Waterwise gardening with the Summerland Ornamental Gardens

Lack of water need not be an obstacle to maintaining a beautiful garden.

Credit: Barbra Fairclough

A lack of water need not be an obstacle to maintaining a beautiful garden.

“Our water resource is finite. We have to change the way we do things and use less water,” says Donna Lane, landscape architect and managing director of the Summerland Ornamental Gardens.

Donna and her colleagues at this 15-acre public garden, located in the South Okanagan on Highway 97 between Penticton and Kelowna, are no strangers to gardening under arid conditions. In fact, according to a 2003 Stats Canada study, the Okanagan/Similkameen basin has the highest density population per water area and the lowest amount of water available per person in the country.

Still, a visit to the historic Summerland Ornamental Gardens, which began its life as an agricultural research centre in the early 1900s, proves that a lack of water need not be an obstacle to maintaining a beautiful space. Aside from the expansive main gardens established in 1923, Summerland features a “Xeriscape” demonstration area that follows waterwise gardening practices. Located within this area is a section known as The Meadow, which was converted six years ago from turf grass.

Today, The Meadow presents a thriving natural alternative to traditional, water-demanding Kentucky bluegrass lawns. “People are more aware of and attracted to the natural landscape,” explains Donna. “They are beginning to see the value of developing their gardens in harmony with this semi-arid environment. Once established, a meadow requires very little water and much less energy to maintain. We mow and rake our meadow in early spring. That’s it. Here in the Okanagan, a meadow is a softer and more natural approach, and it attracts a lot of birds and butterflies.”

The gardens’ site is owned by the federal government, with funds for its basic upkeep provided by Agriculture Canada, but it is the Friends of the Gardens, a volunteer corps of 200 members, who devote loving care and attention to the expansion and detail of this unique display of diversification.

Attracting a multitude of visitors, who follow pathways leading to spectacular views of Giant’s Head Mountain, Okanagan Lake and a section of the Kettle Valley Railway’s steel trestle built over Trout Creek Canyon, the gardens offer a good opportunity to see waterwise landscaping in action. Self-guided walking tours are free. A path, bordered by perennials and grasses, leads to an elevated point where visitors can view the entire meadow, and cleverly concealed near the garden’s boundary is a large composting area.

Signage throughout the gardens instructs visitors on the seven steps of waterwise gardening and landscaping, allowing home gardeners to record practical information on planning/ design, plant selection, soil analysis, turf, irrigation, mulches and maintenance. This “right plant, right place” approach advocates cultivating appropriate plants for the region, to reduce environmental stress and lower vulnerability to disease. Creating new waterwise spaces or converting traditional gardens to a waterwise model reduces and often completely eliminates the need for pesticides.

In May, a riot of bloom fills the waterwise demonstration area, including basket-of-gold, kinnikinick, rockcress, balsamroot, barberry, pearlbush, white avens, tall Oregon grape, mock orange and common lilac. In June visitors can expect to see beautybush in flower, as well as coral bells, cranesbill, daylilies, false indigo, poppies, soapwort, snow-in-summer, sun roses and sweet rocket.

Elsewhere at the Summerland Ornamental Gardens, sweeping lawns, an extensive rose garden, broad borders and beautiful specimen trees grace the main gardens in traditional style, providing an ideal site for weddings, reunions, concerts and other special events that help to contribute funds to the gardens’ upkeep. Within these gardens is a designated heritage home built in the 1920s. Today, it houses displays of the agricultural and horticultural history of the Summerland Research Station originally located on this site.

Thanks to the ongoing efforts of its volunteer team, the Summerland Ornamental Gardens have become an undisputed success, attracting visitors from all over the world who come to enjoy its beauty and to learn more about its responsible approach to gardening. Even after nearly 90 years, it remains a jewel in the crown of the South/Central Okanagan.

For more information, contact the Friends of Summerland Ornamental Gardens at 250-494-6385 or check out www.summerland ornamentalgardens.org/xeriscape/

Drought-tolerant plants available for viewing at Summerland Ornamental Gardens’ waterwise garden include: (plants are hardy to the zone number indicated)
Arabis (rockcress) – zone 3
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (kinnikinick) – zone 2
Aurinia saxatilis (perennial alyssum, basket-of-gold) – zone 4
Balsamorhiza sagittata (balsamroot) – zone 5
Baptisia australis (false indigo) – zone 3
Cerastium tomentosum (snow-in-summer) – zone 3
Exochorda x macrantha (pearlbush) – zone 4
Geum (avens) – zone 5 • Helianthemum hybrids (sunroses) – zone 5
Hemerocallis hybrids (daylilies) – zone 2
Hesperis matronalis (sweet rocket) – zone 2
Heuchera sanguinea (coralbells) – zone 3
Kolkwitzia amabilis (beautybush) – zone 5
Mahonia aquifolium (Oregon grape) – zone 5
Philadelphus coronarius (mock orange) – zone 3
Saponaria (soapwort) – zone 4
Syringa vulgaris (common lilac) – zone 4

Evacuated for five days during the August ’03 Okanagan fire, Carol Taylor returned to her intact home and garden. Thanks to Kelowna firefighters and mother nature’s sudden change of wind direction, Carol has renewed her passion for her at-home waterwise garden.