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Four ways to drought-proof your garden

by Bonnie Allen

California’s historic drought has us all wondering how to maintain a lush garden in an era of water restrictions. Is it even possible? Must we spend every summer with a brown lawn?

The answer is, with the right plantings and watering regimen, you can maintain an attractive garden year round.

1. Water more deeply

To drought-proof existing plants, take the advice of Dave Kaplow of the North Coast Native Nursery, which he runs with his wife, Roanne. Kaplow restores California landscapes to their natural habitat using drought-tolerant California native plants.

Whether or not you have native plants, you can drought-proof existing plants if you start watering them differently. “You have to water less often, but deeply,” says Kaplow. Too many of us go out and water every few days, and plants respond with shallow roots.

2. Replace your lawn

A green lawn is practically a hallmark of suburban living. But a lawn that sucks up mammoth amounts of water in summer makes no sense in a drought.

If you can bear to part with some or all of your lawn, sheet mulching is an easy way to do it. You lay down cardboard over the existing lawn and then pile compost or mulch on top of the cardboard. No digging is required. In Petaluma, the city provides the cardboard, mulch and directions, and you provide the plants.

You just dig a hole through the cardboard and put the plants in, or plant ground cover directly in the compost. Some city programs offer discounts or credits for replacing lawn sprinkler systems with drip irrigation to water your new landscape.

Some good lawn replacements, says Petaluma landscaper Louise Leff, include bunch grasses—many of which are California natives. Other good choices are yarrow, catmint and lavender.

3. Place your plants strategically

If you want to keep some favorite moisture loving plants, try to group them together, so that you can water them on a more aggressive schedule than the rest of your garden.

Focusing your gardening efforts on shady areas is another way to make your water go further. Shady soil retains water longer than sunny soil. Laying down mulch in your garden is another way to help preserve soil moisture and inhibit weeds.

If you like to container garden, try planting in bigger pots, says Leff. You can put several plants in a large pot instead of in separate small pots. The large pots will hold moisture longer. Grouping plants together rather than spacing them widely also helps. “The plants create their own environment and shade each other.”

4. Capture water

More and more people are investing in rain barrels, now available in most major hardware stores. But you don’t need a rain barrel to add efficiency to your watering. Leff and her husband collect five to seven gallons a day just capturing water from their showers and sinks.

The full version of this article appears in the August issue of SST.

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