Water Wise Gardening

View of my house from driveway.

After being an avid gardener in southern California for 30 years, attending workshops, and listening to speakers I still learn new things constantly. It’s one of the joys of gardening. Here are some important tools on water conservation in the landscape.

           In the garden a good design needs at least one focal point. I suggest a high canopy tree acclimated to our climate. By planting a tree you can define the mood of your garden and improve the ecosystem that exists in your yard. Think of it as a sun umbrella to for your home and garden. Trees slow wind and water erosion, and regulate temperature. After being established  the right tree should only require extra water during drought, and their leaves can also add valuable mulch to your garden without the need for raking. If you aren’t sure what tree is right for you, or where it would be the most effective for shade and water conservation check with Ojai Trees; it was established just for that reason. The Arbor Society also has a great website with complete tree statistics, recommendations and photos. Ojai Trees can even teach you to plant your tree.

First, consider not only what you plant but the way you choose to plant. Think about the general lay of the land, now is the time to change things up a bit before you plant. You will be more successful and save time, frustration and expense. Most importantly by exploring your options, you can give our southern California environment a little extra loving care.
This shows my backyard where  I have added terracing and water control basins.

Next look at creating ground contours. They are aesthetically pleasing, allowing the eye to wander, and the irregular ground surfaces they create will capture more groundwater. Contours form small dips and obstacles where the water can pool and be absorbed slowly. You may even want to create an infiltration basin. A basin is typically built at the lowest point of your garden to capture rainwater that then will slowly infiltrate the surrounding soil.

Now for something you can do immediately, get rid of that grass. You’ve heard this one before but it bares repeating, use grass sparingly. It is a water and maintenance hog requiring fertilizers to keep it looking good. (The fertilizer is not only expensive but can end up in run off and contributing to ocean “dead zones.”)
View of front yard where I have removed grass, added gravel and native plantings interspersed with fruit trees and other drought tolerant ornamentals.

Getting off grass can be painless. Remove a little at a time and replace it with drought-resistant and native species, surrounded by gravel or mulch. Leave your “small patch of green” where it extends your living area and nowhere else but remember while eliminating grass plan on monthly dripping of all mature landscaping left behind, especially trees. I did this several years ago in stages. I still have a small patch of grass for reclining or the grandkids to play on in my front yard but where I removed the turf in my backyard I put in several trees along with drought tolerant plants to attract birds and butterflies. I also installed a greywater system off my washer that now waters over half my back yard. Greywater systems are legal now and allow you to reuse water for landscaping that normally would just enter the sewage system. You’ll find lots of information about greywater systems online at www.ojaivalleygreencoalition.org

Side yard with permeable pavers between raised fruit trees in  mulched beds,
 greywater system waters all.

Then there’s mulch magic. Mulch, mulch, mulch your plants and trees. Chunks of bark, peat moss or gravel all slow evaporation and keep plant roots cool. When mulching, always remember to keep it from making contact with your tree and scrub trunks, it encourages rot. Low cost or free mulch is available locally at Ojai’s Sanitation Department and the green waste recycling center. If you have access to a mushroom farm, it makes fantastic mulch and soil amendment. If you have the money a greywater system is also a great way to painlessly save water. We have had one connected to our washer for several years and it successfully waters about half of our back yard, including fruit trees.

Last but not least when you do water, it is healthier for plants and more effective to water in the early morning. The best gauge of soil moisture I’ve found is actually a neat tool my forestry and arborist friends use, a t-shaped soil tester. It lets you check the soil beneath the surface up to 12” so there is less guess work. It is easily pushed into the soil, and when you pull it out it brings up a neat soil sample. Why water if it is moist below the surface. There is a good guide to watering on our website on the tree care page at www.ojaitrees.org

Also make sure to replace sprinklers with low volume emitters where possible. Mine had been in place when I moved in over twenty years ago and when I broke a line planting a few years ago I decided it was time to call in an expert. I had no idea how many improvements had been made and what a difference the new system would make.

If you want to learn more about water wise and earth friendly gardening, the web is a great place to start but make sure it is specific to your area.. As a home gardener you can also get help from a local agricultural advisor or the Master Gardener program through the University of California cooperative extension service. You don’t have to have a farm to need get advice.

Contact the Master Gardner program Helpline at (805) 645-1455 or online at http://groups.ucanr.org/vcmg_old/

For tree information and tips go to www.arborday.org, www.ojaitrees.org, For more eco-friendly water and gardening tips visit: www.bewaterwise.com