Most of us take for granted the seemingly unlimited water that comes out of the hose or tap. Although New Hampshire has an abundant fresh water supply, it is still a decidedly finite resource. Anyone who’s been gardening for years knows that the weather patterns in New Hampshire are changing. We’re seeing more extremes throughout the year, most notably an increased number of droughts and dry spells in the hot summer months. At many homes, more water goes to gardening and landscaping than any other purpose. Our desire for lush flower beds and jewel green lawns leads us to use vast amounts of water. Knowing what we do about the anticipated scarcity and uncertainty of freshwater resources in the coming decades, the way we look at water in the garden needs to change. By making a few simple adjustments, we can create beautiful landscapes that ultimately need less maintenance and are more ecologically sound.
Designing a water efficient garden
Mid-summer is not the time to be making big changes in the garden. High temperatures and dry soils are not a recipe for landscaping success. However, there are still a number of things you can do. July and August is a great time to pay attention to which plants thrive in the heat and which suffer. If a certain plant is always wilting and requiring frequent watering and attention, it’s either not a great fit for your garden or would perform better if moved to a different location. Try sketching out your landscape on graph paper, noting where all of the important landscape features are and keeping track of sun and wind exposure. Mark how much sun each area gets as well as soil type and drainage. Make lists of the plants that are struggling and plan to move those to wetter parts of the garden or replace them with more drought tolerant species.
Perhaps the most important thing when it comes to water conservation is plant selection. Plants will always perform best in sites that suit their needs. Choose trees, shrubs, and perennials that are compatible with soils and sun exposure in your garden. There are many drought tolerant choices available, many of which are native. More often than not, native plants are some of the best choices for low maintenance landscapes, as they are adapted to grow in local climate and soil conditions.
It’s also not a bad idea to minimize the amount of area you have planted as lawn. Lawns are the thirstiest part of most landscapes. Planting ground covers or groupings of trees and shrubs in place of turf grass can help save a significant amount of water.
Remember, even if a perennial or shrub is drought tolerant, it will still need a good deal of water to become established. Watering deeply is the key to making sure new plants develop resilient and self-sufficient root systems. Moistening the soil to a depth of eight inches or more will encourage plants to develop deep roots that can access water lower in the soil profile during periods of dry weather.
Before you pull out the hose or start running the sprinkler, you should always check to make sure your garden does indeed need water. Natural rainfall quantity can be determined with a rain gauge or with a straight sided can and a ruler. It’s also a good idea to measure the amount of water being emitted by sprinklers by setting out coffee cans beneath them. Run the sprinklers for 15 minutes, shut them off, then measure the result and calculate how much water would be applied in an hour’s time. Most gardens benefit from an inch of water a week.
In terms of water efficiency, sprinklers are not the best way to go. They tend to waste a fair amount of water by spraying non-target areas and plant foliage. They should only be used in the morning and on non-windy days to limit evaporative losses and plant disease issues. Delivering water directly to the soil is much more effective and can be easily achieved with soaker hoses or a customized drip irrigation system.
Collecting rainfall is also a great opportunity to lessen water consumption. Use rain barrels to save water that can be used when needed at a later date. Rainwater also had the added benefit of being free from any chlorine, fluorine, or softening salts.
Although water scarcity is seldom an issue we have to deal with in New Hampshire, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make an effort to slow the drain on municipal and well water supplies. At the very least, consider adopting some water conserving practices to lower your water bill!