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Grow water-wise with xeriscaping

 

Blame it on La Niņa. La Niņa is the weather pattern that has roosted like a brood hen on North America, bringing with it cold,wet winters and hot, dry summers. For two growing seasons, La Niņa has wrecked havoc on lawns and gardens as a greater number of communities restrict water usage during the worst periods of drought.

 

There is an alternative to brown lawns and withered flowerbeds that doesn't involve copious amounts of concrete or flouting water rationing. It is called xeriscaping, which means to plan and plant a landscape that thrives in low-water conditions. Xeriscaping has a number of facets and recommended practices tend to be regionally specific, but what follows are some general rules for creating a garden that conserves precious water resources and still looks good during the wilting weather that is soon to come.

 

Xeriscaping began out of necessity in the western United States, where water availability is scarce and usage a bone of contention between landowners, utility companies and government agencies. States such as Colorado and Wyoming have extended periods during which an annual rainfall of 15 inches is the norm. Adding to the stresses plant life in these areas experience are bitterly cold winters rife with days when the temperatures drop below zero. Plants growing in these regions have to be resilient.


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Xeriscaping can be adapted to work in both sunny or shady locations and with any soil type. Both sand and clay soils should have organic matter added in order to increase the water-holding capacity for sand and improve the ability for water to percolate through clay and to reach the plants' roots. A small amount of water-retaining agricultural polymer should also be worked into the planting area. This polymer is sold in the garden section of many "big box" stores or over the internet from nursery or garden supply outlets. It resembles granulated sugar, and the granules expand as they absorb water and dissolved fertilizer. Polymers prevent sandy soils from drying too quickly, and they help to aerate heavy clay as they expand and contract. The polymers make the greatest use of any rain that falls, preserving it and releasing water and nutrients when the soil dries out, eliminating the need for watering in between times.

 

An additional fixture recommended for the dry garden is a rain barrel. Rain barrels have come a long way from the old oaken bucket. Most are made to blend into the landscape and are covered to keep mosquitos from breeding and algae from growing, some connect directly to a downspout on the home and prevent runoff, and a few have a hose and spigot attached that makes accessing the water easy. Rainwater is the optimum plant hydrator - it is the perfect pH, contains no chemicals and is at a temperature that won't shock the plant. Using water collected from a dehumidifier is also recommended, as it has many of the properties of rain water.

 

If additional irrigation is needed, then try to use either a drip irrigation system or have microemitters added to the water lines. Both of these use very little water, because they concentrate watering on the root zones of plants and lose less to evaporation than do sprinkler-type irrigation systems. Drip lines can be covered with mulch, shielding the water further from evaporation while masking the line from view.

 

Mulch is an absolute in a xeriscaped area. Covering bare areas with 2 to 4 inches of mulch lowers the soil temperature u to 10 degrees and keeps the soil from drying out from sun and wind exposure. Mulch should be laid in late spring. This allows spring rains to penetrate the soil surface easily and it insulates the soil against the sustained hot temperatures of summer. If organic mulches such as pine bark, grass clippings or shredded leaves are used, then be sure to top dress with some nitrogen-rich fertilizer. As organic mulch decays it draws nitrogen from the soil, robbing the plants of needed growth food. The added nitrogen, preferably in a time-released form, will maintain nitrogen levels in the soil while it gives composting bacteria a boost.

 

Finally there is the matter of plant selection. This varies according to growing zone, but some plants are hardy enough to be able to thrive in most areas of the United States and Canada. Succulent-leaved plants, such as sedums, hardy cacti, portulaca, yucca and hens-and-chickens are obvious choices. Herbs such as rosemary, lavender, cumin and sage also do very well in dry conditions. Early spring bulbs such as grape hyacinth, species crocus and species tulips are adapted to alpine conditions - thin soil and harsh winters - and thrive in midwestern and northern dry gardens. Everlasting annuals such as gomphrena, statice, baby's breath and celosia are drought-tolerant. Shrubs such as the inkberry, elderberry and sand cherry are considered weeds in many places because they can withstand cold, drought and flourish with little maintenance; elderberry bushes are often found growing wild along abandoned railroad beds, growing out of the rocks and sand used to cushion railroad tracks. Finally, trees such as the cucumber magnolia, black locust and sweet gum readily grow in dry conditions as long as they have enough water to root well during their first year in the ground.

 

Is there any way a xeriscaped yard can sustain a lawn? As long as the homeowner can keep an open mind as to what constitutes a lawn, the answer is "yes." Minimize the use of Kentucky bluegrass; of all of the grass species available, Kentucky blue requires the most water to maintain a great appearance during the summer. Blends that depend on fescues, buffalo grass and some unusual species such as wheat grass will tolerate hot summers and won't demand weekly irrigation to stay green. The lawn may not be as pristine as that of a neighbor growing Kentucky blue, but it also won't turn brown or need mowing twice a week in order to look neat.  For real water preservation, however, turf areas should be kept to a minimum. Use ornamental grasses or ground covers such as ice plant, creeping thyme or periwinkle to fill in instead.

 

Whether a homeowner wishes to cut his or her water bill during the summer or if compliance with water rationing is a consideration, xeriscaping affords the homeowner the ability to reduce water consumption in the garden without sacrificing appearances. County extension offices or local nurseries can recommend the best water-wise plant material to include in a xeriscape.