Landscape solutions for drought conditions

We have had a very wet winter so far this year. Or so it appears. Typically we don’t get this much rain every season and weather prognosticators are still calling for a continued drought in the near future. With the sheer number of people living in the Southwest, our water usage is going through the roof.
With all this in mind, you have probably heard about dirty cars and brown lawns. In fact, in my travels throughout the county I have seen just that but at this juncture I think that this is more a result of the recession than it is the drought, another uncontrollable entity.
Nevertheless, when putting these two problems together and trying to be imaginative with new landscape design over the past few years, I have been lucky enough to find an interesting design formula that solves both drought and monetary issues nicely and creates a third desirable product.
Low maintenance.
We’re not just talking about green rock spread out on the sand in Sun City either. By removing the existing lawns surrounding most people’s homes, we can eliminate maintenance and lower water consumption in one fell swoop. Here’s how.
By working with my client or proposed yard in close communication, I like to introduce the principals of upper and lower story canopies, mounding, rock placement and plant palate. Typically we will begin by scalping the lawn in question (usually two to three inches below grade is sufficient. Then we install 10- to 12-foot-wide mounding where the old lawn was originally. The widths of the circular mounds depend on their independent location and your individual design sense.
By raising the elevation one to two feet, the new mounding can accomplish several things at once. First, it guarantees that no grass will return in this area since it has been effectively smothered with soils. It then helps effect interest and beauty by creating focus on any new trees located in these newly raised areas.
Small or even larger boulders and rocks can then be placed on the periphery or in the mounds and support the soils for specimen tree planting or erosion control. This concept helps trees succeed during transplant from their original containers because drainage and effective watering is a breeze into raised soils. Overwatering will perk away and oxygen and other gases can move easily through the loose substrate around the tree root ball.
At this point, design really plays an important part. Some designers opt for gravel, cobble river beds or beach pebble ground cover. These are all viable ideas for eliminating water use but the cost for these ground covering materials is dear. To be creative, a mix of rock, planting and wood chips placed around the plants is probably the most interesting and cost effective.
When placing plants, it is a good idea to do some homework and consult someone (in the know) about how big the plants will become, how fast they grow and where they might do best in terms of microclimate, sun and drainage needs.
Some hot tips for planting are to always back fill larger container plants with existing spoil or loamy sandy back fill and to plant your smaller filler plants in groups using a zig-zag configuration. That is, to plant your groups in a back and forth movement similar to the movement of a river coming down the mountain or the up and down movement of an oscillating sine wave.
Straight lines don’t look very natural. Make your placement look and feel comfortable. Small plants near the perimeter, taller to the back and so on. Clumping grasses effect movement in the design and will soften any lackings in your design without requiring much irrigation. Be careful to know the growth parameters of these grasses, however; a giant grass patch in the middle of the yard isn’t very attractive and creates its own host of problems.
My next column will focus on the secrets of plant placement and design, the importance of good drainage to the new landscape, how to change the existing lawn spray irrigation into something water saving and how to cost effectively install it with beauty in mind.

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