One of the reasons that I wanted to change my traditional landscape to one with native plants was the hope that a natural garden would require less water and maintenance, thereby freeing us to travel without garden anxiety. This, however, did not turn out as expected. A traditional lawn-centric yard in southern California – unlike my current habitat garden – is kept alive on an artificial infusion of water, usually delivered by an automated irrigation system. The sprinkler may go on two to three times each week throughout the year, with little thought and little adjustment. Drought has meant that people now give it a bit more thought – especially since there have been water restrictions – but it is still an automatic process.
In contrast, native plants, though they use less water, require more understanding. It is true that one could create a garden that survives only on natural rainfall but this is limiting and one could expect losses during years of little or no rainfall. Furthermore, new plantings require supplemental water until they become established in the landscape. A truly native, unirrigated landscape is also likely to be rather dry looking in summer since many natives are dormant through the hot, dry season.
If you follow my blog, you know that my garden is an evolving ecosystem of native plants and mature nonnative trees and shrubs. It even contains a bit of nonnative (and politically incorrect) lawn, along with a vegetable garden and citrus and avocado trees. My love of plants has forced me to plant things in less than ideal places – like the two flannel bushes that are uncomfortably close to a lemon tree and lawn. (Alas, I could not resist these plant sale leftovers that were selling for an impossibly low price, but placing these water-adverse, sun-lovers in my existing garden was a challenge!) In summary, I have native, nonnative, edible, mature trees, young plants, and even some lawn, and I will be gone for two full months this summer. What to do?
To start, I hired a knowledgeable native plant garden professional. He will come by approximately twice a month. Second, I planted edibles to entice my adult children to stop by regularly to check the house and garden, while loading up on tomatoes, artichokes, onions, and herbs. (Hopefully some of the tomatoes will still be producing when we return!)
Next, I turned my attention to the summer water needs of this diverse palette of plants. While at home I practice a water-as-needed approach. I don’t keep track of when and how long I irrigate, rather, I water when plants look thirsty – slight drooping of leaves being the most common indicator – and I do this long enough to soak the ground to a depth of 6-8 inches or more, depending on plants.
How to make order out of the chaos that is my garden? First, I started with the trees. These are definitely the most important garden residents. The coast live oaks are on their own – they get no summer water, so that’s easy. Normally I water the Chinese fringe trees (growing next to the sidewalk) with a sprinkler. Every few hours I go out to check that there is no runoff, to monitor how far down the water has penetrated, and move the little sprinkler down along the strip. Though it may take all day, it is only necessary to repeat this about once every 3-4 weeks. The orange, lime and lemon trees usually need water about once every two weeks. The large avocado in the back needs it monthly but again a slow, deep watering is required.
I set up three systems of inline drip and soaker hoses for each of these types of trees: 1. the Chinese fringe; 2. the three citrus trees; and 3. the large avocado. The Chinese fringe trees receive water using Netafim inline drip tubing (Techline CV,.9 gph flow, 12 in. dripper spacing). Using the inline drip I am able to deliver water exactly where it is needed, around the dripline of the trees, while avoiding the area near the flannel bush, which as I noted above is water-averse, especially during summer. The smaller citrus trees are growing in two separate locations. Netafim inline drip lines circle the trees and are connected with 1/2 inch poly-tubing that leads back to the spigot. I laid three concentric circles of soaker hose near the edge of the canopy of the large avocado. All of the drip tubing is covered with a 4-6 inch layer of oak leaf mulch. Because the trees are watered infrequently and must be set to run for long periods, someone – my garden caretaker or me – turns the water on and off manually.
Done and done! Next, I set up a low-volume, micro-tube irrigation system for the front yard vegetables.Two micro-spray emitters per tomato plant, three per artichoke, etc. Setting up the tubing and emitters was a nuisance, though pretty straight forward. I will cover this in my next blog post: Garden care while you travel, Part 2.