Friday, February 19, 2016

Need help creating a water-saving garden?

With drought conditions impacting many areas of the world, more gardeners are looking for ways to save water.  My husband and I have been water conscious for years - we installed our first drip irrigation system in the tiny garden I tended at our former home - but our consciousness was raised to a new level when we moved into our current place in December 2010.  Not only was our new property much larger and our water bill correspondingly much higher, but California entered a period of severe drought in 2012, complicating matters further.  Public notices about the drought began in 2013.  We began voluntary conservation measures in 2014 and, in 2015, mandatory water restrictions were implemented.  We'd managed to reduce our water use by about 25% in 2014 but the 36% reduction required of my community in 2015 (in relation to 2013 usage levels) was still painful.  With no end to the drought in sight, water saving remains an ongoing concern that informs most of my gardening decisions.  I'm constantly looking for ideas to up my game so I was very pleased when Pam Penick, author of the blog, Digging, and a book on lawn alternatives, Lawn Gone!, asked me if I'd like an advance copy of her newest book, The Water Saving Garden.  Of course, I said yes!

Reprinted with permission from The Water-Saving Garden, by Pam Penick, copyright © 2016, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.


Pam's new book is a logical extension of some of the themes in her prior book, which I've had on my shelf since it was published in 2013.  Pam pointed out that lawns don't make sense in many areas of the country, like the arid US Southwest, where they require unreasonable amounts of water to be kept looking good.  While I removed the lawn in my former garden because it was tiny and I didn't want to give up the space to something as boring as sod, I began removing lawn in stages in our current garden almost immediately after moving in largely because it was a water hog.  I admit that the decision to eliminate all of our remaining lawn, a step we took this past fall, wasn't easy but seeing photos of lawn-less gardens, like those in Pam's book, her blog, and other publications, got me over the hump.

Photo of my front garden in December 2011 when it still was mostly lawn (left) and the same area in 2015 following removal of the lawn and replanting


Recognizing that many people have reservations about low-water gardens based on preconceived notions about what those gardens are like, Pam starts her new book with a look at a range of water-saving gardens in different styles and different parts of the country.  She points out that reducing water use doesn't automatically dictate use of cactus and rock.  While I've become very interested in succulents in recent years and portions of my garden are allocated to such plants, I also rely heavily on a range of Mediterranean plants that are adapted to drought conditions.  Very few people who see my Grevilleas and Leucadendrons turn up their noses.  In fact, some seem to think I must be gaming the water restrictions with such beautiful specimens in my garden.

Grevillea 'Peaches & Cream' in my front garden

And almost everyone who strolls along our street offers positive comments on my succulent garden.



The second section of Pam's book is focused on water capture and retention.  Her suggestions include everything from permeable paving to the use of rain barrels to increasing shade cover.  We were lucky enough to inherit permeable paving with our current house.

The permeable paving in our front driveway, sporting moss growing between the pavers after rain


We've added flagstone paths as we've removed our lawns but all of these have ample spacing to allow rain to seep into the soil.

The gaps between our flagstones are filled with creeping thyme


As anyone who regularly reads my blog knows, I advocate rain collection.  I brought one 50-gallon rain barrel with me when we moved in but I've since added 2 more, a 160-gallon tank and a behemoth 265-gallon tank, which in total has given me 475 gallons of water collection capacity.  My collected rainwater has seen me through some difficult dry periods, while allowing us to keep our water usage well below the budget allocated by our water service provider, despite our 36% reduction target.  As Pam points out in her book, it's truly amazing how much rain one can collect off the average roof.  I was down to about 50 gallons of rainwater earlier this week but, with just over a half inch of rain on Wednesday night, I estimate I'm back up close to 350 gallons.

My largest rain tank, situated out of sight behind our garage, collects rain from the roof gutters 

If time and circumstances permit it, I also collect rain flowing down the rain chain outside our dining room in trugs.  I use some of this to water plants under roof overhangs with any excess going into whichever collection tank still has capacity.


Pam's book also describes ways of sculpting gardens to retain rainwater using berms, microbasins, swales and terraces.  I've done a little experimenting with the first two but, had I read her book earlier, I think I would have factored these strategies into my plans in a more deliberate way.

The third section of the book is focused on planting.  Losing, or at least shrinking, lawn areas is one theme.  In addition, Pam emphasizes use of adapted natives (with appropriate admonitions to define "natives" in terms of one's own microclimates), as well as other adapted plants.  Importantly, she also emphasizes the need to time planting with the needs of the plants in mind.  In California, if not all of the Southwest, that means doing the majority of one's planting in the fall.  I got that message years ago but continue to be frustrated by the difficulty of procuring the plants I want within the right planting window.  Local nurseries and garden centers generally sell most plants when they're in bloom or about to bloom rather than when they should be planted to ensure the development of healthy root structures.  In time, I hope they'll adjust their practices and expend more effort educating their customers.  I know from experience that planting at other times here, even in early spring, can be a recipe for disappointment.

The fourth section of Pam's book addresses the creation of the illusion of water in the garden.  This is a topic I haven't seen covered much in other books dealing with drought, water-saving or summer-dry gardens.  She talks about the value of recirculating water features and the use of both plants and stone to evoke the impression of plentiful water to visually cool garden spaces.  Like all the other sections of her book, this one is accompanied by lots of beautiful photos to prompt the reader's thought processes.

This photo from my own garden shows just how a simple recirculating fountain adds life to a garden


The final section of Pam's new book is a selection of 101 water-saving plants.  Of the plants she listed, I have more than one third in the same genera, if not always the same species.  My beloved Grevilleas and Leucadendrons didn't make the list but I admit that they're not adapted to broad sections of the country so I'll forgive Pam that omission.

Leucadendron 'Wilson's Wonder' in my front garden


Pam's offer of the book was without obligation.  I offer this review out of my own enthusiasm for the book and the subject matter.  If you're concerned about water conservation but aren't sure how to get started, or simply want to step up your game by creating a more sustainable garden, I recommend picking up Pam's book.  It's scheduled for release on February 23rd but advance orders can be placed now.


All material © 2012-2016 by Kris Peterson for Late to the Garden Party

26 comments:

  1. It must have been quite a life style adjustment to reduce your water use by 36 %.

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    1. The 36% water reduction was quite a blow, Diana, especially as the area we moved from (just 15 miles away) has only a 20% reduction. My current community consists of larger properties, which is part of the difference, but the population here was clearly more casual about water use too and we're all paying the price now. The new restrictions had a lot to do with elimination of the last of our lawn, as well as the purchase of the additional rain collection tanks.

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  2. Beautiful photos of your garden, Kris. Your gardens are so much more lovely than was the original lawn, and I really like the shot of your thyme covered flagstone path--so lush.

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    1. The thyme and flagstones have become unifying elements in the garden too - an added benefit.

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  3. Thanks for the great review of Pam's new book! I'm looking forward to checking it out.

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    1. I know that drought conditions have crept into areas of the PNW too so, as you make design changes, it's definitely worth factoring water concerns into your thought process, Alison.

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  4. I think that your 'after' picture of the front of your house looks much more attractive. A huge improvement! :-) (I forwarded this post to my friends in Upland, who might find it helpful.)

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    1. I hope it, and Pam's book, may be helpful to them, Eliza, since there doesn't seem to be any chance of getting Mother Nature to redirect some of your snow our way!

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  5. Interesting that she covers how to create the illusion of water. I've been thinking of that for my garden, and may have to get the book for that reason. It's not a topic I've seen covered on other books.

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    1. Pam's book includes some luscious photos of the Scottsdale Xeriscape Demonstration Garden you might like, Renee. What was done with rock there never ceases to impress me.

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  6. Great review, your watersaving approach is a beautiful example of how much more enjoyable gardens are in place of lawn. I like how you illustrated the ideas in the book with your own gorgeous watersaving plants. Your rain barrels are great too, we need to do that but our house has no gutters so that's a challenge.

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    1. We were also lucky that the house came with rain gutters, Shirley. However, the garage didn't so my husband added them there when we ordered our extra-large rain tank. It's not a fun job but it's do-able as a DIY project.

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  7. Kris, this is possibly the best review of a gardening book I've ever read. I love how you illustrate the concepts Pam talks about in her book using photos from your own garden. If I hadn't already ordered the book, I'd run--not walk--to order it right now. Well done!

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    1. Thanks Gerhard! I hope you enjoy Pam's book.

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  8. Great post! The book sounds excellent, I will look for it. In a way the drought has been good--so educational as to how much less water the garden really needs--less than I thought. Your home looks so much better now with all the beautiful plants. The lawn was not nearly as pretty.

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    1. I agree - the drought has been educational, if also frustrating and a bit painful. I remember reading that similar comments were made by Australians after they coped with their own severe drought. I wonder if the world's population wouldn't have a similar epiphany if we could hunker down and grapple definitively with the issue of climate change. If only we didn't have to learn these lessons the hard way!

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  9. Your garden is a testament to successful low water gardening. I think your garden is much more interesting since you removed the lawn. Your rain barrels are a great idea!

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    1. I love my rain barrels, Deb. Now, if only someone would come up with an easy way pressurize the output from the barrels to make using the water less labor intensive!

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  10. Excellent review Kris! I've been reading Pam's book too and really appreciate your photos and personal commentary. You're living the life!

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    1. I'm trying, Loree, although I would have appreciated it if El Nino had given us some short-term relief this winter instead of sending all our rain up your way!

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  11. I love the before and after shots of your garden! I've been seriously thinking in terms of climate-adapted plants, mostly plants that can handle summer drought, the last 2 or three years. I don't think I'll ever get rid of all the "lawn" (it's really just field grasses and weeds mowed short) at my parents' house, unfortunately, but at least we don't water it.

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    1. Our lawn wasn't much more than weeds and bermuda grass either. I'm thankful to have it gone but I do miss the green space that gave the eye a place to rest. Between the creeping thyme and ornamental grasses in the Seslaria and Festuca genera, I hope to have a replacement of sorts.

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  12. Great review, especially the gorgeous examples from your own garden. I look forward to reading Pam's second book as I enjoyed her first a great deal.

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    1. It's a good read, Peter. I hope your water issues up north don't reach the proportions of SoCal's anytime in the foreseeable future but the careful use of the earth's resources is never a bad thing.

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  13. Great post, Kris. You are an inspiration and make me realise I should be collecting more of our water to use for my plants even though our well seems to have enough water I still try not to use more then is necessary.

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    1. In your area, at least rainwater isn't directed into the sewer system and ultimately into the ocean, as it is here, Christina. So much of our limited rain is wasted but you may find it useful to capture some of yours to ensure you can use it where you most need it.

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