By Ashleigh Smith, True Leaf Market
Photographs courtesy of True Leaf Market
With several years of drought leaving people with dry lawns and reduced harvests, water-wise gardening has become a hot topic. However, it is often misunderstood. Water-wise gardening does not mean covering landscapes in rock or sagebrush. Covering an entire yard in rocks will create a hotter, more drought-promoting landscape that contributes to the widespread problem of drought. Plus, it creates a much less comfortable environment to spend your time in.
Water-wise gardening is a combination of practices that minimize water loss and demand from a landscape. Rather than water-hogging lawns, consider more water-friendly annuals, perennials, and groundcovers. We recommend including native and wildflower mixes with natural heat and drought tolerance as alternatives to traditional lawns.
A water-wise garden also prioritizes smart watering practices like using drip irrigation systems. Plants aren’t the enemies of reduced water access; they are the solution. In addition to providing food, the right choice of plants reduces local temperatures, provides shade, and stabilizes climates.
Why are plants the heroes? They interact with the surrounding environment in ways that we are unable to reproduce without creating more harm. Some of the greatest problems being seen are the rise in temperatures, pollution, and expanding communities. All of these factors are putting more stress on the environment’s ability to support our habits. However, many communities are removing wild landscapes and urbanizing rural land, which is further complicating the problem.
To understand why this is a problem, we first have to take a look at what plants really do for us.
Trees and other plants provide shade and reduce ground temperatures, which reduces the amount of water lost to evaporation. This allows plants to create a “buffer” layer between the ground and the atmosphere that is more comfortable to live and grow in. Plants and their root systems work together to create a microclimate that is more adept at retaining water in liquid and vapor form. The cooling effects of trees and other plants can also be utilized to reduce the utility costs of cooling a home.
When landscaping, plan to include an assortment of plants, from groundcovers to large trees, that will provide shade and cool the area around your home. This reduces the stress placed on cooling units during the heat of the summer. In addition to the relationship between plants and water, plants also remove toxins and clean the air of gases contributing to the changing climate. Maintaining a diverse landscape is so important. If you live in a city space, consider adding plants wherever you can.
Even though home fruit and vegetable gardens are known to require a lot of water to thrive, there are some better choices that can be made to improve the efficiency of water use. The first and easiest thing you can do is select drought and heat-tolerant vegetables. These will allow your garden to survive harsh conditions while still producing a sustainable harvest. Next, consider changing from traditional spray irrigation systems to drip lines. Drip irrigation helps reduce water lost to evaporation by allowing enough time for the water to be efficiently absorbed by the soil. Ideally, irrigation systems should be run late in the evening or early in the morning to reduce water lost to evaporation.
For the best results, pair drip irrigation with a good covering of organic mulch. Mulch helps to keep the soil cool, thus continuing to reduce the stress put on plants during rising temperatures. Plus, it also works to suppress weeds. A thick covering of three to four inches is best. Just be sure to avoid “volcano mulching” around plants. Pushing too much mulch around the crown of the plant can lock moisture into areas where the plant needs good airflow to remain healthy. In addition to preserving soil moisture and suppressing weeds, a good mulch layer will also contribute to increased organic matter in the soil over time. Organic matter is known to improve water retention in soils and nutrient delivery. While mulch is great, remember, keeping the ground covered in plants is the best option for the most benefits.
When selecting plants for the landscape, choose a mix of water-wise plants. Wildflowers are one of the best go-to options as they are naturally accustomed to growing in mountain climates without irrigation systems regularly supplying water. However, the hot temperatures known to occur across western regions can be a bit much for some types. Additional water will help them endure scorching hot summer temperatures until the arrival of fall weather. Popular water-wise perennials used in the home landscape include black-eyed Susans, butterfly weed, catnip, columbine, coneflower, coreopsis, lavender and yarrow. Additionally, herbs may be used throughout the landscape for their pest-deterring characteristics and useability.
For more seasonal selections, consider annuals like bachelor buttons, cosmos, marigold, nasturtium, sunflower, sweet alyssum and zinnias. Each is known to perform well in areas prone to hot summers and drought conditions while continuing to put on a reliable flower show. For a truly water-wise garden full of benefits and visual appeal, pair a mix of these flowers with a selection of shrubs and trees. Not only will you enjoy the variety, but so will vital pollinators, soil microbes, and other beneficial wildlife. Don’t forget to prepare your soil well. Adding amendments like worm castings or a root stimulator can help new seedlings or transplants to become better established in harsh or overworked conditions by conditioning the soil.
By using smart plant and watering choices, you can create a garden that is water-wise, functional and works against water loss. As growers work together, we can restore an environment that is balanced and enjoyable. Change starts with you. Get started by evaluating how much grass you really need. Consider the ways you can create an enjoyable space that is better suited to your local climate factors, supports pollinator populations, and is water conscious. We can’t wait to see your spaces blooming with life. Learn more: www.trueleafmarket.com.
Ashleigh Smith is the Managing Editor at True Leaf Market with a bachelor's degree in Horticulture from Brigham Young University - Idaho. True Leaf Market is a nationally certified organic, non-GMO seed and horticultural company based in Salt Lake City, Utah. The True Leaf Market staff specializes in supplying a large selection of conventional, heirloom, and organic seeds to home gardeners everywhere. Learn more about our seeds, supplies, and other growing ideas: www.trueleafmarket.com.
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