Garden care while you travel (Part 1)

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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.

Parkway garden
Parkway garden in November. This garden gets no supplemental irrigation. The tree coast live oak trees  planted in 2005 provide nice shade along the sidewalk. The parkway is not the showiest but it is fairly low maintenance and now that most things are established, I do not water it at all.

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.

Parkway garden.
Chinese fringe trees bloom in parkway garden in late March. Flannel bush growing in backyard (not visible in this picture) provides striking yellow flowers as the same time. Although the fringe trees are amazing in spring, if I were planting this area today I would never include them. Instead I would line the fence with a row of either toyons or Ray Hartmen ceanothus, trimmed up to be small multi-stemmed trees.

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.

Drip irrigation
Drip irrigation tubing. Black tubing is 1/2 in. poly, brown tubing has inline emitters (Netafim).
Netafim tees off to a small piece of tubing that connects to a pressure regulator and then to a hose.
Drip irrigation for trees on strip.
The inline emitter drip irrigation was laid around the Chinese fringe trees. It was placed as wide as possible given the narrowness of the planting strip. The black tee connects the Netafim to 1/2 in. black poly tubing. This runs the line past the water-hating flannel bush to the next fringe tree. Although trees usually need more than one loop of drip tubing for proper water distribution, it is hard to provide water evenly in this narrow space. Fortunately, the rich-loamy soil and layer of mulch (which will be placed on top of the tubing) help provide a wider spread of water in the soil.
Three concentric circles of soaker hose surround the large avocado near the tree's dripline (edge of canopy).
Three concentric circles of soaker hose surround the large avocado near the tree’s dripline (edge of canopy).
leaf mulch
The tubing surrounding the trees was laid directly on top of the soil and beneath the existing mulch in each area. Additional mulch from the old oak tree was placed on top to cover the tubing with about 4-6 inches of mulch.

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.

2 thoughts on “Garden care while you travel (Part 1)

  1. weedingwildsuburbia

    Been getting some comments on this post on Facebook. Good comments! Here they are:

    GG: only until established. Plant in Fall to take advantage of rains if they come. Only supplemental watering needed.

    Me: Some of my natives need water even after established. Ray Hartman ceanothus gets a good soaking about once a month or every 6 weeks in summer, for example. And, of course, I water in winter when we get little rain – but this article is on summer water.

    ML: I killed 2 Ray Hartmans at home and never watered one at Prisk after the first 2 summers, and the latter course was the wisest. The one at Prisk lasted almost 20 years and went to at least fifteen feet. My paranoia about certain plants is such that I’d rather kill them by underwatering than just one more killing irrigation. I’m keeping my new little Trichostema just this side of death. When I do water, it’s WAY away from the crown, letting the trickling hose soak the ground about a foot away. Of course, the garden has been 99% effective. It’s just a few plants that have been singled out. (I’ve also bermed up and shoveled in much rocky gravel and natural rock from the chaparral to duplicate the habitat of these plants, and this also helps, of course.)-M

    Me: The Ray Hartmans that I will give supplemental water to are just a few years old. I only water if they look especially stressed – losing more leaves than I expect even in summer dormancy. And then I water in early morning, preferably before a heat wave, and preferably when it is cool and foggy. Still I agree with you – drier is usually better!

    • weedingwildsuburbia

      And another:

      ML: One more thing. That ol’ opinionated guy, Bert Wilson, advises on the Las Pilitas site to not water my new Ceanothus spinosus specimen, and I’m taking him seriously. As above, when I DO water, it’s brief, and way away from the plant. And this guy is in almost pure “scree” of the chaparral, too! Such overkill. 😉

      Thanks ML. I learn a whole lot from you!

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