Category Archives: water saving techniques

Save Water – Save Trees

I had to do it. I couldn’t resist. Even though I’d vowed not to get any new plants until fall planting season when I saw the one gallon Pride of Madeira just begging for a new home I succumbed to my impulse. I rationalized this plant was on my wish list and will be drought tolerant so I wasn’t being totally irresponsible.

I’ve always wanted an echium fastuosum on my hillside. I admire those huge spires of purple-blue flowers whenever I see them in other gardens. These are tough plants getting by with no summer water once established and the flower spikes are bee magnets. I covered it with a layer of shade cloth for a few days because it was so hot when I planted it. This will help it establish more quickly while the roots take hold in the soil.

Flame_tree
Flame tree on Stanford campus

In your own garden it’s wise to establish a drought to-do list. I’m talking about what plants get your precious water and what to let go.

As we enter another dry year many of our ornamental and fruit trees are dying. Many were watered along with the lawn you have now let go brown. Others might have been surviving on natural rainfall. Whatever the case in your garden don’t let your trees die.

Nature has already killed an estimated 12 million trees in Calif. forests since the drought began four years ago. Most of these have fallen victim to bark beetles that attack trees weakened by drought.

In our own neighborhoods, trees are a long-lived asset. A tree is not something that can be easily replaced. It’s OK to appropriately water trees. Dying trees can be a safety hazard and removing a dead tree is expensive.

It takes years to grow a tree to mature size. Save and use shower and cooking water to help them out. Maybe it’s time to install an simple laundry-to-landscape system to water your landscape trees. Or set up a separate drip or soaker hose for your trees and give them a good deep drink at least once or twice a month. And remember that the tree’s feeder roots are not at the base of the trunk but out at the drip line and a little beyond.

laurel tree.1600
Laurel tree on Stanford campus

A rule of thumb for determining when to irrigate is when 50% of the water has been depleted from the soil in the plants’ root zone. This allows a buffer of water in the soil in case the weather suddenly turns hot and windy and applies to trees, shrubs and perennials.

Sandy soils hold less water than clay soils and must be irrigated more frequently. A common misconception is that it takes more water to grow plants in sandy soil than in clay soil. Actually the total amount required for the whole year is the same for both soil types. The amount of sunlight, wind, temperature and humidity control how much water a plants needs – the soil is only the reservoir.

To check the water content in the soil dig 8-16 inches down into the soil with a trowel, shovel or soil tube and feel the soil. At about 50% available water:
* Course soil appears almost dry and forms a ball that does not hold shape.
* Loamy soil forms a dark ball that is somewhat moldable and can form a weak ribbon when squeezed
between the finders.
* Clayey soil forms a good, dark ball and makes a ribbon an inch or so long and slightly sticky.

If you are planning to plant some new trees this fall, be sure they are drought tolerant natives or low water use non-natives. There are many nice specimens to choose from. And don’t skimp on the mulch.

It’s important to maintain our existing tree canopy and plant for the future. Even in times of drought, no especially in drought, planting and stewardship of trees is critical. Not just for their future but for ours as well.

Garden Planning for the Drought

hellebore_orientalis
helleborus orientalis

In these times of drought you gotta have a plan. There are lots of plants that require very little or no water after they become established. When advising clients or designing gardens I am keeping my go-to list even more in mind. Yes, it takes a couple of seasons for a plant to grow a large enough root zone to be able to withstand the dry conditions of summer but with a few tricks up your sleeve you can still have a garden that birds, butterflies and people can enjoy.

The past couple of years have really been a good indicator of which plants can survive without irrigation. Some do better than others growing despite the tough conditions while others kinda mope along waiting for the rainy season. This is where that 3” of mulch is vitally important. This protection holds in moisture, keeps roots cool and allows the mycorrhizal fungi to do their work.

Mycorrhizal fungi live in a symbiotic relationship with plants enabling them to extract nutrients and hold onto water in very difficult soil conditions. In effect, the fungus provides a secondary root system that is considerably more efficient and extensive than the plants own root system. Disturbing the soil by tilling and even hoeing reduces the number of mycorrhizal colonies as do chemical fertilizers. You can create a truly sustainable environment for your plants by encouraging these fungi as well as other soil microorganisms by using organic soil amendments and mulches.

salvia_Bees_Bliss_closeup
salvia ‘Bees Bliss’

In my own garden I grow several plants that are doing quite well without irrigation. One is Bees Bliss Sage. a native California shrub that grows low to the ground. Mine is only 8” tall and several feet wide but it can reach 6-8 ft wide draping over rocks and walls. It has an extended bloom time from mid-spring to early fall with whorls of lavender-blue flower spikes. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds all find it attractive.

salvia clevelandii

Another plant on my drought tolerant plant list is a salvia called California Blue Sage or salvia clevelandii. Right now it has just started its blooming cycle of electric blue-purple flowers. They will last until early summer. It survives without any supplemental irrigation but if I give it an occasional deep watering it looks more attractive.

Who doesn’t like color in their garden? Mimulus or Sticky Monkey Flower blooms are showy and the hummingbirds love them. Although they are not long lived their deer resistance makes up for this shortcoming.
The Jelly Bean series has added bright pink colors in addition to white, orange, red and yellow but the traditional aurantiacus types are the most tolerant of drought.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
California fuchsia

As summer comes along the California fuchsia will provide the color in the garden. I like it that they spread by underground rhizomes and self sow. Free plants are always welcome. I have them planted on a slight slope where they tumble over a rock wall. My bees and hummingbirds find this plant irresistable.

Other plants on my no water or little water list of include shrubs like cistus, bush poppy, ceanothus, fremontodendron, ribes, manzanita, rosemary, sambucus, santolina, Wooly Blue Curls, echium and prunus. Grasses like aristida or Purple Three Awn, Blue Gramms, muhly and nassela make good additions to the truly drought tolerant garden, too. Perennials that are successful in these conditions include Bears Breech, artemesia, helleborus, monardella, diets, echinacea, buckwheat, penstemon, romneya, watsonia and crocosmia.

These plants can be the rock stars of your garden, too. Although they can survive with no water after 2 years many look more attractive with a few deep waterings per summer. And don’t forget the organic soil amendments and mulch ( no shredded bark, please ) to encourage the soil microbes.

Beneficial Gardens in a Small Space

waterfall_2He told me that his was a one-of-a-kind garden, unique in such a small space and would I be interested in visiting some time? I love being invited to tour all types of gardens but I had an inkling that the garden of Rich Merrill, former Director of the Horticulture Dept. and Professor Emeritus at Cabrillo College, would be something special.

It was a beautiful morning when I arrived at Merrill's garden overflowing with flowering plants, small trees, edibles and water features. Many large boulders, surrounded by pebbles, caught my attention in such a small space. All part of the design to attract beneficial insects I was told. His organic garden is teeming with small beetles, spiders, predatory bugs, syrphid flies, parasitic wasps and lacewings. It's the ideal method of pest control, environmentally safe and free of cost.

While admiring his lovely garden, Merrill shared his knowledge of beneficials- from insects to birds to spiders to frogs and beetles. They are all part of the ecology of a successful habitat garden. I could barely keep up, writing down notes on my yellow legal pad as he weaved a story about how each of the elements in his garden contributes to its total health. I was never able to take one of his classes at Cabrillo College so this was a real treat. My own private class.

The wide diversity of plants in Merrill's garden provide moisture, shelter, prey and nutrition in the form of santivalia2nectar for carbohydrates and pollen for protein. His plants are "beneficial" plants because they foster beneficial insects. It just so happens  that many of these plants are also beautiful in the garden. Some of his favorites include composite flowers like sunflowers, marigolds buckwheat, scabiosa and santivalia or creeping zinnia.  They have flat  flower clusters with accessible landing platforms and small nectar and pollen to make it easier for insects to feed. They in turn eat the tiny eggs of the bad bugs in your garden. His is a complete ecosystem.

This 800 square foot garden happens to be in a mobile home park but any small space could be designed to be as beautiful and full of life as Merrill's. Most of my clients ask for a garden filled with color, hummingbirds, songbirds, butterflies and wildlife so I came away with lots of great ideas.

blue_thunbergia2Once a teacher, always a teacher. Merrill gave me a handout he'd prepared for Renee Shepherd of Renee's Garden, explaining in more detail why he lets the broccoli go to flower to attract beneficials and why he allows aphids on his cruciferous vegetables to feed the beneficial insects when prey is scarce so they are on hand should he have an outbreak of bad insects that might ruin his flowers and plants.

As we strolled within a border of palms, olive trees, phormium, bottlebrush, Marjorie Channon pittosporum and cordyline, Merrill showed me his philosophy of right plant in the right place in action. Asclepias curassavica, commonly called Mexican Butterfly Weed, has self sown on its own in unexpected spots. One happened to come up next to the gorgeous blue thunbergia by the pondless waterfall making an awesome combination. Both monarch butterflies and hummingbirds enjoy the nectar.

Next to a red salvia, a red and white bicolor Rose of Sharon made it's home. Merrill lets all his plants intertwine and the pink flowering Heckrottii honeysuckle was already inching up into an olive tree. Other salvias in his garden include Hot Lips, San Antonio and San Jacinto. There isn't room to grow any of the larger salvias, Merrill explained. He swears he doesn't know where the brilliant blue one came from. Must be from the "fairy dust" his wife, Dida says he sprinkled over the garden to make everything grow so lush.

She loves flowers for fragrance and cutting so in several beds they grow gardenia, lemons, roses and alstroemeria among the alyssum which is a prime syrphid fly attractor. Several bird of paradise, obtained from different locales in the hopes one will be hardier grow beneath a tall palm.

Merrill grows only the vegetables that do well and are the most nutritious like kale, onions, garlic, broccoli and collards. He enjoyed growing cucumbers this year and has a large pumpkin in the making for his grandson. The rest he gets from the farmer's market. He had developed his own strain of elephant garlic which is actually a leek and has a milder flavor than garlic. I left his garden with a gift of elephant garlic and lots of inspiration.

Good Watering Practices

philadelphus_Covered_BridgeThe recent heat wave was one for the record books. The temps were not the highest we've ever had around here but as each day melted into the next I kept thinking that fog, nature's air conditioning, was surely on it's way. Even drought tolerant plants need a little help at these times.

Watering is crucial as plants are growing vigorously. Water makes up 90-98% of every plant we grow. It's needed for photosynthesis, as well as reproduction and defense against pests. Checking soil moisture and improving a soils ability to absorb and hold water should be a priority when you're out in the garden. Don't wait for plants to wilt and burn before correcting watering problems.  

There are ways to water more efficiently and ways to conserve that water. Now is the a good time to review some good watering practices and guidelines.

When is the best time to water? Watering in the morning is the most efficient whether you water by sprinkler, drip system, soaker hose or by hand. The water soaks deep in the soil without risk of evaporation. It bolsters the plant for the day and has dried from leaves by evening reducing the risk for foliar diseases like mildew. Plant roots are also more receptive to watering in the morning.

Is it true that water droplets will scorch leaves in the sun? According to a study published in New Phytologist, a journal of research in plant science, there is a slight risk of leaf burn on fuzzy leaved plants in the sun. The hairs can hold the water droplets above the leaf surface and act as a magnifying glass to the light beaming through them. The study also reported that water droplets on smooth leaves, such as maples, cannot cause leaf burn, regardless of the time of day.

I my forty years of gardening, my own observation is that the leaf burn on a fuzzy leaf must be very small, indeed, as I've never observed any damage. If you find a plant needs water midday, by all means go ahead and water it. Containers even benefit from the cooling effect that watering provides

Most plants need 18" depth of well-drained soil to thrive although trees and many vegetables roots grow several feet deep. More than an inch of water per week may be needed for their success and in the case of many trees and native plants, deeper but more infrequent watering is required.

You can easily measure how much water you are applying. If you have a sprinkler system, place a straight-sided container like a tuna can on the outside edge of the area being watered. Let the sprinkler run until one inch of water has accumulated in the can. When using a drip system or soaker hose, irrigate until a 3" deep test hole dug 1 ft out from the emitter or end of the soaker is moist. Moisture at that level indicates than an inch of water has been applied. The best way to determine how many inches of water your soil needs for a good soak is by digging down after the water has had a chance to settle. When watered well, the soil should feel cool and damp at the bottom of the hole. If the soil feels warm and dry you haven't watered long enough. You need to do this test just once to get a feeling for how much water your soil can hold and how deeply it's soaking in.

if you have a lawn, decide if you really need it that large and maybe not in the front yard at all.  Keep the mowing height high during the heat of summer.  Mow when the grass is about a third taller than recommended height. For common fescue, mow when the grass is 3-4" tall, with your mower set at 2-3 ".  Fertilize only when your lawn needs it to keep a good green color.  Over fertilizing results in quick top growth which needs more water and is susceptible to insect damage and fungus problems.  A good rule of thumb for watering a lawn is to water 1 x per week when the temperature is 70 – 80 degrees., 2 x per week when it's 80 – 90 and 3 x per week only when it's above 90 degrees.  Make sure the water soaks in encouraging the roots to extend  30" below the surface which will make your lawn more drought tolerant.
 
Consider replacing your lawn with a walk-on ground cover like woolly thyme or chamomile.  You can't play touch football on these ground covers but they will tolerate light foot traffic.  Another alternative is to plant low growing native grasses that require only a handfull of trims per year compared to a conventional lawn.
 
Water wisely in other areas of your garden.,  Construct soil basins and furrows to direct water to plant roots and increase this basin as the plant grows or use a soaker hose on the surface to slowly water at the drip line of trees and shrubs. Fruit trees, citrus and flowering trees need a deep irrigation every other week. Less thirsty established trees like Chinese pistache and strawberry tree need irrigation about once a month. Newly planted trees need water regularly. Gradually reduce frequency after a year or so.

And above all, mulch, mulch, mulch.  Cover the soil with at least 2" of organic mulch such as compost or chipped bark.  The mulch holds in moisture as well as keeping roots cool and gradually decomposes and enriches your soil.  Keep it away from the base of trunks or plant stems. Don't use rocks or gravel as a mulch because they add heat to the soil and moisture evaporates faster.

Take good care of your plants this summer.
 

Saving Water in the Garden

With so much rain this winter it's easy to forget just how precious water is. Globally, water is the new oil. In our own Santa Margarita aquifer everything we can do to replenish the groundwater is vital for our own survival and for that of generations to come. Water cost money – to buy, store, collect, pump, filter and distribute. It just makes good sense to be water wise in your home and garden.

Scotts Valley Water District has been offering a free information series during January about water conservation. Each Wednesday night from 7:00-8:30 a different subject is presented. They are open to the public. I've attended two so far- Storm Water Management and Rainwater & Greywater Harvesting, lots valuable information about ways to save water and money.

When it rains it pours. Think about ways to slow this free water from the sky and prevent it from running off your property. Allow it to spread and sink into the ground. Easy ways to do this can also make for a beautiful landscape.

Design your patio using permeable pavers that allow storm water to percolate into the soil. Whether you choose flagstone over a gravel base, pervious concrete, interlocking pavers with spaces between or crushed gravel all enable rainwater to seep into the soil, recharge the aquifer and prevent runoff into streams and storm drains.

Pervious pavement for driveways can capture runoff , recharge the groundwater and keep pollutants in place in the soil. Large volumes of runoff causes serious erosion and siltation in rivers and streams. Naturally occurring micro-organisms digest car oils, leaving little but carbon dioxide and water. Turf block (concrete blocks with holes) is a good choice for areas that don't receive a lot of heavy traffic and can also be used for paths with gravel or groundcover between.

Plants and trees also slow water runoff. They help stabilize slopes and prevent erosion of valuable nutrient-rich topsoil. They create wildlife habitat and act as a natural pest control. A beautifully designed landscape using California native or drought tolerant plants reduces the need for fertilizers, pesticides, excessive watering and overall maintenance requirements.

You can design a rain garden to capture stormwater runoff from roofs, driveways and other impervious surfaces and allow the water to sink back into the ground. A dry creek bed can also be a good way to slow runoff. Some utilize drain pipe underneath to capture the rainwater so it has time to percolate into the ground.

Using vegetation or mulches to cover bare soil is a key ingredient to slow down runoff. Mulches are a good choice for areas with less than 33% slope, Vegetation works well on areas with less than a 50% slope. Mulch can be organic-such bark chips, straw or grass clippings or inorganic gravel or cobbles. All protect soil from erosion, conserve soil moisture and prevent weed growth. It's all part of the plan to slow, spread and sink water back into the ground.

Installing a rain barrel is a simple way to catch rainwater runoff from your roof. If you have room you might consider a large water tank above or below the ground to collect water. A friend of mine operates a small nursery on her Watsonville property. Sherry and her husband, John, decided to collect the rainwater runoff into a series of tanks to save money and utilize this resource. The 4500 sq.ft roof of their barn provides enough water to fill 3 large tanks. Last year they collected enough water to irrigate their nursery, Terra Sole, for quite a bit of the year. They eventually plan to install solar panels to offset the energy required to pump the water. Every little bit helps

If you'd like more information and ideas about how to beautify your landscape and save water, maintenance costs and time  please come to the last Water Wednesday presentation by Scotts Valley Water District on Jan 30th at 7:00 pm at their office on Civic Center Drive. LeAnne, the water conservation coordinator, and I will be showing slides of landscapes, some of which I designed, that feature low water use plants, lawn replacement ideas and California natives. There's a solution for every family and lifestyle.
 

May is Water Awareness Month

We know that water is a precious and vital resource.  Even our bodies are about 60 % water and the brain is 70%. Less than 1% of the water on the Earth, however, is suitable for human consumption. With the population increasing and the water supply staying the same, water conservation indoors and out is important. A well planned landscape makes water conservation outside the home even easier. Since May is Water Awareness month here are some tips to consider.

Start with simple things. Rock, stone, and permeable paths and driveways add visual interest to the landscape and don’t require irrigation. Improving your property’s soil quality aids in saving water regardless of the plants grown there. Organic materials added to the soil help establish a strong root system for plants. Nutrients in the soil allow the plants to become stronger, too. Adding a layer of mulch increases the plant’s efficiency by retaining moisture and keeping the soil temperature stable.

Choose the right plants for your location. California natives or plants from similar climates in the world are low maintenance, low irrigation plants and usually need less tending, fertilizer and pruning. Your choice of groundcover can make a big difference, too, in how much water the landscape saves. Keeping grass areas to a minimum generally reduces the amount of water needed to keep the landscape looking green and fire safe.

Your method or irrigation helps conserve water. Hand watering where possible, especially new plantings, directs the water exactly where it needs to go and you can shut off the hose as soon as the plants receive enough water. A soaker hose is another efficient option that reduces evaporation during the watering process. An automatic irrigation system with a rain sensor, weather based controller or soil moisture sensors is the newest way to save water.

Both San Lorenzo Valley Water ( http://www.slvwd.com ) and Scotts Valley Water Districts ( http://www.svwd.org ) offer many tips and incentives to conserve water. Scotts Valley Water Conservation intern, Amanda Robinson, explained they are very interested in getting out the word about using less water-intensive plants – there are lists on the website of drought-tolerant plants and water smart grasses-  as well as customers replacing lawns and old pop-up sprinkler systems. Their rebate programs offers several landscaping credits including  drip irrigation conversion credit, weather-based irrigation controller credit, replacement credit for converting an existing lawn to water-wise grasses, and lawn replacement to synthetic grass. Both districts have guidelines and procedures to apply for the rebates on their websites.

Scotts Valley gave 13 lawn replacement rebates in 2010 and 5 so far this year. Weather-based irrigation controller credits numbered 5 in 2010. Cistern credits for catching and storing rainwater totaled 3 in 2010 and 1 Low volume irrigation system conversion credit was given. Visit the web site for your water supplier to get more info. Don’t miss out on this important information and possible rebate.

There is even a workshop this Saturday, May 14th at the Scotts Valley Water District office from 10am – 1pm. Sponsored by the Ecological Landscaping Ass.and presented by Joy Albright-Souza, attendees can bring dimensions of their yard or project area and take home a class-created landscape plan. The cost is $45 and can be paid by check at the door. Call 831-419-5994 for more information.

Let’s make every month Water Awareness Month.