Water Wise Up

Credit: Greg Vaughan

The answer lies in waterwise gardening, a method of planning and maintaining gardens that reduces water use and results in less maintenance work in the long term. It requires a shift in the way we look at caring for our gardens, and involves embracing several key principles such as selecting appropriate plants, analyzing and improving the soil and mulching.

Cultivating Success
The first thing to do when planning a waterwise garden is to consider the plants that currently occupy your garden. Think about which species demand the most water and decide where to make changes. If plants aren’t thriving, replace them with drought-tolerant varieties.

“With older gardens, it’s probably time to overhaul the perennial beds,” says John Valleau, corporate horticulturist at Heritage Perennials and author of The Perennial Gardening Guide. “The key is finding appropriate plants to adapt to soil moisture and light.”

If your moisture-loving plants are spread out all over the garden, you might want to dig them up and group them together in one area for easier watering.

Keep in mind that waterwise gardening requires a long-term view of success; water use and maintenance time won’t be reduced immediately. After all, newly planted greenery needs extra water to grow a strong root system in order to survive in drought conditions the following year.


Lawns are an important consideration in planning a waterwise garden. Watered lawns use four times as much water as anything else in your yard. Most lawns in the Lower Mainland consist of cool-season grasses that grow well in spring and fall. When the temperature rises in summer, they become dormant and turn brown.

Instead of letting nature have its way, however, we do our best to keep the grass green. Eva Antonijevic, a landscape designer specializing in creating naturalized gardens, recommends drought-tolerant North American grasses for use in lawns, rather than the hybrid turf mixes that are the current standard. Buffalo grass, for example, is dormant and brown in winter, but green and growing in summer.

Or try looking at your lawn from a new perspective. Can you reduce the lawn area and replace the grass with shrubs or ground cover, or with patio bricks or wood decking?

Waterwise Plant Picks
In general, perennials are good choices for waterwise gardens. If planted in the fall, select perennial species will have time to become well established before summer.

Native plants and ornamental grasses are also suitable choices. “Native plants are already adapted to our area,” explains Antonijevic, “and grasses are adaptable.” Besides being suited to local soils and rain levels, native species also provide habitat and food for wildlife.

When choosing plants, examine the foliage. Drought-tolerant species often develop unique leaves to help conserve water. Look for plants with silver foliage (such as Artemisia), succulent foliage (such as Sedum) or fuzzy foliage (such as Stachys, or lamb’s ears).

Drought-tolerant plants come in an exciting array of shapes and sizes (see the list above for some examples of suitable plants for B.C. gardens).

A word to the waterwise
Even if you decide not to make any major changes to your garden this year, you can still become more waterwise by improving the soil, mulching and watering carefully.

Successfully adapting a garden to be more waterwise takes planning and patience. “Start in one corner. Do a bit at a time,” Antonijevic advises. By starting on a small scale, you can begin to change your garden into a low-water, low-maintenance sanctuary perfectly suited to our dry B.C. summers.

Bonnie Jean Mah is a Vancouver-based freelance writer.