Think “Hydrozones” When Designing a Garden

flannel bush (Fremontodendron californicum)

flannel bush (Fremontodendron californicum)

Within a few days of that meteorological analysis that determined that we are in the first years of a 20-year drought, we received our most significant rain of the winter. Although no heavy rains have fallen, the steady drizzles are a delight to behold. Barring a heat wave, the garden should not require any irrigation for the next several weeks, if not longer.
Still, with the thought of droughts past and droughts predicted never far from the Valley gardener’s mind, it might be prudent to consider options for planting that will minimize water consumption in the years ahead.
One concept for planting in dry climates such as our own divides a yard or outdoor space into three hydrozones based on visibility and use. The idea is to plant species with a minimal water requirement in low-use or out-of-the-way areas, such as along a property line, on a slope, or at the far back portion of a yard. In areas with the highest visibility and use, such as around a front entry or backyard patio or sitting area, species with above-average to high water needs are planted. Species with a medium water requirement are planted everywhere else.
On a sunny property edge, slope or little-used stretch of ground, California natives such as the arboreal ceanothus – which grows wild in canyons and foothills throughout the Valley and begins blooming in blue and white this time of year – and flannel bush (Fremontodendron), which has yellow-orange flowers in spring, are recommended. Once established, these woody perennials – whether you consider them oversize shrubs or small trees – do not require any summer irrigation. Other low-water-use shrubs would include cotoneaster, with scads of white flowers in spring and heavy clusters of bird-attracting fall berries, and oleander, probably the longest-flowering drought tolerant shrub, with spring to fall pinwheel flowers in red, pink, white, or salmon.
Among the most popular plants are those that require the most water. Azaleas and hydrangeas for instance, may have to be watered several times a week during a spell of hot weather. These plants, in line with the hydrozone concept, would be placed close to the front door or around the patio, in the ground or in containers. It is thought that by placing azaleas and hydrangeas up close, you will save water in their upkeep since, in your daily observation of them, you will water them only as needed. When azaleas or other thirsty plants are planted farther away from the house and are observed only occasionally, the tendency is to overwater them – through daily, indiscriminate sprinkler dousing – out of fear that they will not get all the water they need.
Annual flowers and vegetables will also be best cared for when planted no more than a foot or two away from the front steps or the outside kitchen door. Inspecting these plants on a daily – or minimally, a weekly basis – is essential to their proper maintenance and health. Annuals need to have faded flowers pinched almost daily to flower at their full potential, and crops such as strawberries and tomatoes will bear abundant fruit for many months, but only as long as they are harvested on a continuous basis.
No matter how much attention a particular plant requires, if it is hidden deep inside the garden, it will be less cared for than a plant seen each morning when walking down the driveway to get the newspaper. Even experienced gardeners confess to the “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome where their plants are concerned. Plants for the intermediate hydrozone – those with a light to moderate water requirement that would make up the bulk of the garden or landscape – would include lavenders, sages, New Zealand flaxes (they come in a variety of sizes and colors), and the wondrous and enormously diverse palette of ornamental grasses.
Stalking up: Philip and Bonnie Jue call themselves by several different names: gorilla gardeners, zoo gardeners and anti-gardeners. “We grow things you can’t get from the produce man,” they write, “for the animals at the Los Angeles Zoo to enrich their lives. We grow corn for the stalks, not the corn on the cob. We grow peas and beans for the vines. We grow onions and garlic for their flowers. We grow banana trees not for the fruit but for the leaves and trunk. We grow dandelions on purpose! We do not grow tomatoes, peppers or eggplants because the plants they come from are toxic to animals. There is never anything to compost because everything we grow is either eaten, rolled in or made into a bed.”

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