January 2, 2013
Fitting In With Our Climate
We are into another year and as in every year, we never quite know what we'll face. Plenty of sun and wind for sure, perhaps timely and average rainfall amounts. Possibly snow, hail, sudden temperature shifts, hopefully not anything worse. These are normal weather occurrences gardeners deal with nearly each and every year. If you haven't been as successful as you'd like when tackling the average conditions, your garden probably suffered under the more extreme heat and drought we've been under. I can't foretell the future, but most climatologists agree the trend is towards warmer average temperatures and less rainfall in our region for the next century.
To start the gardening year off, I offer a few top tips patterned after the principles of gardening that will begin to refit your landscape to survive and thrive under this new paradigm.
Plan and Design
Realistically analyze your landscape. Ideally, home landscapes should be no more than one third high water-use areas, that is, landscape areas that requires one inch of moisture a week during the growing season. Draw a diagram of your landscape, measuring the landscape areas. Add up the bed totals to see how you compare. If your landscape is basically bluegrass or fescue turf, with a vegetable garden, most likely it far exceeds the recommended percentage. Consider reducing the amount of high water-use area, converting to low or no water-use in its place. Drought tolerant beds, shrub beds, pathways, patios, flagstone sitting areas are some alternatives to cut down on water use and maintenance. Draw another diagram with your new plan before beginning the work. Decide what you can realistically do each year of a three to five year plan. Landscaping can be expensive, avoid cost over runs by having a good plan.
Consider more regionally appropriate models. In the coming weeks, I'll be introducing a new section regarding the style and design of gardens more suitable to the Texas Panhandle.
Analyze and Improve the Soil
Nothing improves a plant's health like healthy soil. If you've not had your soil analyzed, January is a great time, avoid the spring rush. It's important to know your starting point, what improvements you need to make. All soil is not alike. Even within the city limits there are differences in soil type and texture across town.
For most locations, adding 3 inches of organic matter (OM), compost, is desirable. If your soil is clay and you can afford it, also add expanded shale for better drainage and water/nutrient retention.
Create Practical Turf Areas
There are many options here, beginning with the reduction of water-thirsty bluegrass and fescue areas and replacing it with less water-demanding options. One alternative is buffalograss turf in a full sun location. Buffalograss thrives very nicely on nearly one quarter the water that bluegrass and fescue require and does well in clay soil. Converting turf to shrub beds – either native or traditional exotic shrubs are much lower water use and lower care as well. Patios, pathways and flagstone areas are the most water efficient in the long term and provide a more finished look to the landscape. Whatever option you choose, be sure to research them thoroughly.
Choose Appropriate Plants
I've made the decision long ago that when plant replacement is called for, a drought tolerant one will be my choice. I first look for a suitable native plant, rather than exotic. Native plants adapt quicker to our environment and perform better in the long term as well. They are a normal part of our ecology.
When planning new beds, group plants of similar water needs together. There are many drought tolerant plants to choose from. Search them out, they're available.
Efficient Use of Water
Build water efficiency into your landscape as you redesign. Water efficiency can be increased when implementing each xeriscape principle through landscape design, soil improvement, turf care regardless of turf type, plant selection, type and amount of mulch and maintenance practices. Even changing the timing of a practice can conserve water. One overlooked option, for instance, is in changing the timing for vegetable gardening. Many people like to have a summer vegetable garden. Our summers are becoming increasing hot. It takes a lot of water to grow vegetables in the heat of the summer. Consider moving that time frame to spring, fall and winter and enroll in a CSA, community supported agriculture, or buy at the farmers market during the summer. It's local and fresh. Or start a community garden of your own with neighbors or an organized group. Water is shared by many in one larger garden, reducing the amount overall all compared to many smaller, individual gardens.
The use of a mulching mower is one of the best, and easiest, ways to mulch your lawnscape. Grass clippings should never to removed to a landfill. Ideally, they should be recycled right in place – saving time, money, amendments and landfill space. Everything benefits: the soil, soil organisms, the turf, the gardener, the environment and the city.
Practice Appropriate Maintenance
All landscapes require maintenance, even 100% xeriscape landscapes. There are many low maintenance techniques one can implement. Better yet, for everything you do in the landscape, build sustainable principles into it by determining a solution that solves two problems instead of one. For instance, turf and shade are incompatible. Many people continue to try to force grass to grow without sunlight. Look for a solution that will be successful. Shade requiring plants or an outdoor flagstone patio are two better ideas. Your landscape needs will probably present other options as well. By making this change we solve the problem of ever dying grass with an enjoyable and workable alternative.
Annually amending landscape beds with compost and mulching the beds will go a long way in improving the health and water-use needs of your plants.
These are just a few tips to get you started. HighPlainsGardening.com is loaded with information in accomplishing a more beautiful and water-thrifty landscape. One doesn't have to do everything at once, pace yourself, follow your plan, and your vision will turn into reality.