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Xeriscaping: Gardens That Thrive on Looking After Themselves

Written by on Monday, 14 May 2012 7:00 pm
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As a futurist, my efforts to help others see new possibilities in their future are often undermined by qwerty or "we’ve always done it this way" thinking. Sometimes, taking a fresh look at the familiar, the certain, is a great introduction to the benefits and ease of a shift in thinking in other areas.

At this time of year, the garden is very familiar and much-loved territory for many property owners. In spite of the dazzling new plants and garden accessories that capture our imagination each year, qwerty may be the culprit that is keeping too many gardeners and their gardens in the 20th Century when watering was the big job.

When you prepare to rethink something familiar, focus on limiting or rare resources first. They may physically or financially limit improvement, and, therefore, require the most creative problem-solving. Water is a limiting factor in many parts of the country already, but availability and cost of this taken-for-granted essential will be an increasing concern in this century.

Qwerty in the garden materializes in many ways, including:

  1. Water has been the almost-free resource for so long, it is not automatically considered as financially-limiting. Homeowners on flat-rate billing will get a cost shock when their municipality moves them to increasingly-expensive pay-for-use metering—which it will.
  2. The environmental issues related to using expensive drinking water to keep lawns and gardens flourishing has led to rain-barrel alternatives for some homeowners, but too many are still missing the conservation point.
  3. The current interior decorating mania distracts homeowners from nature-driven garden design. Applying interior colour scheme ideas to gardens, ignores an important water reality: plants of the same colour often have very different moisture requirements.
  4. Regularly soaking plants is considered essential to a beautiful garden. For most homeowners, one wilted plant signals it’s time to water everything. In fact, that wilted plant may be the only greenery needing a drink. The rest will suffer from over-watering.
  5. Gardens are not homogeneous environments. Most gardens have wet spots and dry spots, and everything in between. Do you understand the water pattern of your garden? Do you deliberately plant water-loving plants in wet areas and drought-resistant in dry corners? Or, are you intent on how things look and will water like mad to artificially keep the plants happy?

Xeriscaping Grows with Experience

After experienced nursery worker Marjorie Mason took possession of the 2-acre country property she bought in the dead of winter in 1993, she discovered that key assumptions she’d made about the land were wrong.

"I assumed good soil, and found 2 acres of sand," explains Marjorie. "The well, which I assumed was good, was only 13 feet deep, so I had to let nature do what she could do, and that was a garden without water."

Necessity made Marjorie the mother of invention.

"I spent all my money buying the property, so I had no money to buy anything else," she said. "So when people brought half-dead plants back [at work], I planted them on our compost heap and all survived without watering. I just realized plants don’t need copious amounts of water…Irrigation isn’t so necessary if you plant properly."

Marjorie’s water-smart planting tip: Dig a hole in the sand or clay. Fill the hole with water. Let the water soak away. Spread out the root ball. Put the plant into the pre-moistened hole and fill it with soil. No need to add more water. Water during the first year for perennials to establish the plant. Then, stop watering to train the roots to search for moisture. Have faith in the roots’ ability to find water.

The sand garden continues to flourish almost 20 years later. It has never been fertilized or watered. This water-efficient garden, which contains drought-tolerant or water-wise xeric plants, shrubs, and trees, is referred to as a xeriscape (pronounced "zeriscape") garden. These are gardens that take care of themselves. Visit the Uxbridge, Ontario, nursery, Mason House Gardens , now run by Marjorie’s son Jeff, to see first-hand how stunning and diverse the unwatered garden is.

The principle behind xeriscaping is using plants that don’t need a lot of watering, but the choice goes beyond cacti and desert species. How can you tell if you have a drought-resistant plant? Marjorie shares these indicators:

  • Waxy leaf coverings like Sedum
  • Deep tap roots like day lilies
  • Silvery, finely-divided, or fragrant foliage like herbs
  • Compound leaves like locust trees

Jeff Mason recently spoke about xeriscaping to a standing-room-only meeting of North Toronto’s Leaside Garden Society . Using stunning photos of "dry" gardens to illustrate dramatic diversity, Jeff shared practical xeriscaping tips, including:

  • Build your lawn to fit the spread of your sprinkler system, so you’re not watering the driveway or sidewalk.
  • Surround the lawn with garden beds to catch run-off.
  • Mulching aids water retention. Mulch or chop up leaves with a mower, and add to sandy or clay soils to build them up and to keep weeds down.
  • Select plants which will survive in the micro-climates of your garden, not in conditions you must expend time, energy, and resources to create and maintain.
  • Group plants by moisture requirements, keeping the most water-loving like Astilbe closest to the tap or eavestrough downspout.
  • Plant perennials, shrubs, and trees in early fall to take advantage of fall rains, winter snow, and spring melts to establish the root system to withstand summer drought.
  • Over-watering of drought-tolerant perennials and shrubs like junipers will cause them to flop over. Leave them alone.

Are you ready for a garden that loves to take care of itself? What will you do with the time and money you don’t spend watering this summer?

Resource: Join Marjorie Mason on her weekly phone-in radio program on CKDO 15.80AM/107FM Saturdays at 9 am ET/EDT.

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  About the author, PJ Wade

Individual news stories are based upon the opinions of the writer and does not reflect the opinion of Realty Times.
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