Water is easy to take for granted in our country.
Gushing from the faucet at the touch of a lever or twist of a knob, the most precious resource in the world—clean drinking water—gurgles into our homes like magic. Our great-grandparents may have hand-pumped a well, and their ancestors lugged buckets of water from the river. But we’re so accustomed to the convenience and availability of fresh water that we design our homes and grade our property to shed water and then pay to pipe it back in and spray it across our yards when rainfall is scarce—and often even when it isn’t. With a heedlessness born of cheap, plentiful water—a supply many regions can no longer count on—we run our sprinklers automatically and excessively, carpet our yards with thirsty lawn without regard to climate, and let rainwater and irrigation run off our yards and driveways into the street. This is madness. We must stop treating water as a disposable commodity in our landscapes and gardens and conserve it like the precious, limited resource it is.
The specter of drought, which has always haunted the American West, Great Plains, and Southwest, has lately spurred widespread interest in removing water-hogging lawns and an acceptance of drier gardens and native plants. Even in the wetter parts of the country, particularly the mid-Atlantic, Southeast, and Midwest, water conservation is increasingly popular. Combined with a renewed national interest in living more sustainably with less waste of our natural resources, water conservation—and, more broadly, water management—is now a priority no matter where one lives.
This is not to say we must not water our gardens, and it’s certainly not to say we must not have
a garden. Planting a garden is a way of connecting with the natural rhythms of the seasons and with the earth itself. It’s a deeply worthy endeavor that brings beauty into our lives and communities, offers islands of wildlife habitat amid acres of paved urban sprawl, and teaches us the slower virtues of patience and hope in a fast-paced, need-it-yesterday world. A garden is an expression of creativity, and the finest gardens are works of art that excite, delight, or move us. Gardens feed our bodies and our spirits. They soothe us when we’re sick or sick at heart. Some can even accomplish that most miraculous feat of all: enticing our increasingly housebound children away from their computers and smartphones to trail their fingers in a pond, follow a butterfly’s fluttering path, or explore a mysterious, winding path.
All gardens—except those consisting only of rocks—need water to live. Even cacti cannot live without water. So how do we reconcile our wish to conserve—or, for those of us in drought-plagued regions, our pressing need
to conserve—this most essential resource with our desire for a garden, and more than that, for a beautiful garden?
We do it by changing the way we garden and by shifting our ideas of what a garden can be and should look like. Just as we’ve learned to reduce water use indoors by turning off the faucet while we brush our teeth, installing low-flow toilets and showerheads, and waiting until the dishwasher is full before running a load, we can take similar water-saving measures in our gardens. These include choosing plants well adapted to our climate, irrigating less often and more efficiently, and using water-permeable paving. In addition, we can design gardens that actively collect rainwater and eliminate wasteful runoff. We can even use artistic arrangements of rock and plants to satisfy our “sweet tooth” for water by evoking the idea of it. Now that’s getting creative!
This book will show you that a water-saving garden can be so much more than just cacti or succulents, although certainly those can be beautiful too. A garden that sips instead of guzzles can be quite lush if planted with regionally appropriate plants. It’s a matter of adjusting expectations of what a garden should
be and creating a responsible garden in harmony with nature. It’s about accepting the reality of one’s climate and gardening accordingly. If you live in a dry-summer climate, acknowledge that your garden will not be as flowery then as in wetter seasons and forgo the thirsty bedding annuals or perennials. If your region is arid, replace the lawn (or at least most of it) with native plants that thrive on rainfall, with occasional irrigation to get through excessively dry periods. It’s a commonsense approach with far-reaching impact and the added long-term benefits of saving you money and effort.
All it takes is a willingness to garden in tune with local conditions. This may take some experimentation as climate change alters our traditional weather patterns, causing more extreme weather events including flooding and drought, deep freezes and heat waves. But the payoff is a garden that adds value to your life and your community without the burden of guilt about water waste, a garden that is more likely to survive if water shortages mandate watering restrictions, and a garden that gives more than it takes.
We’ll start in Part One by touring several inspiring water-saving gardens to see what’s working, with particular attention to design ideas you can apply to your own yard.
In Part Two you’ll get practical, DIY-friendly techniques for holding on to rainwater through grading of soil, rain barrels, rain gardens, and water-permeable paving. We’ll discuss irrigation, how to decide whether it’s needed, and how to water efficiently, and you’ll get the dirt on improving your soil’s ability to hold water. Shade structures and windbreaks can also make a difference in preserving soil moisture, so we’ll explore various
ways of blocking sun and wind.
Part Three is all about plants. We’ll look at alternatives to the ubiquitous, thirsty lawn; how to group plants by watering needs, using native and adapted plants; and the best time of year to plant. Balcony and patio gardeners will appreciate a chapter devoted to saving water in container gardens.
In Part Four we’ll explore creative ways of adding the illusion of watery abundance in a garden. From dry creeks to stream-like mosaics to contemporary, colored-glass “rivers,” squeezing water from stone has never been so fun. Like stone, certain plants evoke the idea of water through a cascading or spraying form. In addition, ancient dry-garden traditions like Japanese Zen gardens and Moorish gardens have much to teach us about gardening with less water, and we’ll see what can be reinterpreted for today’s gardens.
Part Five gets you started with a list of 101 plants with drought tolerance for gardens across the country. You’ll find a variety of trees, shrubs, perennials, groundcovers, and more, with brief descriptions and growing information to help you make the right choices for your climate and your garden’s specific conditions.
Copyright © 2016 by Pam Penick. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.