I just returned from a trip to Santa Barbara where I am working on a large residential landscape project. In case you haven’t seen the national news lately, most of the state of California is in the midst of a serious drought threatening not only residential and commercial landscapes, but also a large percentage of our nation’s farm produce.
California’s governor has called for statewide water rationing, and water boards in some towns, including the one I am working in, have drastically cut water allotments to homes. Steep fines are being issued for any residence exceeding their limit.
In Southern California, the majority of landscapes are irrigated. Gardens that have been carefully tended for years are now at risk of being lost. Just as it is for your home and mine, a well-tended landscape not only provides curb appeal; it adds intrinsic value to the home. Imagine what your home would look like without any trees, shrubs, flowers or grass.
In my garden, the water situation is the polar opposite of Santa Barbara’s. Last night, rain fell from the sky in buckets — 3 1/2 inches in all. The ground, having only thawed a short while ago, was only able to absorb a fraction of the water. The rest rapidly pooled in flat areas forming small ponds all across our property.
Any ground with even the slightest grade saw trickles of water turn into rivulets and then into streams. Consider what happened to our gravel driveway. It rises with a slight incline from the lower portion of our property, and the rushing water had carved a 6-inch wide by 6-inch deep trench into the gravel.
The southern edge of our property borders a small stream, which normally flows peacefully into a marsh and then into the large reservoir adjacent to our land. By the time the rain stopped late this morning it had become a raging river.
The stream, locally known as Borden Brook, crested its banks, flooding portions of our property. The rising water spilled into the basement of my small fieldstone office perched alongside the stream.
This morning, as I surveyed the damage, I wondered where all this water would go. And what would become of my submerged garden? Fortunately, before the day ended the water started to subside.
Over the last 20 years of tending my garden, I have gone through similar seasonal flooding events. Believe it or not, what I have learned from seasonal flooding has helped me plan my Santa Barbara project.
A lack of water is the flip side of too much water, but both scenarios require selecting plants that can tolerate adverse conditions.
I learned long ago that plants needing excellent drainage don’t last long in my garden. Plants that don’t mind occasional wet feet thrive. Plants that can tolerate heavy, mucky soils grow well, but plants that like loose sandy conditions don’t. Most of this is common sense. Choosing the right plants for the right place makes all the difference in creating a successful garden.
On my Santa Barbara project, the homeowner and I are working hard to develop a water-wise landscape that make sense for the Southern California climate. Plants that require very little to no supplemental watering are being selected rather than those that require heavy irrigation.
Selecting plants for the average conditions of your garden’s physical location is the best recipe for success. Find out what the average annual rainfall is, the average summer high temperature and the average winter low temperature. The USDA guide to plant hardiness zones will help tremendously.
Consider planting an assortment of plants native to your area. Native plants have adapted over thousands of years to your local climate and will perform well in your soils.
Today there are a lot of native plants grown specifically for their ornamental value in the home landscape. In fact, over the last two decades, plant breeders have been focusing on breeding and selecting ornamental forms of many North American native plants.
Successful gardening requires good planning and paying close attention to your climate. And whatever else you want to say about this year’s weather, Mother Nature is sending you a message.