Saturday, March 12, 2016

Assess Your Garden and Save Water

My sketchnote for planning a water-wise garden 

Preparing Your Garden for Spring and Summer in California
The rains will not last much longer in California, and we are already breaking records (again) in 2016 for the hottest December through February (yikes). This simple four point assessment will help you understand the steps to take in order to save water, as we head into spring and summer. By taking stock of the microclimates in your garden (front and backyards) and making appropriate changes, you can make a huge difference in water savings by making sure you aren't wasting it. Huge amounts of water are wasted by irrigating plants that are either not suited to our summer dry climate (especially traditional lawns), or have been planted in the wrong exposure (sun-wise).  

First, an explanation: I recently explored "sketchnoting" as a way to organize my thoughts for writing about planning a water-wise garden. When I finished the piece above, I realized that it's way too busy as is! So I've derived a four-point written version for this blog post: see the assessment points below, then read how to apply the information you've collected in the following section. 
Someday I hope to condense this information into a readable sketchnote...

Four Point Garden Assessment  

  1. Notice the patterns of sun and shade in your yards (think back to summer when the sun is higher in the sky) and estimate the daily hours of each (example: 4 hours morning sun on east side of house). 
  2. Make note of planted areas with reflected heat: near or next to a sunny wall, or next to hardscape (concrete, flagstone, tile, sidewalks, the street, etc.).
  3. Are your current plants doing well with minimal irrigation? Look for scorched leaf tips, wilting, failure to grow and thrive.
  4. If you have areas with bare soil, is it mulched? If yes, does it need to be replenished?

Applying the Information You've Gathered

1. Sun and shade patterns
Many plants do best with morning sun only, and struggle with afternoon sun, especially when the other factors in the assessment above aren't optimal either. A plant that is getting lots of sun and heat may do okay if it gets extra water to help it cope. Save water by moving such plants where they'll be protected from the harshest sun so that they can thrive on minimal water. Plants that are rated for "full sun" do best with all day sun exposure, or more afternoon sun than the gentler morning sun. Plant them accordingly.

Most agaves thrive in full sun

2. Reflected heat from hardscape
Reflected heat puts extra stress on plants, especially during a drought when they're getting limited water. Often, they are also in direct sun. Plants that are supposed to do well in "full sun" may not tolerate reflected heat. If you are putting in new plants make sure to check that they are tough enough for those conditions . Move plants that are struggling in those extra hot spots. Native plants adapted to hot dry areas would be a good choice, or agaves and cacti for the hottest, driest areas.

3. Struggling Plants 
If you've noticed any plants that appear to be struggling due to minimal water, move them if they are getting too much sun, and reassess your irrigation practices. Watering the root zone deeply and less often is better than giving small amounts of water more often. Get help from professionals if you suspect your irrigation schedule needs optimizing, and see below:

4. Protecting bare soil
Mulch is one of our key tools for saving water and for maintaining healthy soil, which results in healthy plants. If you don't mulch around your plants and leave the soil bare and exposed to the elements, you are definitely wasting water- lots of it. Moisture evaporates very quickly from soil in hot weather. Keeping a protective layer of mulch on top of your soil holds in moisture so that roots have a chance to absorb it, and importantly, it enables soil organisms to thrive. Soils are living ecosystems; plant roots are a part of that system and derive numerous benefits from healthy soils. Mulch that breaks down (decomposes) is made from organic matter, such as wood chips or bark, straw, leaves, etc. and as it decomposes it adds nutrients and organic matter to the soil, which gives soil more capacity to hold water, much like a sponge. Gravel, pebbles, and rocks are also considered mulch, as they prevent moisture from evaporating, but they don't have the extra benefit of building soil health by adding organic matter. In addition, be aware that rock material heats up with exposure to sun, especially dark colored rock material.  

California native Ceanothus, aka California Lilac, doesn't tolerate summer watering

Climate Appropriate Gardening
Making do with less water for our gardens in California is a reality we must embrace- I don't welcome it, but I have to accept the geographic truth of where I live- it's always been a "summer dry" climate, with periodic droughts. This has been driven home by our record breaking drought of the past four years, bringing our reserves of water to record lows, even with a boost from El Niño-driven rains, depletion of ground water is a huge concern.

It's hard to summon the discipline needed to resist planting anything that needs more water than we should be using in our gardens. But with the smart selection and placement of plants you can have a beautiful and enjoyable garden- I reject the slogan "brown is the new green"!

Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke