Xeriscaping - Water Wise Gardening

Annette Ipsan
Frederick County Master Gardener Program

Water conservation is important whether we are in the midst of a drought or not, since water is a limited resource. Over half of the water we use goes into our landscapes, so it makes sense to look for ways to save water as we garden. Xeriscaping, or water wise gardening, is a series of techniques that not only save water, but time. Here are the basics.

Plan, plan, plan. Every good garden begins with a good design. So, as you consider view, exposure, function and all the other elements of design, think water, too. To save water, group plants with similar water needs. Place plants with the highest water needs closest to your water sources. Wrestling hoses or endless buckets out to far-flung thirsty plants is my least favorite garden chore.

Limit the size of your lawn. How much lawn do you really need? Lawns require more time, effort and water than most other parts of your landscape. So, reduce the size of your lawn. Instead, plant drought resistant ground covers, native plants or low maintenance trees and shrubs.

Use appropriate plants. Look for plants with low water needs, often marked as "drought resistant" on plant tags or catalog descriptions. Also, consider native plants. They are generally well adapted, have lower water demands and fewer pest problems. For a list of drought resistant plants, visit the Maryland Cooperative Extension office on Montevue Avenue in Frederick and ask for the free flyer, "Xeriscaping and Conserving Water in the Landscape."

How you plant is nearly as important as what you plant. Plant trees and shrubs in mass plantings. Prepared beds allow for greater root spread and water take-up, plus grouped plantings look better. Also, plant in spring or fall when it takes less water to get plants established. And remember to make catch basins around newly planted trees and shrubs to catch water.

Improve the soil. Add plenty of organic matter to help hold moisture in flower beds and areas where you plan to plant trees and shrubs. Soil amendments such as peat moss and compost can improve root development, water penetration and retention. A good rule of thumb is 4 to 6 inches of organic matter in new beds. Add organic matter to your gardens every year to keep the soil and plants healthy.

Use mulches. Mulches minimize evaporation, reduce weeds, slow erosion and prevent soil temperature fluctuations. To help you choice the right mulch and apply it properly, pick up a free flyer on mulching at the Extension office.

Water efficiently. Water only when necessary, based on the condition of the plants rather than a fixed schedule. Don't panic over a little droopiness. Remember, most plants wilt in hot sun, then recover.

Timing is everything. Water in the early morning since you lose nearly half of the water to evaporation in the heat of day. And when you do water, water deeply. Watering only when needed and thoroughly produces deep-rooted plants that are more water efficient and drought enduring.

Take advantages of new and old technologies. Try soaker hoses or drip irrigation to water deeply and encourage deep root growth. And hook up a rain barrel or two to your downspouts to capture free water. A mere 1/8 inch of rain on an average roof will fill a 60 gallon rain barrel. My rain barrel and I bonded during last year's drought. I wouldn't be without one now.

Practice appropriate maintenance. Keep your irrigation systems running properly. A leaky hose can waste gallons upon gallons of water. Practice proper pruning, weeding and fertilization to keep plants healthy and not overly thirsty. Mow the lawn high to reduce weeds and evaporation. And control weeds to reduce competition for water.

A well designed xeriscape can decrease maintenance by as much as 50 percent through reduced mowing, once a year mulching, the elimination of weak, unadapted plants and more efficient watering. That's good news for a lazy gardener like me!

To learn more about low maintenance, drought resistant gardens, attend the Master Gardener xeriscaping seminar on April 8 at 7:00 p.m. at the Maryland Cooperative Extension office. For details or a full seminar schedule, call 301-694-1595.

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