As water bills skyrocket, as more gardeners move to semi-arid locations and drought becomes a persistent problem, growers of all sorts want to know: what’s the most efficient way to conserve precious water? Xeriscaping — “scape” comes from landscape and xeros, in Greek, means “dry” — is the practice of smart, sustainable water use. Ideas discussed here include wise-watering techniques, rain gathering, choosing condition-tolerant plants, soil improvement, mulching — anything that results in the effective use of a valuable resource.

Accidental Garden, Natural Beauty

Natural GardeningXeric and natural landscapes ask, “What is a garden for?”

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That well-manicured lawn with its precisely-trimmed shrubs and hedges may look okay around an old-money McMansion, but is that what you want in your open space? With water-wise planting, conversion of labor-and-liquid-intensive lawns, and utilization of native plants, many of us are providing new answers to an old question: What is a garden for?

James Golden’s garden in a cleared patch of woods above the Delaware River in New Jersey is, as he says, good for nothing. But he doesn’t really mean it. His acreage is a jumble of native and exotic plannings, a sort of living collage constructed of many pieces, each having their own interest, but assembling into one attractive whole. (more…)

Summer Flowers For Color

Summer Garden ColorHere’s how to keep beautiful annual and perennial flowers blossoming in your garden all season long.

This is the time of year that your flower beds can start to look a little weary. You had beautiful blooms from late spring through the first weeks of July but now, in the heat, summer flowers are starting to fade. You can dead head all you want — this will keep some plants blooming into fall (one of the reasons we love marigolds) — but most flowers don’t want to make the effort once things turn hot and dry.

Still, there are ways — and plants, both annuals and perennials — that will keep color in your flower gardens well into fall. Like most things in the garden, they require some advance planning. If you’ve started seeds well into the season indoors, and chosen those seeds wisely, then you may have late-blooming annuals that will keep your landscape alive with color. Late blooming is just one of the traits we’re looking for. Drought tolerance, the ability to adapt to xeric conditions, is another. You may think that starting annuals to put out later in summer is a lot of work for little return. You might change your mind when you’re enjoying blossoms on labor day. Perennials, well, your return on investment will accrue season after season. (more…)

Xeric Landscapes, Works of Art

Santa Fe Botanical GardenOur correspondent in Santa Fe, New Mexico writes in about the city’s new botanical garden, a combination of artful design and water-wise planting:

(drawing by Lisa Flynn, courtesy of Santa Fe Botanical Garden) …

After several years of work and planning (and fundraising), Santa Fe’s new botanical garden, located on Museum Hill in the city’s high-and-dry southeast section, is about to open its first phase. Designed by renowned landscape architect and artist W. Gary Smith, this orchard garden phase incorporates artistic design of the sort Smith is known for even as it employs an emphasis on water conservation. (more…)

Garden Watering Tips, Vegetable Edition

Watering the GardenHow to conserve water while making sure your vegetable garden gets what it needs.

We’ve talked a lot about xeric landscapes, water-wise gardening, drought-tolerant plants, and the like, all good things. Conserving water is always a good thing, especially when you’re paying for it. But there’s one place where skimping on garden watering can have bad consequences, where thirty plants will drink up water more quickly than anywhere else and that’s your vegetable garden. Let’s face it. Vegetables are water intensive. It takes 16 gallons to grow a single head of lettuce. It’s estimated that 40% of all water use in the United Stages goes to growing food. (more…)

Plant a Thyme Lawn

Grass AlternativeThyme makes a good, natural lawn replacement. Here’s how to grow this attractive, drought-resistant herb instead of grass.

In an effort to reduce water use and time spent caring for lawns, some gardeners are replacing their turf with thyme. Thyme is an ideal grass alternative. It requires less water, is generally tough (see “walking on thyme” below), drought resistant, hardy all the way north to zone 4 if it’s healthy, and will spread easily to fill in most of the space that you want it to. Best thing: it becomes a carpet of attractive, lavender-colored flowers that lasts long into the season. If you’re looking to replace your thirsty grass with something more xeric, consider thyme.

There are down-sides to putting in a thyme lawn. It can be expensive. When you’re planting plugs of thyme 6 to 12 inches apart, you can burn up a lot of cash fast. Most sources recommend planting smaller areas. If you have a croquet court-sized yard (in other words, large) you might want to consider planting only part of it in thyme to start. You can always go back and expand your thyme planting another season. The other down-side is the labor it takes to get your thyme in the ground. You’ll need to kill off all the grass where you intend to plant first. This can be a slow and difficult process. (more…)

Lovin’ Daisies

Meadow DaisiesHow to grow all kinds of daisies in the garden or in pots.

“She loves me… she loves me not.” Whichever way the petals fall, one thing is certain. We all love daisies. When other flowers are fading away in late summer, daisies stand long and tall, gracing our landscapes with abundant blossoms. Even those of us who’ve seen them invade our lawn and realized how hard the hardy plants were to get rid of love some kind of daisy, even if we hate those particular (usually hybrid) daisies.

The kinds of flowers commonly called daisies are actually a smaller group than what’s in the daisy or asteracae (aster) family. That large group that counts some 600 species includes sunflowers as well as daisies, cone flowers, and asters. Our personal favorites are the tiny alpine daisies that grow above timber in the highest mountain passes. Here in the southwest, annual African daisies are popular for their varied colors and drought resistance. What’s known as the New England daisy or aster — and this is one of the great things about daisies — actually grows all across the country. (more…)

Xeriscaping Principles

Xeriscape GardeningAs many parts of the country move into the dry season (some parts are already there; others have the opposite problem), it’s a good time to consider xeriscaping principles in our gardens and landscapes.

What is xeriscaping? Simply stated, it’s water-wise gardening. It’s not just about the water we use (or don’t) during times of drought. It also addresses our use of diminishing water supplies as demand — from population and housing growth, agriculture, industry (especially the natural gas industry) and, yes, drought — continue to tax finite water supplies. Xeriscaping is a way of continuing to have enjoyable landscapes in the face of less and more expensive water use.

The details of xeriscaping are encyclopedic. They’re linked to local soil, native plant, and climactic factors. But the basic principles are simple, common-sense measures and are easy to apply almost anywhere. Here are the eight principles, with our comments, listed in David Salman and Cindy Bellinger’s aptly titled and useful reference Waterwise Garden Care: Your Practical Guide published by High Country Gardens Publications. (more…)

Lawns . . . Or No-Mow Yards?

No Mow LawnNo mow lawns are gaining a lot of attention and for good reason. In times of drought and increasing water bills, a water-intensive carpet of grass may not be practical. Some homeowners find raising their own organic vegetables where grass once grew a more effective use of space. Others find lawns just too much work and expense, especially when cared for using conventional, fertilizer-and-herbicide methods that result in harmful runoff and other environmental hazards.

Lawn alternatives are gaining in popularity what with the rise of xeriscape gardening and native-plant gardens. Evelyn J. Hadden’s book Beautiful No-Mow Yards: 50 Amazing Lawn Alternatives (Timber Press) makes plenty of arguments for replacing your grass with landscaping rocks and paving stones, with drought hardy indigenous plants, with vegetable gardens, or with shrubs and fragrant mixes of perennial and annual flowers and herbs. But before you plunge ahead, there’s still one important thing to consider… do you really want to get rid of your lawn?

Your friendly Planet Natural Blogger, a firm believer in function over form (but a lover of beautiful form as well), suggests you consider the use of your lawn. Is it a family gathering spot? Do you use it for play and recreation? Do you have children and pets with a need for outdoor activity? Do you like to picnic and just lay out on the grass? For all or any of these reasons (especially that one about children), you have a need for a lawn. But if its just a place to admire, walked on only when you’re mowing? Maybe not. (more…)

Sloping Backyard? Terrace Gardening

Terrace GardenTerracing — building level steps on sloping ground — is a technique that has been used since ancient times by farmers around the world to grow crops and gardens. Think the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the beautiful terraced rice paddies of Asia. Terraces are one of a landscapers great tools in steep and hilly country. If your property tilts as much or more as it runs level, you might want to consider terrace gardening in your yard.

As part of good backyard conservation practice terraces can play a role in xeriscaping and water conservation. Not only do they allow you to reclaim space from the hillside to plant vegetables or flowers and shrubs — terraces can be very decorative — they’re also a great hedge against water runoff and soil erosion. They can also create warmer, sunnier micro-climates for growing light-and-heat-loving plants and vegetables. Now — in the dead of winter — is the perfect time of year to start visualizing your hillside alive with tomatoes, trailing vines, and stands of beautiful blossoms. (more…)

Drought and the Home Garden

Summer Garden HeatNo doubt you’ve heard that 2012 was the hottest year on record in the United States. 2012 was also a year of severe drought in as much as 60% of the country. Winter has not alleviated the dry conditions and predictions for some areas see the drought continuing at least into the spring. Lesser known facts: the drought may have done more damage — some $60 to $100 billion worth — than Hurricane Sandi ($75 billion). The drought also contributed to the spread of the deadly carcinogenic mold aspergillis in last season’s corn crop. The fungus is deadly to humans as well as livestock. Scientific American reports that up to half of the corn crop in Missouri was contaminated with the mold. By contrast, 8% was damaged in 2011.

Drought — again depending on where you live — made itself known in your lawn and garden with higher water bills, more pest infestation, and smaller yields. While there’s still some disagreement among (mostly) reasonable people on the causes of our current heat and drought extremes — Global warming? Natural cycles? Some combination of both? — there’s one thing that can’t be denied. We must prepare for more of the same. (more…)

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