While the West is known for drought problems, most gardeners will find uses for Xeriscape, a drought-friendly, sustainable alternative to the traditional garden. California gardener Laurie Lewis saved water and time by replacing large areas of her lawn with gravel paths and drought-tolerant lavender plants.
Even on a quarter-acre lot, you'll have a variety of soil, shade, and sun conditions. If your garden is in a sunny area, choose plants that can handle some drought. Arizona landscape architect Christy Ten Eyck says that plants requiring more water should grow in protected microclimates near your house. A plant that thrives best in the shade will need much more water if it's placed in the sun.
According to Seattle landscape architect Bruce Hinckley, the lawn is "the single most pesticide-, herbicide-, fertilizer-, maintenance-, and water-intensive category in North American gardens." Laurie Lewis put down gravel and stone paths over large areas of her lawn. She's now able to spend more time making her small plot of lawn grass look great.
Container gardens can be water hogs, but glazed pottery loses less water to evaporation than unglazed pots. Molded fiberglass pots with built-in drip pans are even better water savers. Garden pros often add a small handful of water-saving gel crystals, which swell up when wet then slowly release moisture.
Use mulch liberally. Bruce Hinckley suggests 3 inches of fine-grained mulch (not the big, chunky stuff) to help conserve water in the garden. It helps prevent weeds and quick evaporation and will absorb water from those lovely summer showers. Remember to let mulch layers decompose before adding new mulch.
Skip the sprinkler. "Shooting water all over the place instead of hitting the spot is a common mistake," says Gayla Trail, founder of You Grow Girl. Water that could be used to nourish the soil instead just ends up on the leaves. This leads to dry soil, which can encourage plant diseases, such as powdery mildew and, as she says, "a variety of other nasties." Misting sprinklers are particularly inefficient at getting water in the soil. Put water where it's needed and curtail evaporation with a soaker hose. Once you've placed the hose, watering is as simple as turning on the spigot.
If you aren't moving your soaker hose, bury it under mulch to speed water to root areas.
The Uniform Plumbing code states that soaker hoses cannot be connected to hose bibs for more that 12 hours. An inexpensive quick-disconnect makes it easy to release soaker hoses after watering.
The final step for conserving water is to work with your soil before planting. Adding organic matter, such as compost, lends nutrients and structure to the soil, increasing its water-holding capability. Plants and grass should be fertilized only as needed. Over-fertilizing causes excessive growth, leading to weak and thirsty plants. Most landscape plants require fertilization only twice each year.
6 Water-Wise Principles of Xeriscape
• Planning and design
• Low water-use plants
• Appropriate turf areas
• Efficient irrigation
• Soil improvements
• Appropriate maintenance