Water restrictions hit California. Northwest snowpack near a historical low. Daffodils flower an entire month before Tacoma’s Daffodil Festival. If you keep up with the headlines and love a lush garden, you might be starting to worry about how things are changing with temperature and rainfall. Luckily, there’s plenty you can do in your yard to save water — and you’ll save money and protect our watersheds at the same time.
“We want people to use less chemicals on their yard, chemicals that wash off and into streams and groundwater,” said Walt Burdsall, health promotion coordinator at the Tacoma-Pierce County Department, which is partnering with the City of Tacoma to host a natural yard care workshop April 21 on water-wise gardening. “If you use less water, you have less water leaving the yard and carrying chemicals with it. And with the record-low snowpack, we don’t know how much water we’re going to have when the dry season comes.”
The talk will be presented by master gardener and News Tribune columnist Marianne Binetti, who’ll offer low-water tips, show slides and give away plants.
“The thing is to protect our water supply,” explained Binetti, of why she’s also a low-water fan. “It’s about everybody being smarter about gardening. Too many people make mistakes that cost them money and put nitrogen and pesticides into our water.”
Binetti’s five ways to get smarter about water? Soil, lawn, design, plants and timing.
BUILDING THE SOIL
The first way to save water is to build up your soil. Adding organic matter like compost, rotted leaves or manure helps soil hold more rainwater. Mulching is also essential: It stops moisture evaporating, blocks weeds and slowly feeds your plants as it decomposes. Binetti likes aged bark or chips for landscaping, and rotted compost or manure for vegetables (try Tagro from the City of Tacoma or local dairy farms). Be sure to add your mulch when the soil is moist, as very thick mulches like beauty bark will actually prevent water reaching the soil underneath. Springtime after rain is an ideal time to spread mulch. Make sure you weed first.
MOW A SMARTER LAWN
The biggest mistake Binetti sees folks making in their yard is adding too much “Weed-and-Feed.”
“Our climate is too cold right now — the chemicals don’t work until the daytime temperature gets above 65 degrees,” she explained. “So the product just gets washed into our streams. People also put herbicide on the whole lawn when there are only a few weeds here and there.”
And that’s a big waste of your money. Instead, suggested Binetti, get smarter with your grass. Let the lawn grow 3 inches, then remove just the top inch each time you mow. Aerate in the spring, and top-dress with compost or Tagro.
“If you improve the soil and mow correctly, the lawn will shade out the weeds,” she said.
And if grass simply won’t grow without pampering (think dry shade), try a ground cover instead: vinca, pachysandra or moss. Creeping or woolly thyme does well in sun without any extra water, but can take awhile to establish.
GET INSPIRED WITH DESIGN
Binetti travels and leads garden tours around the world (including an October tour to Portugal), and she’s found plenty of garden designs that need much less water than ours — and they don’t all have to look like the Sonoran desert either.
“Places like Europe are way ahead of us in water use,” she said. “They realize how precious it is.”
Italy and southern France, with their Mediterranean climate and strong summer sun, have long made use of unthirsty garden designs. Replace some of your lawn with a gravel or paver patio, add some evergreens (Binetti suggests yews, plus the rhododendrons, azaleas and nandina that grow so well in the Northwest), make the whole thing symmetrical, and you have a formal garden that won’t use too much water, especially if you plant shrubs with plenty of compost and mulch. Mediterranean plants like lavender, rosemary, salvias and artemisia add foliage and floral color; and pots also brighten things up — no water required. One tree to avoid, however, is Italian cypress, which gets browned by our cold winter wind: instead, use “Sky pencil” juniper or ilex, or the ever-reliable arborvitae, to add the thin vertical elements so essential for formal Italian gardens.
You can also look to Japan for design inspiration.
“We’re in the perfect climate for moss lawns,” said Binetti, who has one herself in her Enumclaw garden along with a French courtyard, Italianate bed, hydrangea “room” and more. Add azaleas, dwarf conifers, Japanese blood grass or sedge to your moss, plus some artistic boulders for a Zen look.
“You don’t have to water rocks,” Binetti pointed out.
In part-shade areas that get rain, make use of native Northwest plants that, once established, will never need extra water: Oregon grape, salal, kinnickinnick, snowberry, flowering currant, huckleberry and, Binetti’s favorite, sword ferns. Here’s her tip, though — because our native plants are so evergreen, choose complementary foliage in gold, burgundy or silver to add pop.
There’s even plenty of design inspiration right there at the Point Defiance Zoo where Binetti will be giving her workshop: landscape designs from the bold foliage of the desert area just near the gift shop to the lush bamboo forest past the aquarium.
So what are some of Binetti’s favorite plants to offer drama without heavy drinking?
“Yucca,” she said right away. “There’s a new version in yellow stripes, but it also comes with pink foliage. You can put it in pots or in the ground and it never needs water. It’s evergreen, it’ll stay happy in a pot. And it has great sculptural qualities.”
Her second favorite low-water plants are sedums and succulents, which can range from the low-profile hens-and-chicks to taller varieties that flower in dramatic pinks and yellows.
“They work as landscape, as ground cover, in containers,” Binetti said. “They’re dirt cheap, and you only have to buy them once, then you can spread them all over. My favorite is sedum Angelina, with bright, yellow trailing tendrils.”
Binetti’s other choice plant is ilex “Sky pencil,” a holly that grows as tall and skinny as an Italian cypress but needs far less attention.
“They’re great in containers by the front door,” she said. “If they get rainfall, you’ll never have to water them, or even prune them.”
TIMING YOUR VEGGIES
The final part to saving water in your garden is working with the seasons in your veggie patch. Begin with improving the soil by adding lots of organic matter, and mulch. Then grow the right edibles at the right time: lettuces, peas and beets right now in spring while it’s cool and rainy; then drought-tolerant plants like zucchini and tomatoes in summer (but not in containers, which always require more watering). And don’t forget berries, which grow perfectly in the Northwest and send down deep roots for their own water.