There was a humorous comment on the Canadian Gardening Facebook fan page the other day in which a lady who was attempting to apply water-wise gardening practices to her own yard admitted that her landscape was not so much “xeriscape” as “zeroscape,” meaning she thought she had nothing to work with: her soil was poor, she couldn’t plant a stitch that would grow, and she was clearly despairing. Aside from the play on words which delights me to no end, the topic was really timely for me as I just completed an online course about water-wise gardening through Northern Lakes College in Slave Lake, AB. Instructor and urban garden guru Ron Berezan gave a really informative presentation about the principles of xeriscaping, and although the content was directed at the mostly northern residents that attended (who don’t have nearly the same problems with water as we do in the dry south of the province), he successfully outlined several key points that can be used regardless of location or annual rainfall amounts.
Obviously, most of the water in Alberta is surface water and it is clearly not going to keep running forever. It’s not necessary to get into a discussion of the all the whys and wherefores and who is to blame; it’s a simple fact. Gardening is one area where – with intelligent choices and decisions – we can arrest the wasteful usage of water and creatively produce thriving, living plants (including those for eating). Xeriscaping principles include planting drought tolerant species (and that doesn’t always mean “native” – bear in mind that “native” doesn’t always mean “local,” either. A native plant can be one that grows in North America, for example, but won’t do well in the subalpine region near Fort MacMurray, or in dry, hot Milk River), and being aware of which species are appropriate to grow in the several microclimates of the yard. That bog area out back by the fence won’t produce really great wolf willow shrubs, perhaps, but throw a silver willow tree in there if there is room and it might be happy. Plants need to be grown according to their cultural requirements, which sounds simple, but isn’t always. It requires research and experimentation. While we’re at it, we should also pay attention to multi-level planting, where various storeys of properly-planted (for their individual cultures) species assist one another by cycles of water uptake, holding and respiration. I know I’m lousy at these things: at this point with my perennial beds, I usually put plants wherever I have available space, not necessarily where they would be best suited. And I have barely regarded multi-level planting, except to put the tall delphs behind the short flax…that’s the depth of my planning. It’s more than that, though.
Making sure soil is full of the proper amount of organic matter is a challenge for those of us who have the dreaded clay of the foothills…we can compost until the cows come home and it doesn’t matter a whit. But it’s necessary: more organic matter means more water holding capacity. There is more to it, of course, but it all comes down to the fact that healthy soil is the very best water trap there is, and it will boost plant growth and welfare the proper way. We can aid the soil by artificially contouring the land to help hold water (check out the video on YouTube called “Greening the Desert,” about a dramatic permaculture water harvesting experiment created in Jordan by an Aussie research team headed by Geoff Lawton – it’s astonishing), and we can do the obvious stuff like using rainbarrels etc.. And we should definitely use organic mulches, and we should pay very close attention to when we water and how we water. The truth is, most of us are guilty of leaving the sprinklers on at full bore in the middle of a hot August afternoon and not only are we watering the sidewalk to boot, we’re shocking the plants and encouraging evaporation. And really, if planted properly, with attention and concern to their requirements, most plants (and this includes the lawn!) do not need as much water as we think they do. Berezen also makes a significant case for the use of grey water to irrigate non-edible plants – I don’t see this happening in Alberta on a large-scale any time soon, but may be a seriously valid consideration for the future. In the meantime, perhaps, I’ll add a few more shovelfuls of compost to my own flowerbeds this spring, and I think I’ll be moving some perennials around….