Can a lush lawn be a waterwise lawn?

Gardening experts offer tips and tricks for a lush, eco-friendly garden in our waterwise gardeners roundtable.

Credit: Nan Sterman

Carol Pope:

Can a gardener truly have a lush, abundant garden using waterwise techniques, or is a waterwise garden condemned to having a shriveled, dry, spindly feel?

Mary Ann Newcomer:
I love this question! I am working hard to dispel this notion of waterwise gardens as dry, boney-thorny cactus and driftwood installations. Just because you live in an area with little water does not mean that, as a gardener, the desert palette is all you have to work with. No. Icccccck!

The first and easiest way to move away from the gravelly boney look is to go for colour. Gardeners must exercise wild abandon with colour when planting their gardens. Think tropical: hot pink, purple, orange, red and gold. Use colour for garden walls, art and furniture.

More from the Waterwise Gardeners Roundtable:

Reform a guzzler garden

Waterwise quick fixes

Recycling garden waste

Waterwise tips for new gardeners

Eco-friendly lawns

A healthy-looking lawn

Herbicides and pesticides

Growing food on less water

Eco-friendly ponds

In fact, I think we really need to (for a time at least) turn away from this old notion of using grey/silver/bleached white/sulfur yellow in waterwise gardens and pump up them up instead with red, purple and blue. In big doses.

Next, plant in clusters—three, five, seven of each plant if you have the room—and plant as close as possible for that cottage garden look. Waterwise, adapted and xeric plants can be used the same way traditional perennials can be used.

Add water. Not to the plants, but a self-contained, re-circulating water feature uses very little water, yet provides the sound of water, and the sound is very effective.

Waterwise gardens should be designed like well-executed impressionist paintings; think of a Monet painting: you know it’s a water lily even if you can’t clearly see the water lily. You can give the impression of abundant and lush without using the water typically required to create abundant and lush.

Paul J. Tukey:
I’ve now travelled to 39 states, including Hawaii, in my mission to spread the word about environmentally friendly gardening, and I can say with certainty that being waterwise doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice beauty, any more than going “organic” means going “ugly.”

In the case of water, it comes down to two primary considerations: soil preparation and plant selection. One of the best examples of this can be seen at the San Antonio Botanic Gardens in Texas, which has to endure droughts almost every year. A few years ago, they installed an exhibit titled Watersaver Lane, a series of home fronts with varying levels of xeriscapes and lawns, trees and shrubs that are all doing well and looking beautiful without supplemental water.

Nan Sterman:

For years now, my “goal in life,” has been to figure out how to create the most beautiful garden I can on as little water as possible—and to teach others how to do the same. Up until recently, that concept was “lunatic fringe.” Now, I seem to be the “it” girl. I’m not complaining…

The best way to answer Carol’s question is to show some photos of my low water front border, along with a friend’s garden I did a few years ago.

Our part of San Diego County gets less than 10 inches of rain annually—all of it in winter. California’s freshwater resources are dwindling and realistically, we are at a crisis point. We have to change our expectations of beauty, and the sooner, the better.

I have, create and help others create lush, abundant waterwise gardens. One aspect is choosing the right kinds of plants.

Most of California has a Mediterranean climate—a term that describes the five world regions with long, hot, summers (meaning, no rain in summer) and all the precipitation comes in winter—so the best, low-water plants are from other Mediterranean regions of the world. Those plants are evolved to survive the long, hot dry summers and get all (or most) of their moisture in winter. They have many common adaptations; tiny leaves to reduce the surface area from which they can lose water to the atmosphere, succulence, fuzzy leaves (the fuzz serves as a vapor barrier and protects leaves from bright sun) and so on.

Using this palette of plants allows us to create gardens with incredible colour and texture. In our year-round growing climate, we truly can create gardens with year-round, low water interest by choosing the right plants.

Of course, there is more to having a water wise garden than simply picking the right plants, but plant selection determines how lush or shriveled the garden appears.

Carol Pope:
Paul, your response is very heartening for those us trying to be eco-sensitive and yet craving lush, fragrant gardens. I’m going search the Internet for a look at the San Antonio Botanic Gardens!