As the current drought wears on, you are probably making sure your yard and garden don’t suffer from lack of water. You are probably also keeping an eye on your water bill too, which will only go up as the weather gets hotter as spring turns into summer.
In recent posts, we’ve been looking at ways to prepare the landscape for drought conditions and also practice water conservation. Developing a landscape plan with these goals in view is the first step, and choosing the right plants for your conditions is very important. Here’s a look at at a couple more ways of dealing with drought in the landscape.
Practical Turf Areas. One of the biggest users of potable water in the landscape is the turf area. Notice I said “potable water” – trees actually consume more total water than turf, but our irrigation systems using treated potable water are geared for keeping the grass alive and green. One of the water-saving principles advocated by many landscape water conservation programs, such as Xeriscape and Earth-Kind, is having “practical turf areas”.
The lawn is an integral component of the landscape. The lawn is the best recreational surface for children and athletes. Lawns have a great mitigating effect on the environment, reducing heat loads and noise, water and air pollution. A lawn is second only to a virgin forest in harvesting water and recharging groundwater. And as a design component, the lawn provides landscape unity and simplicity while inviting participation in the landscape.
The lawn has become a focus in reducing landscape water use because of the tremendous opportunity for abusive use of irrigation water in the name of maintaining the lawn. Within the traditional landscape, the lawn receives the major portion of the total landscape irrigation. Lawn irrigation can be reduced, while continuing to reap the many benefits of turfgrass.
We’re not advocating getting rid of the lawn, but the total area of the landscape devoted to lawn can often be reduced. For example, homeowners may struggle to keep grass alive under less than optimal conditions for growing turfgrass, like areas heavily shaded by trees, or in the narrow side strip between the house and fence. Wall-to-wall grass is not really needed in most cases, and unless you have regularly scheduled neighborhood football games or similar activities, such an expansive swath of lawn is usually not needed.
Take another careful look at your yard, and try re-thinking the lawn area. Some attractive and useful alternatives might include a large flagstone seating area, or an expanded deck for all-weather entertaining. Or, how about enlarging beds around the home and perimeter to sweep out into the yard, providing more opportunity for attractive landscaping with hardy, water-efficient plants, and at the same time reduce the total area devoted to grass? Large areas under trees can be enhanced, tied together in a sweeping, undulating bed, top-dressed with pine straw mulch and accentuated with shade-loving plants. All of these options would, in the long run, decrease the amount of irrigation water needed to maintain the landscape, and add value to your home.
Soil Improvement. Just as a house needs a solid foundation to build upon, our landscape plants need and benefit from a healthy, well-drained soil for the best growth and performance. This requires you improve the soil before planting any plants. A healthy plant is better equipped to withstand drought conditions.
Soil preparation begins with checking the current physical and chemical characteristics of the soil(s) you’ll be working with. Gardeners usually think about the chemical aspects first, like fertilizers, root stimulators, soil additives etc. These are important – but it’s the physical properties of a soil that can make or break a landscape planting. For optimum growth, plant roots need a good balance of air and water. These characteristics are determined by the soil’s aeration, drainage and water holding properties.
Landscape soils that hold too much water typically result in landscape plants having root health problems. A lack of oxygen in the soil can result in root disease, nutrient deficiencies, deterioration of root systems, and ultimately plant death.
Landscape soils that do not hold adequate amounts of water require frequent irrigation, fertilization and are subject to drought stress.
Soil is improved by incorporating organic matter that is thoroughly decomposed (compost, bark mulch). Raw wood materials (shavings, chipper material) require nitrogen (N) to break down and often out-complete plants for available N in the soil. This can result in weak, stunted growth. Ideally, raw materials should be in advanced state of decomposition before use
Soil improvement can be a time consuming and a costly part of a landscape project. But the results are worth the investment in terms of overall landscape performance, water conservation, and long-term success.
For more information on care for plants during drought, see the Earth-Kind web site