Don't Touch that Dial!

As our rainy season draws to a close, gardeners everywhere are turning their irrigation systems back on in anticipation of the dry summer months to come. And this year, with the drought emergency officially over, it’s with an easy conscience. After all, why not treat the garden to a little more water this year? After all those lean water years, don’t the plants deserve it?

Whoa! Don’t touch that dial!

The trees, shrubs, and perennials in our gardens that survived the reduced summer water of the last few years have made long term adaptations to the new conditions. They’ve grown deeper root systems, they’ve grown smaller, tougher leaves, and they’ve made changes in their annual cycles of reproduction and leaf drop. They’ve learned (although not the way we do) to get along with less summer water. Especially if the gardener has been consistent about infrequent but deep watering, our Mediterranean and summer-dry gardens are healthier, more resilient, and set up for a longer and more vigorous lifespan.

We can ruin all these successful adaptations by changing our watering schedules frequently. Plants don’t respond to “treats” the way animals do. Their way of being is based on finding a slow, multi-year, adaptation to conditions, and it gets disrupted when conditions change too much.

But there is an awesome way to put the extra water that’s available this year to good use. Please consider extending the low water part of the garden, and eliminating the plants that suffered most during the drought because they depend on constantly moist summer soils. By taking out a section of lawn, or an annual bed, and replacing the plants with a beautiful new summer-dry border, you can make your garden more resilient to the next drought.

Take advantage of the break in the drought to establish a new drought-tolerant garden.

Take advantage of the break in the drought to establish a new drought-tolerant garden.

It will take extra summer water this year to establish a new group of drought tolerant plants. In the late spring, even California native plants that come out of a nursery container into your garden soil will need to be watered during the next six months. They simply don’t have enough time to get a deep, vigorous root system established before the first hot, dry weeks come along. So this year is the perfect time to do it, when we’re not paying extra for every drop of water. Don’t wait for the next drought! Now is the best time to make changes that will dial down your water bill in future years.

Here are some favorite combinations of summer dry plants to consider. If you like pastels and a cottage garden style, consider mixed pink rock roses and silvery lavenders.

If you like stronger colors, how about bright yellow Jerusalem sage and burgundy Chinese fringeflower? Add some lion’s tail for a bright orange pop later in the summer.

Chinese fringeflower ( Loropetalum ).

Chinese fringeflower (Loropetalum).

Jerusalem sage.

Jerusalem sage.

How about bold, modern design? Try a small palm with New Zealand flax and tree aloes for large, striking shapes that look good year round.

New Zealand flax.

New Zealand flax.

Tree aloe.

Tree aloe.

Please don’t think that you can only have a cactus garden if you want to save summer water. There are summer dry plants available in every imaginable color, texture, and garden style. You can create dramatic, lovely gardens now, give them extra water to help them through this first summer, and then be prepared for a dry California future. You will thank yourself in the years to come as California’s lawns brown again, as they surely will, while your garden is full of thriving, flowering shrubs and perennials, dancing with butterflies, and shrugging off drought.

If you want to see some of the plants that look beautiful in Bay Area gardens while needing little summer water, stop by GFE at 7th Avenue and Lawton. The garden is beautiful now, and it’s open to the public every day of the year. A self-guided tour in the south part of the garden walks you through the ideas behind summer-dry gardening, and the blooming garden beds show you what the plants look like. Many of the plants are labeled, to help you plan your own foray into the summer-dry garden. The garden is staffed on Wednesdays and Saturdays with experienced gardeners who can help you plan your own transition to a drier future.

See you in the garden!