Drought resiliency is normally thought of as the ability to spring back after a drought or maybe it means tolerant of drought. But when a plant is stressed by having little water, its ability to survive and even thrive is influenced by other factors, some of which are Health, Vitality, Strength and Immune function.
The word Sustainability has become popular as a goal, but the word is too static. A more active word is Re-generative. We can “create” gardens that not only can maintain, but also support the abilities of Life to regrow, multiply, defend itself against predators and add to the vitality of other living things around it.
Many humans tend to think about resiliency from a self-centered view, like “give the plant a strong fertilizer to make it big and strong” or “kill anything that wants to eat it or give it a disease”, lift if up from the yucky clay into a nice raised bed, or plant it in sterilized soilless potting mix so it can be free of bad things.
But Nature has another approach to resiliency that is community centered. It can be called bio-diversity or symbiosis or mutual aid or natural balance. With this systems approach, instead of strengthening the individual, Nature strengthens the ecosystem and all the individuals benefit. Instead of killing off anything that threatens, if there is diversity, there are natural populations of beneficial insects that expand if there are more aphids to eat. Survival capacity increases as the community of individuals support each other.
So from a practical perspective, if we want to make our gardens more resilient to drought and other environmental changes, we need to support the Soil and the Soil Life, we need to plant a wide range of different kinds of plants, we need to think beyond plants to the insects, birds and microorganisms that also inhabit a garden, we need to adopt an attitude of tolerance to Life so we are not killing off the allies of plants, and we need to give our attention to the details of our gardens so we can learn to care for the Life and Nature there.
This does not have to be drudgery. It does not have to be perfect. But in fact, caring for Life is a joy that actually heals us and makes us happy. It’s true. And being around plants, especially healthy plants, helps us to heal physically and emotionally. So the human-plant relationship is genuinely symbiotic: we naturally benefit from each other.
Steve Jones, author of the Boulder County Almanac and other books studies local weather and he reported that 2016 was the first drier-than-average year we’ve had since 2012 AND follows the wettest 3-year span during Boulder’s 125 year recorded weather history. And last year was very wet in March and April with 4″ each month, then 2″ in May and very very dry the rest of the year. Those of us who thought it was a wet year, lost plants, even trees if we didn’t water more than usual in the fall. So far this year we’ve had close to 7″ of precipitation which is good for Colorado, but we can’t count on anything. The point is that we can never assume there will be enough water for our gardens, so it is wise to design and maintain our gardens as xeriscapes—as water-smart gardens. If you do, when the drought comes, you will still have a garden even after watering restrictions. That is resiliency.
So how do we do that?
Here, I am going to pause for a moment of truth: I’ve been to a lot of talks myself, and I know if you are like me, you will not remember most of what I say, so I’m going to make a few strong points, while we are all awake. Then I will answer questions, and if you run out of questions, I will go into some more details.
1) After 30 years of people trying to grow xeriscapes, there are many good examples of water-smart gardens and you will learn more visiting those gardens and growing plants in your own yards, than you can from listening to information. My first xeriscape garden at our nursery Harlequin’s Gardens, is now 30 years old and it has been watered on average 5 times a year. I invite you to come out to visit that garden and the other gardens at out nursery, because none of them is watered more than once a week. And the other reason that I think you should see them is that they are home-style gardens, not managed and maintained to be in Fine Gardening Magazine. They ain’t perfect, but they are beautiful.
2) It is not against xeriscape rules to have a lawn. It is smarter to have a small lawn. My friend Jim Knopf says Kentucky Bluegrass has a drinking problem. But here’s how to have a xeriscape lawn: grow it organically so you don’t kill the soil life, aerate it at least every 2 years followed with a slow-acting organic fertilizer twice a year and fine compost topdressing right after the aeration every 2 years. Water it deeply for no more than twice a week (maybe 3 in July). To save water or if we have restrictions, stop watering and let the lawn go dormant in July and August, then resume watering in September. Visit the CSU website on lawns for details. Get a Free Irrigation Audit from the Center for Resource Conservation.
3) Be a Soil Life Gardener. Feed your soil and the soil will feed your plants. Soil is not just physical and chemical; it is also biological and electrical. The Soil Food Web is the digestive system of the plant world. We have our biology Inside us that helps break down food into simpler forms that our body can use. Plants have their digestive biology Outside of their bodies. (explain how it works)
Almost all of our soils are deficient in organic matter and nitrogen. We all need to learn more about cover-cropping and mulching. In the mean time, it is good to add compost in 2″ layers (locally sourced and biologically alive) This organic matter puts carbon in the soil where it can build fertility, instead of in land fills where it makes methane. And you can add expanded shale create more porosity that holds air and water.
4) There are hundreds of low-water plants. Our nursery, Harlequin’s Gardens specializes in xeriscape plants and when you come out you will see a mind-boggling variety of plants for xeriscapes. Some people think that we should only use native plants, and even though we also specialize in native plants, there are many really great non-natives. And some people think that they want to never irrigate their garden, and that is possible, but even with 5 waterings a year, you can have much more variety and diversity.
5) Watering: Jim Knopf who has been xeriscaping for more than 30 years and who is the author of The Xeriscape Flower Gardener agrees with me that a true xeriscape is watered no more than once a week. Of course you could water for 5 hours once a week or 5 minutes, so this is only a vague guideline. I usually water for a half hour each time. But the idea is that you should water enough for the water to penetrate at least 6 inches. We often get rains that seem like they really watered the garden, but if we dig down, we will find that it is wet only 2″ deep. So the only way to know if you have watered the right amount is to dig down 2″, the 4″ then 6″ and ask Is it dry, moist or soggy. More plants are killed from overwatering than from underwatering. That is because plant need oxygen just as much as they need water.
6) Trees, Vegetables and Fruit: these are not xeriscape plants. They need soil with more organic matter, more fertilizer and minerals and more water. Use organic fertilizers, innoculate with mycorrhizae or compost tea and mulch with a fine wood chip mulch, straw, dry grass clippings or whatever you’ve got. If it is raw carbon like fresh wood chips, put down a dusting of a nitrogen fertilizer to feed the microorganisms. Compost is good, but compost is not fertilizer.
7) And finally, don’t be in a big hurry to be done. We are never done in the garden. Like my wife and partner, Eve, says “A garden is not furniture. It will not stay the same.” So relax, accept some insect damage. If you don’t see holes in your leaves, there are not enough insects to feed the birds. Caterpillars are big eaters, because they have to change a lot to become butterflies and moths. The higher the nutritional value in your plants, the less insects will be able to digest them. Phytonutrients that we value in “nutrient-dense foods” because they make us healthy are the chemical warfare plants produce to defend themselves. Plants are really smart. Learn from them. And most insects, most fungi and most bacteria are beneficial or do no harm to our gardens. So in general, kill less and support more.