The intense heat and drought of the past several weeks is tough on gardeners. Most of us are tired of watering, and it's costing a fortune in water bills. So, what can you do to drought-proof your garden?
One solution would be to tear out all the plants and replace them with rocks and gravel. No watering required! You would eliminate that deer problem, too. Better yet, try applying the concepts of xeriscaping to your garden.
Xeriscaping, which means dry landscaping, is a term created by the Denver Water Board in 1981. Xeriscape does not mean a bunch of cacti or a bed of rocks and never having to water again. You can have a beautiful green landscape that requires less watering with a little re-organizing and the use of good gardening practices. Xeriscape is not a type of landscape design, but rather seven principles that can be applied anywhere to help water your garden more efficiently. You probably already use a few of them. Xeriscaping your garden will still require some maintenance; how much will depend on your personal preference for plants.
The first thing to do is devise a plan in which you group plants with similar water requirements. This is called "hydrozoning." Pay attention to their similar light requirements, too. Decide what areas of your garden are drier and which stay moist longer, and move plants to these areas according to their needs You could also place the plants that need the most water closest to your house, wherever you spend the most time outdoors.
Moderate-water-use plants could be in a middle zone, with plants that need very little, if any, supplemental water beyond that. Remember, though, that during times of severe drought they, too, will need some water. You'll also need to water new plants for at least a season until they are established. (Becoming "established" means they have grown a sturdy and deep root system.)
Consider an irrigation system. You might have three separate zones in your system, which could consist of soaker hoses or drip irrigation. Both water slowly so the water soaks in versus evaporating or running off. The soaker hoses can be covered with mulch. Oscillating sprinklers are inefficient, as much is lost to evaporation. If you hand-water, use a watering wand, water the base of the plant, and water early in the morning to reduce evaporation and lessen the chance of fungal disease. Water deeply and infrequently to encourage deep root systems, and water only after testing to see if the top few inches of soil are dry.
Here are two you've heard before: Amend your soil and mulch your plants. Work in a few inches of compost to loosen up the clay and increase the soil's water-holding capacity. Organic mulch, such as shredded bark, should be applied to a depth of 2 or 3 inches. Mulch keeps the soil cool and helps hold in moisture.
Another xeriscape principle is reducing lawn area or finding alternatives to turf. While green grass is nice to play on and gives a cool look to the landscape, it requires a lot of water to keep it really green all summer. A little research into different varieties of turf grass and their water requirements will uncover what you might want for your purposes. You could just let the grass go dormant in the hottest part of the year and anticipate its greening up when it rains again in the fall. Groundcovers and shade trees are good replacements for some of your lawn and can be watered with an irrigation system.
Next, consider your plants. The right plant for the right place is the mantra here, as it is in any sustainable landscape. Buy plants that fit the conditions in your yard (the various microclimates), not the other way around. Putting plants that like "wet feet" in a dry area of your yard stresses them, so they would require a lot of watering. Plant fewer annuals because they usually need lots of water and only live for one season. If you want exotic plants, put a few in containers in your high-water-use area for that tropical look around your patio.
Using native plants is an excellent water-saving choice; they have adapted to the amount of rainfall and other local weather conditions. Therefore they won't require much water after they're established. The key is to supply them with enough water for the first summer or two so their roots grow long and strong; then you can almost leave them to their own devices. However, check the plant tag because some native plants do prefer wet areas. If you don't want to mess with the three-zone method, plant all drought-tolerant natives and really reduce your watering chores. Your local pollinators will thank you, too!
Maintenance is the final principle and depends on your overall design. Even with reduced watering, you will still need to prune, clean up dead leaves, weed and watch for pests. Also important is checking your irrigation system for leaky hoses and readjusting timers for when the seasons change.
To reduce watering needs for container plants, use plastic containers or at least plastic liners in porous containers. Group containers together so they shelter each other and you can water them all at once.
Keep your plants healthy so they can withstand a little drought stress now and then; use a rain gauge to determine how much water they're getting naturally and adjust your watering schedule accordingly; and pull those weeds whenever you see them (they like water, too). Don't let trees and shrubs become overgrown; more plant material needs more water, so keep up with proper pruning.
Using some or all of these ideas for reducing water requirements in your garden should give you more time to enjoy it, and with the money you save on your water bills, you can buy more plants.
Sarah Graham is a Penn State Master Gardener. Columns by master gardeners will sometimes appear in place of the Garden Q&A by Sandy Feather, a Penn State Extension educator.