Workshops are recorded and posted on the public website for later viewing.
Ann Wright is a Nevada County Master Gardener.
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Planning a few long weekends or a vacation may have you rethinking your garden plans. Don’t let time away from home stop you from growing flowers and vegetables in containers.