You say you want to conserve water but don’t want to cover your property with gravel and cactus? For herb lovers, the news is very good: plenty of herbs actually thrive in dry conditions.
Using water wisely is important in any climate, but in dry climates it’s essential. For years, Colorado gardener Cris Call has been cultivating garden plants that require minimal water. During the ultra-dry summer of 2002, she discovered that most of her plants survived just fine. Just one time in June last year she watered by hand a section of honeysuckle on the back of her lot. It thrived with only the very skimpy natural precipitation that fell during the rest of the summer.
Using less water can benefit your garden and your water bill — even though it might take some getting used to. Mike Gould, of Water-wise Landscape Design, says gardening with low-water perennials, rather than simply covering your landscape with grass, may reduce water use by 50 percent over time.
Although “Xeriscape™” sounds suspiciously like “zero,” don’t let the term put you off. You won’t be sentenced to a yard full of gravel. The Denver Water Department coined the term in the early 1980s — combining the Greek word for dry, xeros, with landscape — to increase awareness of water conservation practices, not to suggest zero water use. In fact, Xeriscapes can be lush and beautiful, in addition to their practicality in dry climates. All it takes is water-conscious planning and careful plant selection.
If you live in an area with drought-like conditions or restricted watering, mid- to late summer is not the time to attempt to establish new plants, but observing the survival skills of existing xeric plants while planning for the future may prevent wasting water on landscaping in the years to come. Let “survival of the fittest” rule: If an herb grows well in your climate and you like it, it earns its place in the garden; you can plant more the following year while you trial other plants to expand the diversity of the garden. Call says when she moved into her house 11 years ago, the shrub roses were the only living plant on the property — so she planted more shrub roses. Regarding other plant selections, she says, “Plants don’t read the gardening books, so you just have to experiment. You never can tell what will grow well.” Call’s rule for her garden is, “If it dies out, I replace it with something else.”
A plant’s origins can tell you the conditions it prefers, so look for other plants native to the same dry regions. Talk to neighbors and staff at garden centers to find out what grows well for them. Don’t waste your time with fussy, high-maintenance plants. Follow Call’s rule: If you find a particular plant too demanding, just grow something else. Check with local water conservation or Xeriscape organizations for more information.
Dawna Edwards is a Colorado native who enjoys dry-climate gardening.