As I write, the day’s rain is well underway, dripping down our gutters and spraying off the tires of passing cars. My purple trug by the kitchen steps is overflowing. There was about an hour this morning when the rain took a breather, which I used to watch a webinar discussing, among other things, water conservation.
Winter is the time of year when a “sun-break” is cause for celebration in the Pacific Northwest. In one “Portlandia” episode, people followed the sun with pop-up barbecues in the middle of the street.
Despite its national reputation for being pelted year-round, Seattle has a bipolar weather system presenting as winter (sopping) wet and summer (bone) dry. As the climate becomes more erratic, our summers are getting hotter and drier.
The good news is that even a small garden can make a big difference in preserving the soil’s water reserves, supporting the flora and fauna, while saving time and money spent on summer watering.
The tips come from across “the pond” as they say in the United Kingdom, from British garden designer Arit Anderson, who has interviewed countless experts on ecological gardening for “Gardeners World,” the BBC television show and podcast.
Anderson, in a webinar for the Northwest Horticultural Society, urged gardeners to look at gardens in a new way — not just as objects of beauty, but as gifts that renew the planet. For centuries, ornamental gardening has been something we do to the land for our benefit, but today we want to create spaces that benefit both us and the land. As water becomes scarcer, this is more important than ever.
The best way to create a water-saving garden is to create an ecosystem that happens to also be a garden — where the soil, climate, wildlife (above ground and below) and plants suit each other, thriving with little help from the gardener.
Re-examine your plants
Gardeners learn the wisdom of the saying “Right plant, right place” quickly – usually after planting a cherished plant in the wrong place. There’s a reason I rarely water the ferns, hostas and sarcoccocas in the wet clay on one side of our yard — because those plants love the situation there.
In contrast, think about growing a thirsty gardenia on a sandy slope, dahlias in clay or roses in your street strip. I have done all of these and may still be doing the last one – and it hasn’t gone so well. The rose ekes out a life, but not a great one, despite pruning and organic fertilizers.
So, choose plants that love where they live, move misplaced ones or trade them with neighbors.
A great deal of water is lost by evaporation on bare soil. Plant densely, in multiples (it looks better, and will attract more pollinators as applicable) and in layers, with groundcover, mid-layers, shrubs and trees for canopy cover.
The more variety you have in species, the more stability you’ll have in your ecosystem.
Does it hold water?
As water becomes more precious, keeping water in our ecosystem becomes paramount. Using self-watering planting containers with reservoirs, standard containers with saucers and just keeping open vessels like buckets, trugs and rain barrels around will help retain some water in your garden that you can use during dry spells.
Water less often, but more deeply
Plants watered lightly develop short, thin, fragile roots that are more vulnerable to drought or breaking in a storm. Watering once a week for an hour or two depending on the size of your garden space is far better for the plants and the soil than offering a spritz every other day.
These are just a few ways to reconsider our relationship with the land and how we can support it in the future. You can learn more from Arit Anderson at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show where she is speaking, gardenshow.com/seminars/speakers, on Feb. 15 and Feb. 16.