With citywide water restrictions, how is a gardener to survive?

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Traditionally, June is a prime planting month. The garden is coming in but often gardeners want to add more plants to fill in empty spots or to add a splash of colour. While many hardy perennials can get by with rainfall, seedlings, new plants, and annuals need regular watering to support their vigorous growth and root development. Also, growing, leafing out, and blooming require nutrients. Plants get their nutrients from the water they uptake from the soil.

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What can we do for these plants if we can’t use our tap water? How can we ensure that our garden gets the water it needs, but doesn’t put pressure on our drinking water? Our first choice, even without water restrictions, should be using rainwater.

Eliminate the need for watering a lawn by creating a dry creek bed rain garden. Photo, Deborah Maier Photo by DEBORAH MAIER /cal

Rain barrels are great for collecting rainwater. There are many styles and sizes. If you don’t have a rain barrel, and they have become a hot commodity, put a large bucket or plastic tub under the downspout to collect rainwater. These impromptu water collectors are good for storing water for a short period. If you can, put the lid back on your filled tub so mosquitoes cannot get in and lay eggs to start a colony. You can also add a Mosquito Dunk or other control to impede mosquito development in these vessels.

Rainwater is the best water source for plants, but greywater is another option. Grey water is lightly used water collected while showering or after dishwashing, bathing, and food preparation. Depending on its collection source, this water will contain soap, hair conditioner, food bits, or cooking oils and fats. Grey water can be used in the garden. However, be sure to pour it on the soil the distance of a hand away from the plant. Do not pour the water on the leaves, where it may leave a residue that impedes the leaf’s functionality. Soil is a natural water filter and the microbes in healthy soils should be able to take care of any of the impurities. The plant’s roots also help filter water being taken up by the plant.

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An example of a rain garden – Murdock Park in Bridgeland. Photo, Deborah Maier cal

Using collected rainwater and greywater is a good option for supplementing a plant’s water supply. However, perennial plant growers should consider longer-term solutions that eliminate the need for additional watering, such as rain gardens. Rain gardens make use of a depression in the yard to capture rainwater. The garden has an inflow, usually the downspout from eaves, a flat-bottomed basin, and an outflow. The purpose of a rain garden is to let the water pool, and then drain. The water should infiltrate the soil within 24 hours, which is too quick to be a mosquito habitat. In a basic rain garden design, the flat bottom of the basin is 10 cm below the ground surface. The sides of the depression gradually slope upward. To ensure good drainage have 30 cm of topsoil below the basin. When the garden is first built, use shredded bark mulch to suppress weeds. The end of the downspout is placed at the highest point of the garden. The outflow outlet is usually opposite and slightly lower than the inflow.

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Rain garden signage at Murdock Park in Bridgeland. Photo, Deborah Maier cal

Once the structure is in place, plants are added. The plants selected need to be able to tolerate some wetness. Plants near the inflow must appreciate receiving extra moisture every time it rains. Plants for this location include Alaskan burnet, Siberian iris, Ligularia, and Joe-pye weed. Plants that don’t mind being inundated when the garden fills with water, but are also drought tolerant, are good choices to place in the flat-bottomed area. These plants include daylilies, spirea, and potentilla. Plants around the sides of the garden need to be drought tolerant, such as lady’s mantle and veronica. Also, use grasses such as tufted hairgrass and feather reed grass. Plant ground covers to eventually replace the mulch, such as native strawberry and creeping jenny. Whenever possible, select native plants to support our native pollinators.

While every gardener should have a rain barrel – it’s wonderful for capturing rainwater – installing a rain garden can give you more … a beautiful low-maintenance garden that does not require supplemental watering. Research the details about how to install a rain garden in your yard. It could be a great garden project for this summer. And, next year you can be water worry free. Together we can make every drop count.

To learn more about water-wise gardening, visit our website calhort.org.

Deborah Maier is with the Calgary Horticultural Society.

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