The water smart yard

The water-smart yard As we prepare for the gardening season this year, let's consider this: some households use up to 50 per cent more water in the summer, according to Environment Canada. In some municipalities, water consumption can double because of o

As we prepare for the gardening season this year, let’s consider this: some households use up to 50 per cent more water in the summer, according to Environment Canada. In some municipalities, water consumption can double because of outdoor watering.

The Yukon Conservation Society is encouraging Whitehorse residents to water smart this summer, to help minimize the water and energy needed for gardens and lawns Ð while we create beautiful landscapes suited to our natural environment.

We can water smart without replacing plants with rocks and gravel. We just need to make careful choices about how the site is organized, what to grow and how to grow it. It’s part of taking the “soft path” approach to water conservation, and solving problems by working with nature.

Landscaping that incorporates water-wise principles can reduce outdoor water use by anywhere from 20 to 50 per cent, and more. It can be as simple as rethinking the way we water; or as sophisticated as a full xeriscape.

Xeriscape (a name that blends the Greek word for “dry” with “landscape”) stands for “Water conservation through creative landscaping.” It’s the term coined for landscaping with methods that conserve water by reducing water requirements and taking advantage of precipitation.

A full xeriscape replaces turf with drought-resistant plants, minimizes applied water and maximizes the use of rainfall Ð called “green water”Ð as a water source for the garden.

But even the more common low-water landscape Ð where turf is simply limited to where it works best, and water conservation principles are followed Ð has a positive impact on water consumption.

We can conserve water by using the xeriscape Ð and common sense Ð principles of choosing hardy and drought-resistant plants, and planting and maintenance strategies that reduce water loss due to water evaporation and runoff.

The seven principles of xeriscaping are easy to apply in any yard. You may find you’ve already started down this soft path!

1) Planning and design: Consider characteristics like shade and sun, and group plants with similar needs together.

Generally more mature plants require less water than young ones. (Remember that all plants need regular watering during the first three years of establishment.) This will enable watering that’s easy and efficient.

2) Soil improvement: Organic content, such as peat moss and compost, can be added to improve soil quality. Aerating or tilling soil will enhance its ability to absorb and retain moisture. The deeper the soil the more moisture it can store.

3) Create practical turf areas: Minimize and/or consolidate lawn areas, so that they are located where they can be the most functional, and reduced where they’re harder to maintain. In smaller areas they can be replaced with plants that require less water. For areas like steep slopes, where grass cover is the best choice but a lawn is not practical, look for hardy, low-maintenance and even drought-resistant mixes.

4) Select appropriate plants: Select native plants, or hardy cultivars that are drought-resistant and/or adapted to northern conditions. There are several drought-resistant and dry-tolerant species that do well here. Try to retain natural areas with established native plants to reduce maintenance. These areas require virtually no additional watering. Preserving such areas also helps prevent the displacement of local plants and animals.

5) Mulch: Cover exposed soil around plants and trees with mulch to slow water evaporation. Inorganic mulches (such as gravel) can actually increase water loss through heat radiation, so use organic mulches such as commercially available cedar nuggets or mulch, pine-bark, or fallen leaves. As they decompose they improve soil texture, building moisture-holding capacity, and add nutrients.

Placing landscape fabric beneath mulch also helps retain moisture, keeps the soil temperature consistent and acts as a weed barrier.

6) Water efficiently:

Harvesting rainwater conserves a substantial amount of water for landscaping Ð it’s an underused resource for households in Canada. Rainwater can be collected in barrels and buckets, or through accessories attached to the eavestrough. It’s warmer than hose water, and that’s good for plants. Drip irrigation and soaker hoses are the most efficient.

A portable lawn sprinkler can use about 1,135 litres of water per hour so an unnecessary hour or two can really add up. Choose high quality sprinklers and invest in an inexpensive timer to turn water off automatically. Adjustable sprinklers can be set to water only what needs to be watered, and not the sidewalk!

Water in the early morning when wind and heat are at their lowest. Watering less frequently but more deeply also encourages a deeper root system. For grass this means one or two inches of water every seven to 10 days. In hot, dry weather, spot-water shrubs and flowers slowly and deeply so that the root ball is soaked.

7) Maintenance: Practise regular weeding, and monitoring the efficiency of watering systems. Check for leaks Ð a huge amount of water can be lost through a simple leak. Keep grass to a minimum height of 2.5 inches (6.35 cm) so the ground stays shaded, helping retain moisture and protect the roots from drying out. In dry periods, avoid mowing the lawn.

Finally, to encourage everyone to try some of these simple approaches in all or part of the yard this summer, the Yukon Conservation Society is sponsoring the Water Smart Yard Contest. Register with the Yukon Conservation Society, incorporate these water conserving gardening techniques into your yard, then e-mail or drop off pictures of the results to us.

You can save water and you might even win a prize!

Karen Baltgailis

Yukon Conservation Society