Water conservation feels more urgent than ever as Oregon’s water resources become dryer and average summer temperature rise. As of June 2021, 90% of the state is in “severe drought” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Want to be a part of the solution? Try creating your own water-wise garden.
Washington County has a Mediterranean climate, characterized by mild, wet winters and warm, dry summers. The combination of hot, dry summer days causes stress to many plants. As a result, water use across our region drastically increases during the summer months. But how much of that water is wasted through evaporation, runoff, and overwatering? It’s critical we take steps to reduce water waste and ensure that every drop counts.
Here are seven steps we can follow to create a water-wise garden, inspired by the Regional Water Providers Consortium’s 7 Basic Steps for Creating and Maintaining Water Efficient Landscapes.
Plan before you plant
Take advantage of the characteristics of your site – sun, shade, wind, and soil – by planning your garden before you plant. Your yard is likely made of many microclimateMicroclimate An area with specific growing conditions, such as sun exposure, soil type, and wind direction.. It is important to consider these areas, as they will help you design your water-wise garden.
Make sure to check your soil’s drainage to determine if there are any soggy or especially dry areas. In areas that drain quickly, consider putting in a rain garden or bioswale. Also, think about how your plants will get the water they need. Will you carry water to a remote corner of your yard? Planning your garden will save you time and energy down the road.
Watch a recording of our Naturescaping: Site Design workshop to learn more about designing your garden.
Choose plants carefully
Different plants need different amounts of water, sun, and shade to survive. Group plants that have similar needs together. Placing the right plant in the right place will reduce the amount of water required, as well as the time and effort needed to maintain your garden.
The Pacific Northwest has a spectacular array of native plants that flourish in a variety of microclimates. Native plants that are drought tolerant and don’t require additional irrigation are always the best choice for a water-wise garden.
To discover which plants are native to our region, visit East Multnomah SWCD’s Native Plant Database.
Add organic material
Not all soils are created equal. Some soils allow water to pass through rapidly, while others hardly let water pass through at all. The solution to either problem is the same: add organic material.
Organic material like compost, fallen leaves, or composted manure will improve the soil’s ability to store water. This ensures that the water you put into your water-wise garden stays within your garden. Add at least one inch of compost to your garden each year.
Learn more about creating and maintaining healthy soil.
Reduce your lawn
Lawns can be great for certain things – providing kids or pets places to play, allowing space for sports and leisure – but there are some major downsides to covering our properties in lawns. Lawns require more water than other plants. Up to 50% of the water used to maintain lawns can be lost to evaporation, runoff, or overwatering.
You don’t need to remove all lawn in order to reduce your water consumption. Rather, take a moment to evaluate your lawn. Are there areas of lawn that you are not currently using? You may want to consider changing your landscape to better suit your needs.
Consider replacing lawn with pollinator gardens, meadowscapes, or ground covers like woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) which still allow foot traffic but don’t require as much water. These lawn alternatives are not only water-wise but they also have the added benefit of providing habitat for pollinators and other wildlife.
The amount of water your garden needs will influence the timing, frequency, and the type of irrigation you will need.
Water deeply, but infrequently to encourage root growth. For established gardens, watering twice per week is plenty. Younger plants have shallower roots and need more frequent watering. Water before 10 a.m. or after 6 p.m. when temperatures are cooler and evaporation is at a minimum.
The amount of water your garden needs will change depending on the time of year and the weather. To find out exactly how much water you should be using, sign up for the Regional Water Providers Consortium Weekly Watering Number.
And finally, how you water your garden greatly influences your water consumption. Whether watering by hand or with an irrigation system make sure to water directly to the plant’s root zones and not the sidewalk or driveway. This makes every drop count in your garden.
Capturing rainwater is a great way to reduce your water consumption. In Washington County, anyone can set up a cistern that collects and stores rainwater from your rooftop. This water can then be used during our dry, summer months. Installing rain cisterns can be a complicated process, visit our Contractor’s Directory to find a local professional that can help.
Another option is to incorporate mulch in your garden to better capture the rainwater we do receive. Mulch increases the soil’s ability to store water by covering and cooling the soil, helping to minimize evaporation. Both organic mulches – like manure or wood chips – and inorganic mulches – like gravel or river rock – can be effective. An added benefit of mulch is its ability to control weeds and reduce erosion.
Find out how else you can manage rainwater.
Keep up on maintenance
Routine maintenance such as pruning and weeding will help keep your garden healthy and water efficient. Weeds compete with desired plants for nutrients, light, and water. Monitor your garden often and address problems quickly. This will keep your garden looking great while also reducing your water consumption.
OSU Extension Service explains how landscape maintenance helps conserve water.
 Regional Water Providers Consortium. https://www.regionalh2o.org/water-conservation/outdoor-water-conservation/lawns