Garden Bloggers Design Workshop – Water-Wise Gardening

– Posted in: Garden Design


When the concept of xeriscaping first entered my consciousness back in the late ’80s, it didn’t appear to have much to do with my own garden. I live in southeastern Pennsylvania, after all, where we get about 40 inches of rainfall a year. Sure, we have dry spells, and even longer rainless periods that can qualify as drought, but for the most part, we’re pretty lucky. I figured that gravel and cacti were okay for folks out west but hardly appropriate for our greener mid-Atlantic landscapes. Gradually, though, I began to realize that the principles behind that seemingly irrelevant concept really were applicable even here.

Cutting down on unnecessary lawn area? Well, I wouldn’t water my grass in any case, but I’m all for getting rid of turf wherever I can for other maintenance reasons. Soil improvement and mulching? Sure, I do that anyway. Irrigating efficiently? Watering is boring, but if I have to do it, you can bet I’m going to do my best to get that water right where it’s needed, only when it’s needed.

arc-borders-oct-4-08So, much of that seemed simply like common sense. But one principle that has changed the way I garden – particularly in my current, rather large space – is the idea of grouping plants into zones based on their water needs. Those that need the most frequent watering stay closest to the water source and those that need little or no watering are placed at the farthest reaches of the property, with the occasional-watering plantings in between. Here, I pretty much limit my container plantings to the space right around the barn, where I can dump the water from my alpacas’ buckets into them before giving the boys a fresh, cool drink, and a small area out back, where I raise seedlings and cuttings. Any spaces beyond the reach of one hose length on the other side of my house, such as the two plantings pictured above, qualify as no-water zones. And in between, I use the hose for spot-watering as little as possible. So in many respects, I guess I could say that I have a xeriscape garden, even though I didn’t deliberately set out to create one. I’m just trying to make my life easier.

sand-mound-meadow-2-early-july-05There’s another water-related movement gaining attention over the last few years that’s had an even more definite impact on my planning and planting: stormwater management. That used to the bailiwick of township officials and land-use planners, but now, our local watershed-protection groups, nature clubs, and other environmental organizations are sponsoring programs to show us homeowners how we can keep whatever rain that we get on our own properties as much as possible. Turns out that receiving plenty of rain can be just as challenging as nearly no rain, as over-development of the land allows the water to run off into creeks and streams before it can soak into the ground, which in turn increases flooding problems when waterways fill more quickly than they can handle. So now, we’re learning how to create features like rain gardens and green roofs, and discovering yet more reasons to reduce lawn areas in favor of mixed plantings and meadows.

No matter where we live, then, it’s obvious that water is a big issue for all of us gardeners. So, let’s hear your stories about how you deal with water-related issues in your own yards.

  • Have your gardening practices changed over the years as you’ve gotten more aware of rainfall patterns in your own area?
  • Have your plant choices changed to reduce your watering chores? Or do you have the opposite problem: trying to find plants that can adapt to permanently or seasonally soggy spots without rotting?
  • What steps are you taking to collect or retain rainwater in your outdoor space? Do you have rain barrels? Have you created a rain garden? Or are you regrading slopes into flatter terraces, or planting them to cut down on runoff? It all helps!

If you’re new to the GGW Garden Bloggers Design Workshop, here’s how it works: Write a post on anything related to water-related gardening issues on your own blog and give us the link below, or simply leave a comment if you don’t want to do a separate post. If you’ve written about the topic in the past, those links are equally welcome; it’s not necessary to create a new post to participate.

At the end of the month, I’ll gather all of the links into one summary post for easy reference. If you’re interested in checking out previous Garden Bloggers Design Workshops, you can find them here:

knock-out-border-detail-july-4-07Paths and Walkways
Fences and Walls
Arbors and Pergolas
Color in the Garden
Container Plantings
Front-Yard Gardens
Stone in the Garden
Decks, Porches, and Patios
Garden Whimsy
Trellises and Screens
Water in the Garden
Sheds and Outbuildings
Incorporating Edibles
Kids in the Garden
Labeling and Record-Keeping
Pets in the Garden
Wildlife in the Garden

Don’t forget that you’re all welcome to go back and add links to these older posts at any time.

A final note: Our July topic will be designing with bulbs: both hardy and tender kinds. That gives you plenty of advance notice to take pictures of your spring bulb displays and plan ahead for summer, too.

Nancy J. Ondra
Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.
Nancy J. Ondra

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13 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

Sylvia (England) April 3, 2009, 4:57 am

A great topic Nan, I live in a similar climate to you with plenty and frequent rain. I also put the plants that need watering in the back near the tap and the front looks after itself, I only water new plantings. Mainly as you say to make life easier for myself.

We live on a hill so the rain runs off very quickly and we don’t have any issues with excess water but this year I have promised myself a water butt, I want to use the rain water for my acid loving plants as our tap water is alkaline.

I am fascinated by the idea of water features that only contain water when it rains, I have seen some lovely ones on blogs. I think I would need a larger garden to install one but I will continue to look for ideas and dream!

Best wishes Sylvia (England)

Hi Sylvia! I too keep thinking about getting a rain barrel. Maybe this will be the year.

Frances April 3, 2009, 9:26 am

Hi Nan, I already have several angles coming to mind on this one. You are so right, it doesn’t have to be all about cactus and gravel. Although I am a huge fan of gravel! 🙂

Yeah, I’m kind of embarrassed to have fallen into that cactus-and-gravel mindest, but at least I know better now. I look forward to seeing what you come up with!

VP April 3, 2009, 4:39 pm

A great design topic as ever. Here’s a little offering from last year to be going on with:

Thanks for the link, Veep!

David April 4, 2009, 8:51 am

Hi Nan,
Great topic.
What I have found challenging is examples of the aesthetic of xeriscaping for the semi arid climate where I live. I think the desert landscapes are more common as examples (cacti and gravel), or mountain landscapes, but short grass prairies are really under represented as examples for homeowners or for people that want to do some native plant landscaping.
I just wrote a couple of posts on rain barrels including a “how to build” and I made a spreadsheet to calculate how much water you can collect. I guess my whole blog is about xeriscaping, but below is a link to some posts categorized under “water conservation” on my blog. I hope they are useful to your readers.

I remember your rain-barrel posts, David; they were one reason I chose this topic. Thanks for leaving the link!

jodi (bloomingwriter) April 4, 2009, 10:05 pm

Given that we in NS are experiencing some flooding situations, and that I live on clay…water-wise gardening is rarely an issue. See today’s blog post for water-problems around my fair province…

Well, for some of us, being water-wise is figuring out how to deal with too much water, right? But not *that* much water!

pam April 4, 2009, 10:45 pm

What a wonderful post. The photos above are just what I needed to see today to spark my garden creativity. Thanks for the additional links to some of the past posts. Outstanding!! Thank You

Welcome to GGW, Pam! Maybe you’ll share some of your photos with us this month?

Dave April 7, 2009, 12:12 pm

It looks like a great idea for a topic! I’m going to have to get busy on this one since I seem to get distracted and I miss posting for the Design Workshop. I don’t have any rain barrels yet but I water as efficiently as possible with soaker hoses and plant plants that are drought tolerant.

I think you have your hands full with other projects this month, Dave. If you do have time to post before the end of the month, great; if not, come back and leave a link whenever you do get around to it.

ryan April 7, 2009, 9:34 pm

This is a big topic and a really good one to collect different ideas for. Like other folks, I kind of feel like my whole blog is about water-wise gardening. Not necessarily xeriscapes–we think most California natives will look best and entice new people to plant them if you water once or twice a month in the summer–but we do those sometimes too. We do various water-wise things that look different from that cactus and gravel thing. One post from that vein is about our very simple graywater system:

This is terrific, Ryan! I’m not sure we’re allowed to use graywater like this where I live, and I know we sure can’t keep our washing machines outside, but I’m inspired to see how well your system works for you.

joco April 11, 2009, 1:29 pm


Wet, wet, wet in our garden, if the dry spell doesn’t last too long.

We have been doing this for many a year now. Initially because tap water has so much chlorine in, that it turns leaves yellow. Lately because thinking of drought is no longer fanciful, even in Britain.
My water post is here

I’m glad you were able to join us this month, Jo. Considering your particular growing conditions, I imagine that it’s a comfort to have a ready supply of saved water on hand for dry spells.

Ramble on Rose April 14, 2009, 1:09 pm

This is a wonderful topic, and I’m so glad we’re talking about water conservation and water resources outside of the traditional regional conception of xeriscaping! Here is my own thought on the subject as a non-desert, Midwestern resident and gardener. Thanks so much!

I’m so glad you joined us this month for the GGW Design Workshop. I’m definitely on your side when it comes to plant choices: while I love experimenting with exotics, I depend heavily on our PA natives to keep the garden going whether we’re wet or – as is the case at the moment – over 90 degrees and bone dry. (By the way, I wanted to leave a comment on your post, but I couldn’t use either of the identity options. Would you consider adding Name/URL as an option?)

Frances April 17, 2009, 6:09 am

Hi Nan,

Maybe stretching the boundaries to get in on this topic, my post is up. 🙂


Not stretching at all; I think you’ve raised an excellent point in your post, Frances. Thanks so much!

ryan April 26, 2009, 5:40 pm

Hey, reading your comment I realized that I spelled fuchsia wrong, darn those funky germanic spellings, so I corrected it, which means that the permalink won’t work. Can you put the ‘s’ after the ‘ch’ for me?

Permits for graywater are sometimes a labyrinth, and often easier and more necessary to do in California than in other places. Counties and cities are responsible for the regulations, but we work in several different counties, so it’s hard to keep track of the regulations. Our rule of thumb has been that laundry water going directly onto soil is okay without a permit, shower and bathroom sink water probably needs a permit, and dishwasher and kitchen sink water definitely needs a permit. Though, so far we’ve only helped friends set them up, rather than clients; it can make a mess if you don’t keep things very simple.
Our water company currently gives subsidies for permitted systems, and the state of California has a bill to re-evaluate and re-write the regulations for the state, try to standardize them and encourage more graywater use.

No problem about the link, Ryan; I changed it at our end too. I appreciate you sharing the extra graywater information. Having read that, I do think we may have similar distinctions out here, though I’d say that we’re not nearly as water conservation-conscious in PA as you are in CA. I’ll have to look into it further.

Dave April 26, 2009, 10:38 pm

Hi Nan!

This is a great idea for a topic. I put together a small and simple dry creek bed near a downspout the other day to direct rain water away from the house.

Excellent, Dave – many thanks!

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