Water is essential to life.
This is a fact that will surprise no one. Most gardening “problems” we hear about relate to over-watering. Indeed, we are better at killing our plants with kindness than ignoring them.
As we enter the second half of the gardening season, we recommend that you think about water. This summer we have experienced periods of heat and drought. What have we learned from this experience? With a few basic principles in mind you can enjoy a fabulous garden while minimizing the use of water and the time spent watering.
Here is what we recommend:
Use a rain barrel
An old story, but a good one. Place a rain barrel at the bottom of a downspout and collect the warm, oxygen-rich water that falls from the sky. Plants perform better when watered with it and it is free. So that’s two good reasons to give this a go. When there is no rain and your barrels are empty, fill them from your garden hose. Let the water warm with the summer temperatures. Plants prefer it.
Eliminate hard surfaces
Removing asphalt or cement pavers is a great start, though tough work. But once you have minimized the hard surfaces in your yard, replace them with permeable pavers, gravel or plants. Low-growing plants that will withstand some foot traffic include creeping thyme (flowers/scent), Irish moss (looks great) and creeping oregano (you might have to discourage the chef in the house from over foraging).
A lawn is still the most sophisticated living groundcover out there. You will need a minimum of six hours of sunshine per day to grow a good lawn. During a drought, it will become brown and even a bit crispy. Do not worry about this. The best time of year to sow grass seed arrives in a couple of weeks. More in a later column.
Build a green roof
Green roofs absorb enormous amounts of water, cool the area beneath, and divert heavy rain away from the storm water sewers.
Mark built green roofs on two of the sheds on his property. If he can do it, anyone can. Place a water barrier between the planting and the soil and make sure that the structure is built to withstand the weight of wet soil. Plant it up with sempervivums and sedums. A year or two after they are planted, they can take all the heat and drought you throw at them. They flower too, early to mid summer. Look at Mark’s “gas shed”, a photo taken the first week of July.
Plant for drought and heat.
The plants that we choose have a lasting impact on the water that we use to sustain them. Look for perennial plants that put down a drought-resistant root. Here are some of our favourites:
Hosta – Grows well in dry shade. Flowers annually, attracting hummingbirds. Growth habits range from a mere six centimetres across to a full metre in breadth and height.
Sweet Woodruff – Rises early in spring and produces attractive white flowers.
Pachysandra – Evergreen, hardy to zone 5 (Guelph). Attractive and easy to grow. Matures at about 20-25 cm. Glossy green leaves. Indestructible, even if you have a dog, but not one that digs.
Ornamental grasses – There are dozens, if not, hundreds to choose from. They grow slowly in spring but take off in the heat of summer. All ornamental grasses tolerate heat and drought once established.
Echinacea and Black-Eyed Susan – Two of the most popular native flowers for good reason. Pollinators love them, long flowering from late June to fall.
Peonies – Spectacular June flowers. Attractive foliage for the balance of the season.
Sedums and sempervivums – As per the green roof idea.
Relax. A great garden is possible without overwatering.
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and member of the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at markcullen.com, @markcullengardening, and on Facebook.
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- GREENFILE: Create a meadow that can be enjoyed by people, animals and pollinators
- GREENFILE: The pollinator corridor