With droughts continuing this year in 18 states, and water use restrictions putting the pinch on many gardeners, the passing of summer into fall probably couldn't come any sooner. Although summer rains brought relief to some, dryness has become the norm over the last several years. What's the drought-stressed homeowner to do? First of all, conserve water and make wise decisions before buying plants and shoving them into the ground. That means having a long-term plan, a xeriscape plan. Whether you're drought-afflicted or not, xeriscaping is just common sense and worth doing in any garden.
The first step is to observe how drainage, sun exposure and shade, and natural water levels affect different parts of your property. Where is the ground terminally moist, such as around gutter downspouts or other drainage areas? Where does the sun beat unrelentingly, and where does shade dominate? Remember that conditions fluctuate with the seasons, creating changes in moisture and sun exposure. Create a map showing characteristics of the various "mini-regions" within your yard. These will determine your selection of plants and watering needs.
The next step is to pick your plants according to conditions. Remember those little plastic tags on the plants at the nursery, saying "full sun," "partial sun," etc.? Any place that gets more than 6 hours of sun must be considered a full sun location. Don't worry about having your green thumbs tied together by light and water restrictions, you'll find more than enough varieties suited to different requirements. Talk to your nursery staff and match the plants to what they prefer, don't stick a shade lover in the bright sun and try to adapt it by overwatering.
It doesn't hurt to choose hardier, drought-resistant species these days. You'll reduce your water bill as well as your anxieties. Native plants are frequently the best choice for at least part of your xeriscape for obvious reasons. They are successful and ubiquitous because they adapted naturally, so they're likely to thrive without too much help. Ask your nursery staff or local extension service about kinds of plants suited to local conditions, including drought-tolerant types. Be sure to avoid some of the popular water-dependent types such as impatiens and caladium. You should have ground covers and perennials adorning the landscape with ample color and shapes to choose from.
Finally, water wisely. You can conserve water and provide the initial moisture that new plantings need to get started. For example, time your planting during the wet season, so new plants can adapt. Continue to add enough moisture to develop healthy roots. If you need to water, be sure to water only when the soil really needs it. If you saturate the soil far enough to reach the roots, chances are the lower layers will retain enough moisture even when the top two inches of soil are baking in the sun. Finally, select slow-release fertilizers and apply according to label rates. They're worth the slightly higher price because they contribute less to nutrient pollution in waterways and last longer than inferior fertilizers.
Sources used to create this article include Jon Vanzile and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.