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Avoiding Watering the Yard and Garden

Some years are dry here on the East Coast, some aren’t. Either way, it’s wise to wean your garden off watery help.

I have a confession: I’m not a fan of watering. No matter how good the hose, it always manages to kink and twist and defy being coiled back up; and no matter how carefully I move it around the yard, it invariably flops onto the poppies, winds around low-hanging shrub limbs or knocks over a container, causing the gardener to have a tantrum. So I avoid watering all but containers and new plantings.

It’s just as well. Some communities implement water-use regulations during summer months—so the reservoir isn’t left high and dry, so to speak—and you’re restricted from using water on lawns and gardens. And some gardeners simply don’t have the well capacity to sustain constantly parched plants.

Even if we don’t have particularly dry summers, it’s always a good idea to practice water-wise gardening. That way, your plants are tougher and conditioned to cope with not having regular rainfall or supplemental watering. Not having to water often means more time spent on other gardening tasks—or just enjoying your beds and borders. And it makes good sense ecologically to decrease tapwater usage.

Xeriscaping is the art of gardening in dry conditions, but just as meteorologists hesitate to call recent dry summers in Atlantic Canada droughts, I hesitate to use the term xeriscaping to describe the sort of water conservation many of us choose to follow, for whatever reasons.

Water-wise techniques

1. The soil’s the thing
Many Atlantic gardens have clay soil, which can be dazzlingly soggy in wet conditions and become rock-hard during dry seasons. Clay soil is a mixed blessing; its water-holding capacity can be useful if soil is kept moist but not soggy, such as under mulch, and it’s usually nutrient rich. Other times gardeners have sandy soil, which of course drains beautifully, but can also become too dry too quickly.

The solution for both types of soil, as well as for anything in between, is to add organic matter—as much as you can. Compost is the ideal organic matter, but you can also add uncomposted leaves, lawn clippings, well-rotted manure, chopped hay or straw, and seaweed. My favourite soil amendment also doubles as mulch in our gardens: mushroom compost. We live not far from a mushroom growing operation, which sells its bags of spent mushroom compost for a very reasonable cost. Our garden soil is still a long way from the chocolate cake consistency of great loam, but it’s a work in progress.

2. Work with what you have
While we gardeners blithely say we have a Zone 5 garden, or a Zone 6b or 4a, most of us have all sorts of microclimates around our properties. A wall can provide a windbreak, but it can also act as a heat source, holding heat and raising the temperature near it so that less hardy plants will actually thrive; however the area may dry out faster, so plant accordingly. Sloped areas, even in regions not plagued by drought, can also often be dry; use drought-tolerant plants high on the slope and the more moisture-requiring plants lower, where they’ll get more moisture from precipitation.

3. Mulch is your friend
We mulch for many reasons—to conserve moisture, keep the soil cool and to smother out weeds that compete for water resources. What you choose to use as a mulch depends on your garden and your tastes. Gravel works well in alpine or Japanese plantings, but can bring more heat to the bed because the stones hold heat; organic mulches add nutrients to the soil as well as sheltering it and acting as a weed barrier, but you need to put down a good couple of inches for it to be effective, and usually have to top up yearly.

4. Water water everywhere
Michael Murray of Murray’s Horticultural Services in Portugal Cove, NL, says that gardeners ought to consider a rain barrel as one of their best gardening friends. “There’s always some rain during an Atlantic summer… and all kinds of it in many summers! People should collect rain runoff in a barrel and use it for those plants that really need watering,” he says.

You can also recycle some of your household water—water used for washing and cooking fruits and vegetables, in particular. Using laundry or dishwater on your garden is not advisable, however, given soap or detergent can be harmful to plants.

5. More than a drop in the bucket
When you do water, remember the old adage to water well, not often—give your soil a good soaking once a week. Consider using a drip irrigation system or a trickle hose, and stay away from fan or rotary sprinklers that cast water airborne in all directions. You lose half the water to evaporation, and what’s left doesn’t get down into the soil where the plant roots can get a good drink. Also, water early in the morning; water evaporates quicker at higher temperatures. (If you water at night, also when temperatures are low, plant stems and leaves are less likely to dry quickly—providing an environment conducive to mildew and moulds.)

6. How green is your valley
One of the first things to show obvious signs of distress in a dry season is the lawn. There’s nothing appealing about a brown, crew-cut thatch in a front yard during a hot summer! My first suggestion is to get rid of the lawn altogether, but if you don’t want to go that route, there are tips and tricks to keep it looking alive and somewhat well. When you mow, resist the urge to go short—leave grass at a height of three inches. And leave grass clippings on the lawn. These measures help to keep its roots shaded, cutting down on the need for additional watering, and also help to shade competing weeds. If you’re replanting a lawn, choose drought-resistant grasses such as fescues, or consider a groundcover of non-grassy species such as a clover, which acts to condition the lawn and soil and is highly tolerant of just about any condition.

7. Choose plants that can take the heat
There’s a bit of a double-edged sword here. As we know, we don’t always have dry summers, and many plants that tolerate dry soils well will languish and die in cold, wet soils. That’s why it’s important to amend heavy soils with organic matter, and in low-lying areas, where water tends to collect, consider building a raised bed or berm for plants that don’t like wet feet.

As a rule, plants with silver foliage tend to be very drought tolerant. Groundcovers such as snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum) provide a silvery carpet with shining white flowers in early summer (but be aware that it can take over), while artemesias such as silver mound provide a more mounding or tall form. Some silver-leaved plants are also velvety to the touch, a trait that helps to reflect heat and keep moisture in. Lamb’s ears is a popular plant for its lovely, almost furry leaves, while the large, silken leaves of silver sage make a dramatic accent. Rose campion also works well in dry settings.

Many prairie-type plants are drought tolerant, and do well in our Atlantic region. Perhaps one of the most popular is the purple coneflower; other coneflower relatives include the rudbeckias and ratibidas.

Plants with thick protective cuticles—sempervivums and sedums, for example—thrive in dry conditions. Their succulent nature means they hold their own water source. See “Dry Divas,” for more drought-tolerant suggestions.

8. The Zen of gardening
It’s true that gardens usually require a fair bit of work, which most gardeners greet with glee—it being good exercise and a pleasant pastime. For those who don’t have a lot of time or inclination for gardening maintenance, Duncan Kelbaugh, owner of Brunswick Nurseries in Quispamsis, NB, and co-author of Gardening Month by Month in the Maritimes (Lone Pine Press), suggests creating a Japanese-theme garden.

“They’re very peaceful and calm, extremely low maintenance and, once they’re established, require no watering,” Duncan says. The primary groundcover is pea gravel over landscape fabric, which prevents grass or weeds from growing. You simply cut a hole or slit in the cloth to put in a plant, then replace the gravel over the area.

“Lay out your bed, add a few boulders, then put in a few widely spaced, tough evergreens, like mugo pine and junipers, but no perennials,” Duncan says. A water feature is often also part of a Japanese garden—though usually just needs to be topped up due to evaporation.

Taking Back the Lawn

Michael Murray of Murray’s Horticultural Services in Portugal Cove, NL, has witnessed a growing interest in eliminating lawns in recent years. “We see customers wanting a change partly because of the cinch bug issue, and wanting to reduce reliance on chemicals,” he says, adding that interest in newly available plants—native non-native—is helping to elbow out grass.

Michael asks customers what they want to spend, what they are committed to doing in terms of maintenance and what their interests are before he creates a design to eliminate part or all of a grassy area. “I like to balance between pedestrian areas and recreational areas,” he says. “We do a lot of hardscaping to create areas where people can sit or barbecue or even play games, and develop pergolas and other structures to help introduce shade and dimensions to a yard.”

An advocate of using native plant material in any garden situation, Michael says that many species are adaptable or already suited to dealing with dry conditions and, of course, are accustomed to our soil. “Native material has a lot of merit and preserving that material, using it and minimizing the idea of the perfect lawn, tends to help make garden spaces more interesting,” he says.

Duncan Kelbaugh, owner of Brunswick Nurseries in Quispamsis, NB, says if your backyard is carved out of a wooded area, you can take back part of the lawn by encouraging growth from the woods and creating a semi-wild wooded border. “Seedlings of native evergreens and other plants are free for the taking from areas where they are of no ecological value, such as along power lines or on government roadsides,” he says.

My scheme to eliminate much of the grass on our property is a long-term one—there’s never enough time or soil to do everything in one year. My current grass removal project is centred around some wire and white birches in the backyard, in part so there’ll be no more expressive language regarding mowing under low branches. Throughout the winter, my long-suffering spouse and I dumped manure mixed with peat and sawdust on top of piles of newspaper, until it was a foot deep. That layer will smother and rot the grass underneath.

There are a few shrubs, primarily roses, but also some native perennials such as Solomon’s seal and ferns in the first spot we cleared, and these are being coddled. The eventual result will be a miniature hardwood planting with both native and introduced underspecies. It’s already popular with birds that come to visit.

Of course, this works well for a rural property or for gardeners with a substantial backyard, but what about those who want to change the look of their front yards? Some gardeners are turning to ground-covering plants to replace grass. There are many to choose from, including ajugas, alpine species such as creeping phlox and dianthus, periwinkle, and snow-in-summer. Bear in mind that to have a successful groundcover, you need to first remove the sod. (Burying it upside down in a compost heap will help to break it down.) It will take at least a year or so for groundcovers to become established. Also, remember that these plants are called groundcovers for a reason. Avoid planting them where they can encroach on perennial beds.

Neither Duncan nor Michael foresee the end of lawns any time soon. But as Michael says, “You have to pay attention to what is happening, and be always looking for the latest and best interventions. And they don’t always come in a chemical bottle.” 

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