Summertime, summertime, sum sum summertime! It's hard to think about summer without thinking about water. My Los Angeles suburban summers were all about spending the day in my best friend Scott's pool or landing on our tailbones on a blindingly yellow Wham-O Slip 'N Slide. With summer temperatures zooming past 100 degrees, our water use was partly about the fun and partly about survival.

Meanwhile, my parents were turning on the sprinklers, then forgetting about them.  Or dragging hoses around the yard to keep the very non-SoCal azaleas alive.

Not all climate zones can sustainably support a beautiful water feature like Portland's Japanese Garden.

What about you? I'm guessing that water is very much on your mind this summer. I spend a bit of time at Twitter (you can follow me @coolgreengarden), directing smarmy comments at folks who complain about the rain ruining their weekends. My typical jealous retort is, "Pls send a few gallons west; we're drier than a popcorn fart. Thx." I'm known for my 140 character literary skills.




Water Conservation As A Way Of Life

Out here in Santa Barbara, we haven’t seen rain since early spring and probably won’t get another drop until November. That’s our normal Mediterranean weather pattern, but this winter was especially dry.  Exhibits A and B were the devastating back-to-back fires that put Santa Barbara in the national headlines in November ’08 and May of this year.

If you’re reading this post from a desert or semi-arid region of the country, you probably know where I’m heading. Water conservation has been a way of life since the earliest settlements, though our shortsighted community planning and landscaping practices have not always reflected the best practices. Not long ago, while I was in Palm Springs, I was floored by the acres of bright green lawns that irrationally festoon the desert. It’s the same everywhere--since the post-World War II housing boom, suburbia = lawns.

It’s Not Just The West

But what about the rest of you? Did last year’s water panic in the Atlanta area catch you off guard? What about the specter of the shrinking Great Lakes or how upstate New York reservoirs have sunk to their lowest historic levels?

A simple trickle of water can provide movement and
sound to your garden.

Perhaps it’s just a passing cycle, just a blip. Maybe next year the skies will open up and we’ll all be fine. I’m usually a cockeyed optimist, but not anymore—not when it comes to the big unknowns of climate change.

I think it’s time for all gardeners to assess how their plant choices and water management practices will be affected by a potentially diminished water supply. How will you triage your share of this life-giving liquid if your water purveyor tells you to get by on half your current allocation?

Will you stop drinking, cooking, bathing or washing your clothes? Not likely. Will you drive a dirtier car? You can probably live with that. If you have enough water left to irrigate your garden, I’ll bet that your fruit trees and other edibles will win out over the “Sweet Juliet” David Austin rose you sprung for at the garden show. Maybe not. Murder your lawn? Worth considering.

Start Adapting Today

Here’s my point. Although there are still those who deny global climate change, the overwhelming body of science tells us it’s here, now. You can start creating a more sustainable, water-wise garden today. Here are a few suggestions to help you get started:

  • Many water agencies provide free water check-ups by trained experts to help you spot the easy fixes. Simple steps like fixing leaks, adjusting sprinklers and reprogramming your controller will reap big savings.
  • Move your landscape toward a more natural system by using native plants or those from similar climates to greatly reduce the need for supplemental watering.  
  • Trap water in rain gardens and retain moisture with a healthy layer of mulch. It’s just common sense.

In the thirty years that I have been designing sustainable landscapes for my clients, none have ever felt that they had sacrificed anything. Quite the contrary—their gardens are now more beautiful, more in harmony with the local environment and less of a financial drain.

In the remaining two installments of this series you’ll learn how simple modifications to your water management regimen and gardening practices, as well as minor changes in irrigation hardware, can reap huge benefits. You’ll lower your water bill, have more time to indulge in the fun part of gardening and help preserve a vital resource.

So for now, head out to your yard and write down three things you can do this weekend to make your garden a more water-wise paradise.

In the words of my governor, “I’ll be back.”

Read Part II.

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