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Helpful tips on how to save water and create a thriving garden in a desert climate

Spring is just around the corner — and whether you’re a novice plant enthusiast or a green-thumbed gardener, it’s time to get growing.

After a seven-year drought finally came to an end this winter, California has been hit with a deluge of vibrant greenery and super blooms. But we’re still keeping an eye out for how to make our own backyards more sustainable and water-friendly.

“The tropical gardens of old are not appropriate for our drought-prone San Diego,” said Jennifer Galey, environmental educator at the Solana Center for Environmental Innovation.

We chatted with Galey and seasoned gardener Pat Welsh — author of “Pat Welsh’s Southern California Organic Gardening: Month by Month” and a member of the Del Mar Gardening Club — for tips on how to save water in your garden, and maintain a yard well-adapted to the typically dry California climate.

Saving the last drops

With more rainfalls still on their way, Galey points to rain barrels as a useful way of capturing the last of that nutritious winter rain water and putting it to good use.

“I let no water leave my property, I capture it all,” Galey said.

Rain barrels will hold about 50 gallons of water, but Galey also outfits her barrel with a hose during a heavy rain, taking advantage of excess water in order to deep water her fruit trees.   

The San Diego County Water Authority’s Sustainable Landscape Guidelines advise adding a rain barrel or cistern to the bottom of your home’s downspout to collect stray rain, rather than letting it become surface runoff on its way to our bluffs and beaches.

‘Water deeply and infrequently’

Welsh recommends gardeners water “deeply and infrequently, not shallowly and often,” and use drip irrigation to help cultivate vegetables in raised beds, for example.

Drip irrigation is a micro-irrigation system that gets water right to the roots of a plant — unlike spray irrigation, which may distribute water inefficiently.

“It’s really the best because you can put water exactly where you need it,” Galey said, advising that plants are watered in the morning so the water doesn’t evaporate as quickly.

It’s all about the mulch

Mulch: it might look like just a pile of twigs but it could be the key to creating a healthy garden. Blanketed over the soil, mulch helps the soil hold in water and protects it from excess sun exposure.

“Mulch is like a roof for your garden,” Galey said. “ … mulch is the best way to save water in Southern California.

According to the Solana Center website, mulch not only saves water by slowing evaporation, but also adds nutrients to the soil and stymies weed growth.

What to plant, and where?

Welsh recommends avoiding a “spotty” garden, and instead opting to plant big drifts of “spectacular, drought-resistant” plants such as pride of madeira, clivia, wisteria and bougainvillea. She also suggests using native plants that are well-suited for gardens, such as California holly, California lilacs or western redbud.

“Let the backbone of your garden consist of colorful, drought-resistant Mediterranean plants and California native plants,” she said.

As for annuals, Welsh points to plants that reseed themselves annually with the rains — like paludosum daisy or madeira geranium.

Galey recommends pairing thirsty plants with thirsty plants — creating zones for plants that need more water, and likewise, separate areas for those that need less.

For more information on rain barrels or creating a more eco-friendly garden, visit https://www.solanacenter.org/, or check out the San Diego County Water Authority’s Sustainable Landscape Guidelines.

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