Vol 10. Issue 3/January 25, 2010
Creating Your Low-Water Garden
By Mika Ono
This is the time of year that Southern Californians can feel particularly smug when they look at weather reports predicting snow and freezing weather in other parts of the country. To make matters better (or worse, as the case may be), it's planting time for gardeners in Southern California.
Gardening in this region is not without its challenges, though, and author and gardening expert Nan Sterman spoke at a recent Lunch & Learn seminar series for Scripps California employees on how to create gardens that wisely use one of the region's scarce resources—water.
"We need to think about water differently," she said. "Water is like money. It comes and it goes. We should aim to garden within our watering means."
With its "Mediterranean climate" of long, hot dry summers and sporadic rain for a few months in the winter, the San Diego region imports 80 percent of its water, according to Sterman, and 20 percent of the state's energy is used for moving and refining water. Since plumbing innovations such as low-flow toilets and shower heads, most water is now used outside for landscaping.
Bye Bye Grass
Sterman identified lawns as one of the worst environmental offenders.
"Grass is one of the most resource-intensive plants we have," she said, asking whether anyone could think of another other plant that gets watered, pruned (mowed), or fertilized as much. "Think about getting rid of your grass. If you need some grass, see how much you really need and get rid of the rest."
While grass can be attractive, Sterman was full of suggestions of other gorgeous plants requiring less water. These included many varieties of trees, which give a garden structure; shrubs, which can bloom for months on end; perennials, which come in a variety of scintillating colors; succulents, the ultimate water conservers; ground covers, some of which can be walked on like grass; and bulbs, many of which require only moderate amounts of water.
Native California plants and others from similar climates in the Mediterranean, South Africa, and parts of South America are particularly well adapted to the local area. Many of these plants have features that help them thrive in hot, dry conditions, such as small leaves that don't give off too much moisture, leaves that point upward to escape the sun's direct rays, or fuzzy leaves that help the plant retain water.
To conclude the seminar, which was hosted by the Scripps Research Counseling and Psychological Services Department, Sterman offered the following tips for the best results in implementing a low-water garden:
Sterman's books include California Gardener's Guide, Volume II (Cool Springs Press, 2007) and, new in February, Water-Wise Plants for the Southwest (Cool Springs Press, 2010). Sterman is available to answer low-water gardening questions by phone on Tuesday mornings (8:30 AM to noon, Pacific time) and Thursday afternoons (1 to 4:30 PM, Pacific time) as part of the Water Smart Pipeline hotline, sponsored by the Water Conservation Garden, at (866) 962-7021. More information is also available at http://www.plantsoup.com/.
Send comments to: mikaono[at]scripps.edu