Prepare for drought conditions by becoming water wise in the garden 

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In Calgary, we are fortunate to call the mountains, rolling foothills, and big sky prairie our home! We have the beauty and diversity of multiple landscapes and climates in a relatively small region.

Calgary can have a dry climate. This year, natural river flow, reservoir storage and mountain snowpack (the source of much of Calgary’s water through the summer) are trending below average. The climate phenomenon called El Niño is also contributing to a predicted dry summer. This natural event happens when above-average sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean cause warmer and 
drier weather conditions in the northern hemisphere.

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Fireweed and buffalo bean are drought-resistant plants. Photo, Deborah Maier cal

The plant material in our region has evolved to withstand our harsh, varying climate. Some of our native plant species have become robust and insect- and disease-resistant, such as perennials like Thermopsis rhombifolia (buffalo bean) or Epilobium angustifolium (fireweed). Other plants such as Populus spp.(poplar) and Salix spp. (willow) trees have adapted to quickly outgrow disease and insects.

However, even our tough, adapted, native plant material is not immune to massive swings in weather and increasing drought conditions. How can we help to reduce the impact of drought? We may not get the precipitation we need this spring, so we should be ready for municipal outdoor water restrictions to help conserve water.

When it comes to lawn care, you can allow your lawn to go dormant and water only occasionally to help it survive drought. When you water, take precautions to avoid overwatering your lawn. Water in several short sessions, allowing the water to infiltrate the soil and be absorbed by the grass, rather than using one long watering period. Also, ensure your sprinklers contact the lawn and shrubs instead of paved areas.

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Lawn sprinkler
Set timers if you are going to water your lawn. Raise mowers to the highest height and mulch flower beds. Gavin Young/Postmedia

If you have an irrigation system, make sure you have water-efficient devices, such as micro and drip irrigation and soaker hoses. Check sprinkler systems and timing devices regularly to be sure they are operating properly. Set a timer to remind yourself to turn manual sprinklers off. A garden hose can pour out 2,271.25 litres in only a few hours! Raise your lawn mower blade to at least 7.5 cm, or to its highest level. A higher cut encourages grass roots to grow deeper, shades the root system, and holds soil moisture. Long-term solutions include planting native and drought-tolerant grasses, ground covers, shrubs, and trees. They don’t need water as frequently and usually survive a dry period without watering.

Use mulch to retain moisture in the soil. Mulch helps control weeds that compete with landscape plants for water and provides a cool, shaded profile, reducing moisture evaporation. Ensure that the crowns of plants and trees are cleared of mulch so that when moisture is available, it can percolate into the root systems.

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Xeriscaping is “dry” landscaping with plants that require minimal amounts of water. cal

A popular gardening design trend is xeriscaping. Supporters of xeriscaping say it can reduce water use by 50 to 75 per cent. This saves water and money! Plants that have specially adapted to arid climates are called xerophytes. Xeriscape uses low-water-use or drought-tolerant plants that require little to no supplemental irrigation. This design plan may become a popular and effective way to maintain beautiful gardens in our potentially drought-ridden future. This is very different from the often-confused term zeroscaping, which is basically filling your property with gravel and rocks so plants cannot thrive.

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Rain barrels are a hot commodity in the city this year. Photo, Deborah Maier Photo by Deborah_Maier /cal

Rain barrels are a cost-effective way to capture rainwater for use in your yard, even when water restrictions are in place. Your plants will appreciate the soft, warm water, and you will help reduce the runoff that enters our rivers and creeks untreated. It also saves treated drinking water and reduces the burden on our infrastructure, including storm drainage. Using rainwater for irrigation helps to replenish groundwater stores and stormwater capture reduces soil erosion.

Without proper preparedness and forethought, the potential impacts of drought are substantial. It’s important for us not to take water for granted. We are tasked with doing our part to help conserve during times of drought. Fresh, clean water is a limited resource and a costly one. And we need to value it.

Visit The City of Calgary YardSmart webpage for a list of drought-tolerant and adaptable plants when planning your garden.

Katharine Varzé is writing on behalf of the Calgary Horticultural Society.

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