Establishing a drought-tolerant garden

By Melanie Mathieson
The Gardening Guru

Now that you know what you can plant for a drought-tolerant garden (as outlined in my column in the May 13th edition of the Times), it is time to prepare the garden.
Here are the seven principles that xeriscaping is based on, which easily can be adapted to any type of garden:
•Planning/design
Planning is key as you need to assess your specific property and figure out where the sun is throughout the day, and where you are going to place your garden.
The design should group low-water use plants in one area, and if you chose to use higher water-use vegetation, they must be placed in another area.
Also remember to arrange plants according to their full growth size and light requirements.
Good planning prevents heartbreak down the road and is the key to success.
•Soil improvement
Soil conditions are critical to the success of a xeriscape as it must provide support, air, water, and nutrients to the plants or they will be weakened.
Texture, organic content, pH, drainage, salinity, and fertility are the important characteristics of soil that should be considered before planting anything.
Most drought-resistant plants need good drainage. Check your soil’s drainage before you plant by digging a test hole and filling it with water. If it drains quickly, then you need to improve the soil by adding organic matter to help absorb and retain more water.
Soil improvement steps may include using adding peat moss, manure, or compost to improve moisture retention, sand to increase drainage, and applying fertilizer carefully to promote strong root growth.
•Plant selection
Plants must suit the climatic and microclimate conditions, intended function, soil characteristics, and the intended water use at the planting site.
Look for the drought-resistant trees, shrubs, perennials, groundcover, grasses, and vines that were mentioned in the previous column. Perennials generally demand less water, fertilizer, and pesticide than annuals.
Also keep in mind that even though a plant is labelled as drought-resistant, it is important to provide adequate water until it is well-established during its first year after planting.
•Turf areas
Conserve significant amounts of water by reducing the size of the lawn. Consider switching to drought-tolerant turf grasses or use perennial groundcovers or areas of mulch instead of a lawn.
Eliminate grass in narrow strips and unusable areas by planting shrubs or groundcover.
•Efficient irrigation
Efficient irrigation means applying the amount of water that is required by a plant when it is required, where it is required, and with minimal wastage. In May, as the plants begin to grow, you would not be watering at the same frequency as you would in July, when the weather is hot and dry.
Usually watering once a week is sufficient, even for grass, if the water is applied to the depth of the root zone.
Water your garden in the morning or in late afternoon (avoid watering at midday when the sun is hottest).
A soaker hose can be installed as it is the most efficient and conservative form of watering, especially in a xeriscape garden. Water reaches the plants’ roots more slowly, is absorbed better, and doesn’t evaporate as quickly as with a sprinkler.
Tip: Harvesting or directing water from roofs, sidewalks, driveways and other hard surfaces onto your landscape, to be stored in the soil, is a very practical way of supplementing irrigation from your well or faucet.
•Mulches
Mulches are applied to the soil surface to reduce evaporation and to lower plant use by moderating soil temperature. Wood chips or bark are best, but you also can use rocks, straw, etc. as mulches.
Mulch, when applied properly (from previous columns), also deters weed growth.
•Proper maintenance
Over-watering contributes to rapid, weak plant growth, fertilizer leaching, insect/disease problems, and weed growth, all of which require maintenance.
If water is efficiently applied in a garden and xeriscape principles are used, less maintenance will be required.
A well-planned xeriscape garden, planted with plants appropriately matched to your soil conditions and our climate, naturally will be a low-maintenance type of garden.
Whenever possible, use organic products and techniques to create a balanced, healthy landscape in harmony with the environment.
Now isn’t it nice to enjoy a great garden without too much work?

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