5 Tips to Make Your Landscape Thrive Through this Drought

June 5, 2015

California is now in a record fourth year of drought. With mandatory restrictions being put in place to reduce water usage, the traditional landscape will most certainly suffer. But living with brown lawns until the rains come again does not have to be our future. Five simple alterations can be made to insure your landscape thrives through this drought and for many years to come.

Step 1: Ditch the lawn

Let’s get this out of the way quickly, because I love lawn. I get a weird thrill from fresh cut grass, and I appreciate a home owner who takes the time and effort to maintain a perfectly manicured lawn because it is not easy to do in Sacramento. The roar of a lawn mower is a welcoming to spring, and no summer would be complete without a run through the sprinklers.

But it is time for a reality check-

The lawn as we know it is a European invention- with the mild and moist European climate being ideal for the growing of grass. In the 17th century, the grass was kept short through the use of sheep that fed on it, and trees were kept to a minimum to insure visibility in the event of an attack form a neighboring army. This made lawn a sensible, multi-use landscape solution that was sustainable for the environment.

Flash forward to America where the grass seeds were introduced by European settlers to make this New World feel a bit more like home. During the industrial revolution, the sheep was replaced by the lawn mower and as people moved west, so did the lawn. The further west the grass seeds spread, the less sustainable the grass seed became. By the time it reached California, the humble lawn went from a practical multi-functional landscape, to a non-native, water sucking, heavy feeding, green waste producing space filler that is no longer sustainable in the changing climate of California.

The options for replacing a traditional European lawn are vast- and in Sacramento we are spoiled by a climate that is conducive to a huge range of low water plants. From natural plantings like Thyme, to manufactured solutions like permeable pavers, or even Synthetic Turf- the options are out there and now is the time to recalibrate our image of the residential landscape and move to something that is more sustainable for our climate and our growing population.

Step 2: Choose plants carefully

Just because we are moving to a drought tolerant landscape does not mean your landscape is going to be an overgrown mess of large shrubs and debris. As a self-proclaimed plant dork- I take this very seriously. Some might be surprised to find, I am not a pusher of California native plants. WHAT?! Isn’t that what this whole thing is all about? Wrong. This is about changing to a water wise landscape- and not being restricted by things that happen to have their roots in California. Get it? See what I did there? Roots? It’s a plant thing.

Anyway- California is a vast area covering thousands of diverse micro-climates. The California Native plant can be anything from a riparian tree to a desert flower- and everything in between. Just because it is a California native, does not mean that it has any business being in your residential landscape. This is not to say I do not like native plants- I just choose carefully. I have planted the California native White Sage in my garden a half dozen times- and it has died each and every time due to summer heat, winter cold, wet winters, dry summers- you name it. The white sage is a California native; however it is native to the southern coast down into Baja- a far different climate from the Sacramento Valley. There is a huge selection of water wise plants that thrive in Sacramento- some native, some not so native. The important thing is to check with Nursery professionals before purchasing. Chances are one of the employees has grown it in their home garden and can give you firsthand knowledge of its habits.

Step 3: Know your soil

Amending soils is the key to the success of any landscape, but particularly a water wise garden. In Sacramento- many residential properties are plagued with heavy clay soils. Clay soils simultaneously hold water and leach nutrients. This devastation combination is incredibly hard on plants, but can easily be treated with soil amendments. It doesn’t matter the type of soil, clay, silt, or sand, the plants will benefit from amending. Some of the amendments that can be used are compost, planters mix or very fine ground bark. These products will help keep the soil from compacting, improve root growth, hold nutrients and retain water. Soil amendment can also provide microorganisms to help plant thrive. Soil amendments need to be spread 2 to 3 inches deep across the area to be planted. Then, incorporated into the soil through tilling.

Step 4: Be smart about irrigation

Irrigating with overhead sprinklers is convenient but it covers a whole area instead of targeting plant roots specifically. Overhead irrigation also allows for moisture to hit the leaves of the plant directly, which can lead to mineral build up on the leaves and spread disease. The alternative is drip irrigation. This sends a directed water source to the root system of the plant. It can be a little more time consuming to install, but the water savings in the long run are significant.

Step 5: Mulch

This could be the easiest way to save water in your landscape. Mulch will help plants conserve moisture when the temperature rises, and insulates the roots when the weather turns cold. The mulch also slows the rate of evaporation from the soil, creating a moisture barrier between the plant roots and the outside environment. A 3 to 4 inch layer of mulch around the plants provides the most water savings, without interfering with the gas exchange that is important for plant health.