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Be water wise

By Barbara Finley
UCCE Master Gardener of El Dorado County 

By now most of you know California is in a drought. We are all being asked to cut back on water usage. What does that mean for the gardener? Changes both in watering and in what we plant.

A type of gardening known in some circles as xeriscape (xeros comes from the Greek meaning “dry”) originated in Colorado. Its principles, developed by the Denver Water Department but fully applicable to our area, are: irrigate efficiently, use drought-tolerant plants, improve the soil condition which helps improve water absorption, use ground-covering mulches to reduce evaporation, plant and maintain suitable landscaping and eliminate weeds, which can be real water guzzlers.

Our area relies upon Sierra snowpack runoff to fulfill our water needs. By all accounts, we cannot expect that runoff this year. Given those circumstances, what is a conscientious gardener supposed to do? For starters, reduce watering to once a week. Huge amounts of water are lost due to simple leakage, so check your irrigation systems: inspect drip lines, sprinklers should be checked to ensure the spray is directed at the lawn or plants and eliminate run-off.  Water saved today ensures water is there to use later.

If you are in the position to make more significant landscape changes, reducing the amount of lawn is recommended as step No. 1. Then consider xeriscaping by planting a drought-tolerant landscape, especially using native plants.

Drought-tolerant plants have a number of special attributes which serve them well during times of drier conditions. Some have very long tap roots which enables them to reach moisture down deep. Plants that have sinuous roots, such as salvias and rosemary, can cope with more rocky terrain by penetrating deep into cracks and crevices. Then there are the plants with plump fleshy roots that store water, such as daylilies and agapanthus.

A plant’s foliage can also indicate how well it will manage during dry times. Those that are large, soft and smooth, such as hostas, need lots of moisture and do better in the shade. Plants that have thin needles, like those of pine juniper, or are hard and leathery, like the madrone, will better withstand sun, wind and drought conditions.

Another self-protection strategy plants use is dormancy. Bulbs, for example, will become dormant for months, and when they get some moisture they quickly flower and seed. Their leaves manufacture the nutrients stored until needed.  Annuals must germinate from seed, grow, flower and set seed all during a time period when enough water is available.

There are a number of places to discover more about native and drought tolerant plants. The El Dorado Irrigation District has a number of publications at its headquarters, 2890 Mosquito Road in Placerville, where there is also a drought-tolerant demonstration garden. Check out the website rwa.watersavingplants.com. Local nurseries can also often be of great assistance.

So, while we may be facing water cutbacks, gardening can continue. This may be the right time to make that landscape change you’ve been thinking about and still be water wise.

Master Gardeners are available to answer home gardening questions Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to noon, by calling (530) 621-5512. Walk-ins are welcome at our office, 311 Fair Lane in Placerville. For more information about our public education classes and activities go to our Master Gardener website at ucanr.edu/sites/EDC_Master_Gardeners/. Sign up to receive our online notices and e-newsletter at ucanr.edu/mgenews/. You can also find us on Facebook.

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Posted by on Jan 30 2014.
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