Though our recent rains have alleviated some concerns, our brush with drought this winter has many gardeners rethinking water use in the landscape, and rightly so. There are many areas where we waste water or use it frivolously when a minor change could make a big difference. However, cutting off the water to your existing landscape isn't the best solution. Instead, consider these subtler tips for reducing water use without reducing your quality of life.
Plant more woody shrubs and trees. When was the last time you saw a large tree drooping from lack of water? Yes, I'll wait while you think about the answer. It's pretty rare, right? Woody shrubs are similarly tough. With the exception of hydrangeas (hydra = water), most plants with woody stems that get more than 3 feet tall tend to have sturdy enough root systems to withstand periods of drought. They can reach deeper into the ground to pull up existing water stores, and have often developed advantages such as waxy leaves, which lose less moisture. In contrast, think about the squishy little annual and perennial flowers that flop in dismay at the first sign of stress. If you're preserving water, it's clear what type of plant you should choose.
Heathers, grasses and woody groundcovers will also do. Of course, all this talk about woody shrubs and trees may have you grumbling that you can't make a landscape out of only the tall stuff. True enough. Luckily, heathers come in a variety of flower and foliage colors and even have different textures, so they're fun to play around with in the foreground of your plantings. As a rule of thumb, dwarf ornamental grasses are also drought tolerant, and varieties such as switchgrass (Panicum), Oriental fountain grass (Pennisetum orientale) and moor grass (Molinia caerula) break up a static garden bed by providing softly waving movement. Woody groundcovers, especially natives such as Ceanothus or Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), are also wise choices that both hold down weeds and look nice.
Use the hose more mindfully. Are you a hand-waterer? Though hand watering gives you an opportunity to get to know each of your individual plants and provide only what each one needs, the more likely scenario is that you are giving everything in the landscape a good sprinkle — weeds, the pathway, the patch of lawn between this bed and that. If you do enjoy the relaxing process of hand watering, make sure you have a push-button sprayer or an easy shut-off tab so you can take the time to notice which plants actually need water before applying it.
Update your irrigation system. Drip irrigation is the most efficient method of watering because you only let out a slow drip of water right where you need it. However, if you installed your irrigation system some time ago, you may have emitters sitting on the trunks of 10-year-old trees and shrubs, which not only don't need water there, but may be harmed by it. Similarly, your mower may have bumped your sprinkler heads so that they are spraying your driveway or other surfaces. This is a great time of year to do an irrigation audit, check for leaks or breaks and update anything that needs it. Once the rain stops, you'll feel confident that your system is in good running order.
Water deeply, less often. Even experienced gardeners often get this part wrong. A few hours after you water your plants, the soil should be moist (not soggy, just cool and crumbly) down to a depth of 6 inches. You can and should check this a couple of times a year to make sure you're on track — just water the way you normally do, then come back in a few hours and dig down with your trowel to see what's really going on underground. If you find you are watering adequately, try stretching out the frequency of watering a little more each time until you see your plants starting to show signs of stress, then back off. That'll tell you how much water your plants actually need to continue looking the same as they do today.
But don't neglect the newbies. New plants haven't yet developed root systems deep enough to be independent. Anything recently planted is going to need regular watering for the first three summers, until they are established. That said, remember the rule about watering deeply. You definitely don't want to give plants a shallow sprinkle every single day, as that encourages their root systems to spread out right along the surface of the soil where they'll dry out faster, rather than digging deep.
Mulch, mulch, mulch. I've said it before, but it bears repeating. A good 3-inch thick layer of wood chip mulch not only prevents weeds, but holds in whatever moisture is in the soil and acts as a cooling barrier between the plants' roots and the beating sun (what we get of it, anyway). Buy it by the truckload and save money over purchasing it in bags.
Adjust your perspective. This is probably the toughest advice to take, but it's also the most important if you're serious about using less water in the landscape. The fact is, even drought tolerant plants look better, flower longer and have a longer growing season if they are watered more frequently. A normal, natural response to drought is that leaves will be smaller and may curl slightly at the edges, plants may grow slower, the flowering season will be shorter, and deciduous plants may go dormant in August rather than the end of October. There is a distinctive "dry" look that many plants take on in response to having less water, and while your landscape may still be healthy and attractive, it won't look exactly the same as if you were watering more regularly. Try to notice these changes to your plants without judging them as good or bad, and give yourself time to adjust.
Remember that using less water in the landscape is a journey rather than a goalpost to hit, and go into this with the idea that you will learn more about your individual plants, determine what the right amount of water is for your garden and your tastes, and maybe discover a few new plants to replace some of the wussier specimens that can't quite hack it with the amount of water you want to provide.
Genevieve Schmidt is a landscape designer and owns a fine landscape maintenance company in Arcata. She blogs over at www.NorthCoastGardening.com.