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How to Garden with Drought - "Xeriscaping" or Droughtproofing Your Garden

by Joan Enright, Holly Club of Sea Girt, NJ, for the National Gardener, magazine of National Council of State Garden Clubs (http//

     The summer droughts of 1999 and 2000 have made many of us rethink our gardening practices. While good gardeners have always tried to conserve water, we have now learned, the hard way, that simple conservation is not always enough. Areas in the Southwest, Florida, and elsewhere have, in recent years, developed xeriscaping into a fine art. Some think the terms relates to zero and means you grow practically nothing. Actually the word xeriscaping comes from the Greek xeros (dry) and means water conservation through creative landscaping. If you are landscaping a new home, xeriscaping is a sound investment. If your home grounds are already established, xeriscaping is still the way to go.

     There are usually seven (7) steps mentioned by the experts when developing a xeriscaped yard. You will need to plan your design first, taking the overall view of the area into consideration, along with existing vegetation and plants you may have added to the landscape. Note where the property slopes or rises. This will give you an idea where water runoff exists. Define what your needs are regarding your property. Do you want a play area for the children or an exercise area for the dogs? Do you have or want a pool or a patio or deck? These are considerations you must address before you start.

     After planning and before you do another thing, get the soil tested. Your local Cooperative Extension Service will help you with that. Soil should be able to promote good root growth while allowing water penetration and water retension. If your soil isn't capable of the above, "amendments" such as compost or spaghnum peat moss, can be worked into the soil to improve its makeup. The addition of the proper nutriants will insure your plants grow at their best. ( This is true for all gardens, not just xeriscaping.) Not all of your property will be devoted to gardens, although many of us are working toward that end in our own yards. If you are planning to grow grass, or, more properly, turf around your home, plan ahead where you want it, where it will look best or serve a particular purpose. Select a type of grass that will withstand periods of drought and don't get upset when it goes dormant during hot, dry weather. Turf requires a different type of irrigation than anything else you will grow. Keep this in mind as you design your landscape. Reducing or eliminating turf areas will also reduce your water consumption (and add savings) significantly.

     So what kinds of plants will survive in a xeriscape landscape? I'm guessing you'll want more than rocks and cacti. Look to the existing vegetation for a clue as to what grows well in your area. Our native trees and shrubs have proven themselves very reliable. Drought tolerance is the most important criteria. Choose the ones that are attractive and resistant to insect pests and diseases.

     If you need additional plants from the garden center, Candytuft, Feverfew,Golden Marguerite, Goldenrod, Hyssop and Sunflowers require virtually no water at all after they are established. There are numerous plants with very low water requirements available. Your Cooperative Extension Service has information on drought-tolerant plants. You can have a great selection of perennials (which come back every year) in your xeriscape garden. Just remember that grouping plants with low water requirements together makes for the efficient use of water in your landscape.

     That brings us to the next step: irrigation. Watering by hand is generally useful only for container gardens. Most sprinkler systems are inefficient because much of the water is lost through runoff or through evaporation. Even a light wind can reroute the water to street or sidewalk where it is not needed. Overhead watering is all right in lawn areas but not much help for trees, shrubs, ground covers, or flowering plants. They need to develop strong root systems that go deep into the soil to see them through times of drought. The way we can help in this development is by slow, deep watering of these plants. Drip type irrigation systems will deliver this kind of irrigation. In this sytem, water flows under low pressure through emitters located next to the plants. The water goes directly to the plants root zone, eliminating the waste of water. This is not the type of system that you will run for twenty minutes every other day. (No system should be run that way.) You will water deeply only when the plants need water. Watering deeply takes a long time but not a lot of water. If plants of similar needs are grouped together, you will have a very efficient system.

     Organic mulches help your garden retain water by cutting back on evaporation. They also cut down on weed growth and soil erosion, and keep soil temperatures from going to extremes. They can also be used to cover the drip irrigation system, helping to extend its life. Organic mulches include wood chips or bark, decomposing compost, pineneedles,shredded landscape clippings, and the like. They will break down in time, improving your soil. Avoid the use of solid plastic under the mulch, as water cannot penetrate it. If you must use something try landscape clothor old newspapers. Avoid the use of stones or large pebbles, and especially marble chips, as mulch, because they will reflect a lot of heat back up at the plants which may be harmful. They will also cause evaporation. The marble chips will also leach lime into the soil that may be detrimental to your plants. The depth of the mulch should be about three (3) inches. Overmulching will do more harm than good.

     The final step involves proper maintenance of the xeriscape landscape. It includes a number of "don'ts." Don't overwater. It makes for weak or puny roots that wait right at the soil surface looking for their next drink. Don't cut the lawn too short. Letting it grow to three inches or the appropriate height For your variety of grass will encourage deeper root growth. Don't shear back plants during drought. It will force new growth and that requires more water to sustain. Don't use high nitrogen formula fertilzer at this time either, for the same reason.

     The xeriscape landscape will cut down on the use of fertilizer, pesticides, energy, and irrigation water. It will cut down on the amount of yard waste added to our landfills and hopefully cut our tax costs for maintainingthem. It will make room for more native habitats that wil provide homes for birds, animals and fish. Xeriscaping is a great idea. Try it.

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