In the southeast, we deal with weather extremes and need to landscape with plants that are adaptable to alternating periods of drought, flooding rains, hot humid summers and freezing winters. We certainly do not live in an arid region and cannot mimic all the techniques that are used in the desert southwest. I’ve learned that using only dry-loving plants in the landscape is a mistake because what we need are adaptable plants. Native plants have adapted to very specific areas and conditions. As a general rule, a native plant that is suitable to your conditions will be drought tolerant. There are also many ornamentals that are well suited while not being invasive or detrimental in any way. After determining the appropriate plants for your zone, you must also provide the plant with the ideal conditions: soil, light and moisture. I have found the key to dealing with the extremes. All plants must be installed in deeply prepared soil containing rich, organic, moisture-retentive yet well-draining soil. This encourages deep root penetration which makes the plants immediately drought tolerant. Improve infiltration and you’ll use/need even less water.
IMPROVE INFILTRATION/REDUCE RUNOFF
Most gardeners need to create this to some degree or another. Soil infiltration is best accomplished by adding lots of organic matter (compost and composted manures). In this organic soil, the plants will be aided by beneficial microorganisms that will help the roots to obtain additional moisture and fertilizer while naturally fighting off pests and diseases. This makes them healthy, disease and insect free, low maintenance and sustainable. The philosophy is that simple. Organic growers have been using these practices for years. Yet it can be a lot of work to provide this, especially for those who garden in Georgia red clay. It’s easiest when you are creating a new planting bed. Create an area with a minimum of 12″ prepared soil. If feasible, optimal results will be obtained if you provide 18-24″. Depending upon your subsoil, terrain and various drainage considerations, this could be a raised bed, or an excavated area filled with the new prepared soil. Often the best solution is excavated and raised. In any instance, it’s vital that you create a transition zone between this new soil and your sub base. This transition zone would be an area where the sub base is loosened and is a 50/50 blend of new soil and existing soil. If percolation still isn’t adequate, a perforated pipe or French drain may be needed at the bottom of the bed. Direct the outlet from this pipe to water plants in other areas of your yard or have it empty into a “rain garden” or other detention area.
Mulch further conserves the moisture in the soil by reducing evaporation from the soil surface and cooling the area around the plant. If you use organic compost as mulch, the worms will work it into the soil below and you’ll have added benefits. In addition, mulch keeps weeds under control. Weeds are a major competitor for moisture so remove them immediately.
Organic maintenance practices conserve water by making the garden more efficient. Organic fertilizers do not contain salts, which harm the soil and plants. All plants need water until established. This takes 2 – 3 years. Even natives and drought tolerant plants need an establishment period. The current watering restrictions have put numerous unestablished plants into severe stress. The following systems will provide water for these plants and ensure that your landscaping is sustainable.
USE GREY WATER
This is water from your bath or laundry. Do not use water that contains bleach. It’s best if your soaps were organic, non-phosphate. It’s best if your water is declorinated. Installing a gray water plumbing system is certainly an easier way to transport the water than using buckets. There are many potential health risks when storing and using gray water so be certain to check with local health and building officials.
CAPTURE AND REUSE RAINWATER
Rain barrels and other types of cisterns can be installed to capture and hold rainwater. There are types available that lie flat on the ground or sit flat against the house so that their visual presence is minimized. Other types can be buried. The larger the container, or the use of multiple containers, the more water you can capture and store during our rainy periods for use during our driest periods. Pumps are available to transport the water from the tanks to the garden, as the reality of the situation is that these collection tanks are generally located downhill. The stored water must be free of organic matter (leaves etc.) so that it does not promote the growth of algae and harmful micro-organisms, within the tank, which could clog pumps and create a foul odor. So it’s vital to pre-filter the water before entering your tanks. There are devises available that can be mounted between your downspouts and the tank that deflect debris. State of the art systems also deflect the first run off from the roof, as that water will be the dirtiest and possibly contaminated. Rain gardens are another environmentally responsible way to use the water from your site. This system will concentrate your runoff into a depressed area on your site that will immediately nourish any plants installed in the area. Rain gardens slowly infiltrate water into the aquifer and with appropriate plant selection will also serve as colorful and interesting wildlife habitats.
FOR ESTABLISHED LANDSCAPES
– Capture and reuse water
– Consider drip or trickle irrigation.
– Water deeply (8″) and less frequently as this promotes deep roots and need for less water
– Water in the early morning hours and never when it’s windy to minimize evaporation
– Install moisture sensors and other devises to automatically shut-off irrigation systems
– Mulch and remove weeds
– Delay pruning and fertilization during periods of severe drought as these practices encourage thirsty new foliage
– Convert to organic fertilizers
FOR NEW LANDSCAPES
– Group plants by similar water to concentrate usage
– Prep the soil to encourage deep roots and water infiltration.
– Shady areas need less water. Plant in the shade, add trees or build shade structures.
– Move stressed plants to more suitable area.
– Incorporate rain collection systems
– Minimize or eliminate the lawn.
– Use only organic practices
Conrad and Danna Cain are owners of Home & Garden Design, Inc., an Atlanta based company specializing in sustainable, natural, residential landscapes. They design and build Xeriscapes as well as the decks, patios, ponds and walls that create lovely outdoor havens and sanctuary gardens. Visit http://www.Home-Garden-Design.com to see photos of their award-winning landscapes.