SUMMIT COUNTY – The saying “plants don’t waste water – people do” means gardeners needn’t give up their passion for plants to conserve water each summer.
Sunny skies and high temperatures are a prominent reminder that water is a precious resource in arid Colorado. However, with a little planning, the right plants and an efficient watering system, gardeners can have a beautiful garden without using a lot of water.
One of the basic strategies to a waterwise garden is evaluating your yard and planting according to exposure, the plant professionals at Neils Lunceford Nursery in Silverthorne advise.
For example, south- and west-facing slopes will lose water to evaporation faster than those facing north or east. Sloped areas are more likely to waste water from runoff than flat areas, where the water stays in one place.
Consider planting drought-tolerant plants, which don’t require a lot of water once established. Other options include terracing to decrease runoff and planting shrubs and trees to create shade in sunny areas.
Work the soil
Like humans, plants with access to nutrients will be healthier than those without, said Robin McEachern, nursery manager at Neils Lunceford. Summit County’s clay soils will lose water to runoff, and sandy soils will not retain water for a plant’s roots.
Nursery professionals recommend adding organic material, like moss or compost, to the soil to prevent runoff and help retain water.
Neils Lunceford recommends planting only annuals for the first year or two – until the soil can be worked easily. The annuals will add to the organic matter in the soil as they die each autumn, and by the third year, the area should be ready for perennials.
Many homeowners and gardeners mistakenly assume yellow grass or dying plants is the result of lack of water, said Tom Vitalone, owner of High Country Irrigation and Landscaping. The problem often is not a lack of water but a lack of nutrients. Fertilize regularly to ensure your plants and lawn have the proper nutrients.
“The healthier a plant is, the more likely it is to survive a time of stress,” McEachern said.
The right place and time
Many gardening professionals recommend using drip irrigation to water. Not only does this method of watering use the least amount, but it also gets water deep into the soil to promote healthy roots, Vitalone said.
The deeper a plant’s roots are, the more likely it is to survive, McEachern said, because it is more likely to find water on its own. If you water on the surface only, not allowing for penetration, the plant will develop a shallow root system.
The time of day you water also is vital to water conservation. Make sure you water in the early morning or evening only. Watering during the heat of the day increases the chance of evaporation, Vitalone said. Winds also tend to pick up during the day, increasing water waste by blowing it onto pavement and other areas.
Vitalone and McEachern both recommend topping the soil in gardens with mulch, which will help prevent evaporation and keep the soil moist.
Choose native, drought-tolerant plants
Because Colorado has an arid climate, plants that grow here naturally are adapted to the dry conditions.
Native grasses are drought-tolerant and tend to require less water than turf grasses, such as Kentucky bluegrass, McEachern said. Drought-tolerant grasses include sheep, Idaho and Rocky Mountain fescue and slender and Western wheat grass.
Drought-tolerant bushes include rabbitbrush, sage, common juniper and potentilla, and recommended trees are bristlecone and lodgepole pine.
There are a number of drought-tolerant annuals and perennials, including basket-of-gold, blue fescue, fireweed, hens and chicks, horehound, Indian paintbrush, lavender, California and Oriental poppy, silverweed and yarrow.
Choosing hardy plants native to the area also will increase the chance of success for those new to gardening at Summit County’s high elevations.
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