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Don't Water 

Gardeners: Don't like the new rates? You don't have to pay them.

click to enlarge Ceanothus thyrsiflorus "Blueblossom." According to the California Native Plant Society's website, it likes a well drained soil and full sun, and has a "very high wildlife value." Photo by A. Barra, Wikimedia
  • Ceanothus thyrsiflorus "Blueblossom." According to the California Native Plant Society's website, it likes a well drained soil and full sun, and has a "very high wildlife value." Photo by A. Barra, Wikimedia

My fellow Eurekans are all worked up over the new water rates that we're going to pay now that the pulp mill isn't kicking in its share anymore. E-mails are circulating among small business owners urging us to march on City Hall and make our displeasure known. Educational sessions are being held to explain these new rates to disgruntled citizens. And just recently a woman was quoted in the newspaper as complaining that it will now cost her $174 to water her garden.

I can't do anything about the displeased small business owners or the disgruntled citizens, but I can offer a suggestion for the gardeners who fear that they won't be able to water their gardens. My suggestion is:

Stop watering.

Seriously. Don't water your garden. Ever.

Crazy, you say? Not at all. Plant life did just fine on this planet for millions of years before there were garden hoses. And as a garden designer from Tucson once said to me, "How do you know it's drought-tolerant if you keep watering it?"

So out of a sincere desire to help my fellow Eurekans stop complaining about their water bills, I offer these suggestions for creating a no-water garden. And for those of you who are about to crumple this column up, hurl it across the room and call the Journal to cancel your subscription, fear not: I've also got some ideas for a lower-water garden. So settle down. Read on.

The Easy, Cheap, Sure-Fire Approach to a No-Water Garden: Stop watering. Right now. This is a perfect time to begin, because it rains in the winter anyway and any young-ish plants will have a little time to get settled in.

Next summer, resist the temptation! Do not water. At all. Period. I'm willing to bet that most of your plants will be just fine. Some of them will bloom for a shorter period of time, but just cut them back when they finish blooming and see if they don't bloom again later in the year. These even applies to trees and shrubs: My apple tree did just fine on almost no water at all, and my tibouchina (princess flower) got not a drop last year. Try it and see.

Now, some of your plants just might die. That's okay. It's just their way of telling you that they don't belong in a no-water garden. Pull them out if you can't stand the sight of them, or leave them in the ground until it starts to rain again to make absolutely sure they're not going to green up again.

But once you know they're dead, toss them on the compost pile and replace them with whatever did survive without water. If you do this at the beginning of next year's rainy season, you can probably divide or propagate your survivors, which means that you won't even have to spend money on new plants. See how easy that is?

The Slightly More Organized Approach to a No-Water Garden: If that approach seems a little too haphazard, try this instead. Go to a native plant nursery, or head down to your favorite garden center and ask to see the native plants. Pick the plants that work in your exact location, with your specific light and water situation, and take those home and plant them. Replace your grass, replace your thirsty perennials, replace your fussy annuals. Do it now while we still have some rain. You might have to water them a little to get them through their first summer, but after that they should be fine. They're natives, after all. And remember that these plants serve as hosts for all sorts of worthy bees, butterflies, and other wild critters, so you'll be doing some good for the ecosystem, too. The North Coast chapter of the California Native Plant Society offers information and consultations; check them out at northcoastcnps.org.

And If You Must Water Just a Little Bit: But wait, you say. I must have dahlias. I must have tomatoes. Life is not worth living without my hybrid tea roses and my Thai basil.

Fair enough. But first, do a little cost-benefit analysis. If it's really going to cost you a hundred bucks a month to keep your flowers and veggies going, couldn't that money be put to better use at the local farmer's market? Help a farmer, get great stuff and turn your garden into a bug-and-bird-friendly native plant oasis? Just a thought.

But if you must water, do these things to lower your water bill. Round up those water-loving plants you can't live without and put them in one place. Add lots of compost to improve drainage and help the plants put down roots. Then install some drip irrigation or a soaker hose. Water deeply once or twice a week during the dry season.

And if you feel like your garden is almost making it without water, but not quite? Maybe you can tolerate a no-water garden but you long for just a little more green or a few more blooms in summer? Water deeply once a month. That's right, once a month. Put out some sprinklers in the evening and make it rain. Just dig down to make sure the water soaks in -- watering the top few inches of soil wastes your time and money, and encourages weeds.

One final thought for those of you who worry about what it's going to cost to water your garden: My garden designer friend in Tucson regularly gets calls from homeowners who are spending as much as $1,000/month to water their garden. So -- you know. It could be worse.

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Amy Stewart

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