How to Grow a Garden During a Drought
While this year’s El Niño rainfall had some of us dreaming of lush lawns and beds of blooming annuals, the drought is not over. We still need to conserve water.
Despite near average rainfall in much of Northern California last winter, 60 percent of the state remains in severe drought, according to the State Water Resources Control Board. In addition, groundwater basins and many reservoirs are badly depleted as the drought goes into its fifth year.
A big way to cut back on water use is to change how we think about gardening. Now is the best time of year to consider giving your yard a makeover, says Charles Bohlig, water conservation supervisor for the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD).
EBMUD offers several rebates for lawn conversion programs and other water conservation efforts. It has published an award-winning book on gardening in dry climates, Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates (East Bay Municipal Utility District, 2004).
Start by doing the structural jobs first, such as removing grass and putting in walls and paths. Then, do the planting in the fall and spring.
“In the fall, we start getting some rain, hopefully, and it allows the plants to establish better because the root structure develops better,” Bohlige says.
First, you need to come up with a plan. (see sidebar). Ask yourself questions: Do I want this to be a relaxing place to drink tea or read a book? Or, do I want this to be an active family yard?
“You should look at your site and think about what you want out of it,” he says.
The Options Are Endless
There’s so much you can do with a garden that suits dry climates. Hundreds of flowers, shrubs, trees and even some grasses do well in our area, ccording to Andrea Pook, senior public information representative for EBMUD. Most nurseries in the Bay Area have “water smart tags” on plants that are good for water-efficient gardening.
“In terms of plant choice, there’s a lot of reasons you might choose a plant,” Pook says. “You might choose a plant based on water needs, shade, sun or what kind of color schemes and textures you are looking for. There’s a lot to consider. The good news is, if you want a drought tolerant plant that suits our Mediterranean climate, there’s plenty to choose from.”
There’s also a lot you can do with different mulches, as wells as flagstone and crushed granite for paths, Bohlig says.
“Mulch is one of your garden’s best friends,” he says. “We can’t sing enough praises of mulch. Everyone hates weeds and it helps suppress them. It keeps the moisture in the soil. It keeps roots healthy.”
You can buy different colored mulch and you may also be able to find local tree trimmers who are willing to give you some wood chips. Mulch can also be a great way to remove your lawn if you’re on a tight budget, Bohlig says.
Find some cardboard to cover the grass and top it off with a few inches of mulch. If all goes well, the grass will eventually die.
But having a lawn isn’t always a bad thing, Bohlig says. It just depends on how you use it.
“We’re still a big fan of grass, especially if kids are playing on it. It’s a better place for them to play and it’s not hard on their knees and they can do somersaults and stuff like that,” he says. “But we’re thinking a big chunk of grass in the front yard is probably not the best application because you don’t want your kids playing in the front yard and going in the street. If the only person walking on the grass is someone with a lawnmower, then it’s probably not the best use of it.”
While a drought tolerant garden doesn’t require a lot of irrigation, you still need to water it during dry periods. Bohlig says drip irrigation is a great way to go. It applies the water very slowly, avoiding run-off and soaking deep into the soil.
Another option is using gray water. EBMUD offers rebates to customers who install diverter valves on washing machines, allowing gray water to pour into the garden. However, Bohlig says vegetable gardens do not do well with laundry water because of the salts that are often in the soaps. If you use laundry water on your garden, make sure to buy a phosphate-free detergent.
Overall, transforming a lawn to a drought tolerant garden will make your life easier in the long run and help the state’s water crisis.
Teresa Mills-Faraudo is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.
Steps to a Successful Garden Design
In its book Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates, the East Bay Municipal Utility District offers steps on how to plan your garden.
Step 1: Study the Site. Look at the existing conditions. Views, topography, sun, shade, prevailing winds, soils, drainage patterns, surrounding structures, boundaries and vegetation can present both challenges and opportunities. Take advantage of natural and man-made conditions of the site.
Step 2: Consider Uses and Define Spaces. Think about how you want to use the space. Consider where areas of use might be located, how each space will be enclosed and defined, how the areas will be related and differentiated, and how you will move between areas.
Step 3: Draw Up a Plan. Sketch out different versions of your plan and compare them. Think about plants. Start by selecting larger plants like trees and shrubs, which will form a backbone of your landscape. Then select smaller plants for accent, fill, color and seasonal interest. Some of these plants may be partly or fully summer-dormant, so make sure your planting design is attractive without them.
Step 4: Finalize Plan. Now you can refine your ideas. Make sure your plan doesn’t try to do too much. See if there are too many features, spaces, materials or shapes.
Utility District Rebate Programs
Many utility districts in the Bay Area offer rebates for water-efficient gardening.
Alameda County Water District. Covers most of southern Alameda County. Rebates for such efforts as installing water-efficient landscaping and rain barrels. www.acwd.org/?nid=145.
Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency. Covers parts of San Mateo County. Rebates for lawn removal and rain barrels as well as vouchers for free high-efficiency sprinkler nozzles. bayareaconservation.org/.
East Bay Municipal Utility District. Covers Western Contra Costa and northern Alameda counties. Offers rebates for lawn conversion and installing drip irrigation, high-efficiency water nozzles and diverter valves on laundry machines for gray water use. www.ebmud.com/water-and-drought/conservation-and-rebates/watersmart-gardener/.
North Marin Water District. Covers Novato and parts of West Marin. Rebates for turf replacement and installing water efficient irrigation devices and equipment, such as drip irrigation, water pressure-regulating devices and mulch. www.nmwd.com/conservation_exterior.php#WaterSmartLandscape.
San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. Covers San Francisco. Rebates offered for turf replacement and installing rain barrels and equipment for using laundry water on landscapes. sfwater.org/index.aspx?page=129.
Santa Clara Valley Water District. Covers most of Santa Clara County. Rebates for landscape conversion and installing water efficient irrigation equipment. www.valleywater.org/programs/rebates.aspx.