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Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - February 14, 2014

Garden Tips

Reduce water use and still have stunning gardens

by Jack McKinnon

I write this column three or four weeks before it is published. As I write it is still quite dry and we are in a record drought. The governor has recommended cutting back on water use by 20 percent. Even if it is raining when this column goes to press we will still need to pay attention to our changing climate when it comes to our gardens.

Here is what I think can be done to reduce water use, move forward and still have stunning gardens. The first and most important thing is to look at the opportunities rather than the tragedy of it all. Be pro-active, not a victim. It is much more attractive anyway. Here are the tips:

1. Create a water feature without water. Now is the time to have a dry stream bed run right through your yard. Go for it. I have seen them go from the garden into the house or from the house out to the garden. When the rains come, it will fill up and run for a while and then when it dries up again, you have this really cool stone and gravel design. Put a copper heron in it for effect.

2. If you let your lawn die, go ahead and dig it out. I see way too many lawns that people stop watering. They die and look terrible. So why keep it? Dig it out and cover the area with mulch. What is mulch? Mulch is anything that covers an area to make it look better. Not dead lawn. Try wood chips, gravel, tree-company grindings, leaves and branches or old tennis balls. I don't care. Then you can plant drought-tolerant plants like succulents and cactus amidst the mulch. It will immediately look like you know what you are doing, sort of. At least you're trying.

3. Plant an olive tree. They grow out of the rocks in Greece and do fine on very little water. When the olives get ripe you can make olive oil.

4. When you water, do a little digging to test your soil and see how deep it is going. Know that the surface area of a plant above the soil has an equal surface below. Water to meet this area's needs but not more. I see quite a bit of over-watering going on all over the Bay Area. It would not be hard to meet the 20 percent reduction with just this tip. Note that most tree roots are within the first 18 inches of the surface, and that lawn roots seldom go deeper than 6 inches.

5. Take control of your automatic irrigation system. This may require doing some testing to see what areas are getting watered and when. What is important is having control. If this is too daunting, take heart. You can learn it. Learn one thing at a time starting with the clock. If the manual is gone missing or cannot be understood ask for help. I do, all the time. It can be quite confusing.

6. Put cups out to measure different areas of your property when the sprinklers come on. Your controller clock may be set for 5 minutes but that doesn't tell you how much water is actually going in that 5 minutes. I like to get a package of plastic party cups, place them around a specific watering area (about 4 feet apart is good) and turn that station on for one minute. Measure the water in each cup and now you know. This combined with soil-moisture testing (by digging or probing with a soil-moisture meter) and you will have a good idea how to set your clock stations.

7. Here is a novel idea. Water by hand. It will give you the ultimate awareness of your garden and how much water each plant needs.

8. Containers require more frequent watering than plants in the ground. Hand watering is the best way to water containers. A pair of pots by each door with flowers in them makes up for a lot of landscaping that is getting less water. Another good way to conserve water with containers is to have a saucer under each pot.

9. Take more care of the landscaping closest to the home. This goes for cultivation, replacing unhealthy plants, watering and fertilization. The further you get away from the house, the less is usually done. The exception is where vegetables and table flowers are grown. Usually these are also high care areas. In drought times it is important to have flowers on the table. It keeps the spirits up and gives us all hope.

10. The less plants in the garden, the more room there is for sculpture. Go ahead and get that art piece you always wanted. Become a collector. A couple of guidelines are appropriate here. Make sure it is mounted securely. There is nothing worse than a wobbly Statue of Liberty or Michelangelo's David. Try a cardboard model for a few days to make sure the location works before pouring a concrete base. Make sure it is plumb (that is, straight up and down) according to the artist's guidelines. And try to keep in the spirit of the surrounding garden and neighborhood. Although Andy Goldsworthy's work looks pretty good anywhere from my perspective.

Good gardening.

Garden coach Jack McKinnon can be reached at 650-879-3261, by email at Visit his website at


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