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Create a Tropical Appearing Garden and Still Conserve Water
You can have both a gorgeous tropical garden and save on water. There are certain key things you have to do and know. And, you need to pick the right plants. This article discusses having a garden that you'll really like yet not use much water. You'll learn how to save wasted water right now. And, what to plant to give a tropical appearing garden without high water demands. You don't have to have a barren, desert landscape with only cactus and succulents. Read below to see how to do it.
Introduction: Lack of Rainfall and the Water Shortage
Here in Southern California, we tend to always be in a situation of low water supplies. Consequently, there are frequent voluntary cutbacks on water. But, at the time of writing this article and with more recent shortfalls in rain and a lower than needed snow pack, the Governor of California recently imposed mandatory district cutbacks. Such restrictions seem to come and go, but right now the situation is more serious than usual. This may change in coming seasons/years, but right now it's best to do what you can to comply with cutbacks in your area. And, the information here will apply in the future whether or not there are water restrictions. But, mandates are what they are. So, pay attention to things below and consider what you can do to beautify your yard and comply with water restrictions.
Things You Can and Should Do Now!
START WITH THE LAWN!
Eliminate Lawns That Have No Purpose Other Than View
Most people realize that maintaining a lush, green lawn is quite water demanding. Accurately said, a well maintained lawns are the most water consuming landscape there is. Yes, they are quite beautiful. But, they may need daily watering and are high maintenance. It is estimated that the water required to maintain a large front lawn would, by itself, be adequate water for an entire yard composed of the right water conserving and drought tolerant plants.
In California, areas of lawn that are not used for a purpose and have no recreational or functional purpose (playgrounds, gathering areas, etc.) and are for view only - these are the most important areas of elimination or cutback enforcements.
So, what can you do about the lawn? You could just stop watering and it would turn brown and die - and look pretty ugly (see pictures below). Or, you could replace it with "artificial turn", the plastic stuff. But, this is extremely expensive. Estimates are that the cost for a large front lawn of artificial grass could pay for the entire plant landscaping for the rest of your garden.
Consider this: Remove the sod, plant with water conserving plants, add interesting companion plants and then mulch over the brown dirt areas. It'd look great and is simple to do. But, do something.
The pictures below show lawn areas that are for appearance and beauty only. I agree that they are attractive, but their elimination can save lots of water. Interestingly, the photo below showing palm trees with a dead lawn demonstrate how more resilient the palms are than the grass. And, cycads are even better.
Take Control of Irrigation System - Check Watering Times / Duration / Consider Drip Irrigation / Fix Leaks
Proper Control Settings: Watering needs are a seasonal thing. In summer, more water is needed whereas in winter, one uses less or none at all. So, you must set your sprinkler controls to vary with the season. Not doing this really wastes resources. To adjust a computerized watering system just takes a minute or two. You need to do this at least four times a years, especially when summer is over.
Watering Times: Also, adjust the watering times on your various areas or regions. Some plants may take more water than others. Adjust accordingly. Don't just pick the same time for all stations. Giving a ton of water on native plants or a wild hillside is probably another waste of water. Most growers feel that it's better to have less frequent but longer watering periods. This way water goes deeper into the ground and is less likely to evaporate.
Pick the Appropriate Working Sprinkler Heads: Select heads that don't overshoot their mark and aren't malfunctioning. Avoid heads that make too much mist which is subject to evaporative losses.
Use Drip Irrigation Where It Benefits You: The theory of drip irrigation is that it only delivers water to the plants you want to water. You are not forced to water everything, even open bare areas. And, you can control deliver through different emitting heads. Used in the right situations, it definitely conserves water.
Repair Leaky Water Lines and Inefficient Sprinklers: Everyone realizes that a leaky faucet, even just a slow drip, adds up to a large amount of water over time. Inspect your faucets, irrigation valves, water lines for any leaks. Fix these immediately. A malfunctioning sprinkler head is doing you no good.
Leaky or Ruptured Water Line: But, the real killer is a leaky or ruptured water supply line. These lines are often buried under the surface or even under the house. Hidden from easy view, you might not notice them. All you see is a doubled or tripled water bill. To avoid this, watch for overly wet areas or check for movement of your water meter when all water is turned off. Is your meter standing still? Or, moving? If moving, there's a lead. You need to find it.
Check Sprinkler Spray Patterns: Make sure sprinkler only hit areas where water is needed. Also try to avoid watering systems that shoot water over long distances. An example would be the classic "rainbird" sprinklers, a favorite for golf courses. These inefficient long distance systems lose evaporated water before they ever hit their target. Research to find more efficient sprinkler heads. Or, consider going to a drip system.
Mulch, Mulch, Mulch
Mulch is any typically organic and non-toxic substance that covers the surface of the ground, especially over areas that are being watered. It could be composed of any type of wood shavings or chips. Or, it could be made of other materials. It is not the same as "soil". Stable litter from horse corals is an affordable mulch although my favorites are composed of shavings of fir, redwood or cedar. Avoid mulches containing growth limiting substances. One can make mulch at home from shredded plant material from your garden. Whatever you use, apply a thick layer over the garden surface where you are watering.
Mulching has many benefits. But most importantly, it keeps water in the soil. It's like a protective barrier limiting evaporation of ground water. Also, as organic mulches break down, they add nutrition to the garden soil and improve drainage. And, it helps with week control. Be aware that other materials can serve a similar purpose. Some use gravel or rocks over the surface of the garden. These materials are less "natural looking" and don't break down to benefit the soil. But, they conserve water.
A Watering well is an indentation (downward) into the surface of the garden around a plant that collects and holds water and allows the water to go straight to the roots of that plant. They "catch and hold" delivered water. They are especially important on slopes where water tends to run down the hill. You can fill the well with mulch so it's hardly noticeable but it serves the same function. You're concentrating the water where it's needed.
Spot Watering by Hand
You can water your entire garden by hand. Or, you can water by hand where extra water is needed as "spot watering". Let's say your landscape has 90% water conserving plants. And, water demands on these are low. But, you have plants that you want to give extra water. Do it by hand as opposed to watering the entire area more. So, it's a way to maintain a few plants that you really want that need more water. You could even design a station in your automatic system that gets extra water only to these items. Doing this will save water and lets you keep those beauties you want.
Prevent Runoff and Loss of Water
There's two main points regarding "runoff". The first is to properly aim your sprinkler heads. Prevent sprinkler heads from spraying out of the target area, rather going into a driveway, sidewalk or street. Simply adjust that sprinkler or get a different head. Make sure they aren't spraying beyond your target area.
The second point is not allowing water to escape down a slope. This applies also to rainfall. We've all seen the rolled up sod used to prevent runoff at construction site. Try to keep this water in the garden by means of dams, obstructing walls or a berms.
What Happens When You Just Stop Watering?
The Lawn Dies First, The Trees Remain
When one has a lawn with mature trees, when you just "stop watering", the first thing that will happen is the lawn, flowers, annuals and many bushes will turn brown and die. But, surprisingly, mature trees may continue looking quite good. There have been studies that show a one third cutback on watering has little effect on the appearance of mature and established palm trees (contact me for references). True, they may not continue to grow as rapidly, but they will look pretty good. And, this is while other smaller plants and the lawn are dying.
The reason this happens is because the established palms or trees have a much deeper root system and are less dependent on your applying water to the surface of the garden. The roots of lawns are very superficial. They cannot withstand any drought. Flowering plants are usually the same. But, the palm tree roots (or other types of trees) may go down several feet and utilize water reserves at deeper depths. Obviously, mulching helps keep that water in the ground. This is witnessed by seeing a palm growing all by itself in a vacant, non-irrigated lot.
No one likes the look of a dead lawn - all brown. With a little bit of work and planning, turn that lawn space into a lush garden. Read below.
CREATING A WATER CONSERVING TROPICAL GARDEN WITH PALMS & CYCADS
Save Water and Still Have Beautiful Plants & Trees
First, apply everything discussed above. Get rid of needless lawn areas. Be wise with your sprinklers and utilize mulch.
DEFINITION: A water conserving plant or tree, quite simply, is one that can survive and grow on less water than most other plants. There are very few landscape trees that survive on no water unless you get a lot of rain. But, with our thirty-eight years of experience, we've found that many palms trees and most cycads tolerate drought quite well. But, one needs to select the right types of plants and the right species. Information given below will guide you in creating a very lush garden.
The purpose of this article is to explain to readers that one can conserve water and still create that tropical appearing garden. It's all a question of saving water where you can and utilizing drought tolerant palms and cycads in the garden. Your choices are more than a cactus garden or a dry and barren landscape. .
Why not just use cactus and succulents? I am not stating here that a well planned and designed garden with these desert plants cannot be appealing. But, to me, such gardens are certainly not as lush and tropical looking. Sometimes they just look like a succulent collection stuck in the ground. And, they tend to lack different canopy levels, dimension and status. And, they definitely look more "arid" and not as appealing. The question is: "Can I have my garden look like the tropics and still conserve water?" The answer is a definite "yes".
I am going to present species of both drought tolerant palms and cycads below that, once established, can look quite good with significant water reductions. Any would provide a tropical look and not be water hogs. And, most species will give overhead canopy which provides shade, lowers temperatures at ground level and definitely helps with ground water evaporation. And, it opens the door to more understory palm and cycad species.
I will first present potential palm species and then follow with the cycads.
Palm Trees That Are the Most Drought Tolerant
Are All Palm Trees The Same?
Simply put, the answer is "no". There is no question that some species of palm trees tolerate drought and water restriction more than others. Some species that come from tropical areas and need lots of water. But, there are other species that, because of their genetic makeup and native areas of habitat, tolerate drought better.
Other factors are important. So, you may have to adjust your choices according to your local weather conditions. The coastal areas are different than the desert. So, pick species that are proven to do well in your area. Also, keep cold tolerance in mind.
Palm Species to Consider
The species of palms below include those you may wish to consider if you are trying to conserve water. Or, looked at in another way, these palm species might tolerate some degree of water restriction more than others. Note that this list applies to plants with size that are established. Newly planted palm need extra water the first few months to get going.
Species below with an asterisk (*) are added to this list for a reason. Please read special comments on these species.
Cycads That Are The Most Drought Tolerant
What Is a Cycad?
Cycads are a family of plants that predate the Jurassic era. One can find primitive fossils of cycad species still extant today. In other words, many cycads have changed very little over the last 200 millions years or more. They were here when the dinosaurs were; but unlike the dinosaurs, many cycad species persisted nearly unchanged and are observed around the world growing in the same fashion that they grew in millions of years ago. In the Jurassic period there were many more species of cycads than there are today. Somewhere around three hundred different cycads remain presently. All are referred to as "Living Fossils". Cycads have stems that have variable heights with leaves emerging from the upper, growing end of the trunk.
As a group, cycads are found in many different environments around the world. Some are native to arid areas where there is limited rainfall. Other types live in humid rainforests. Ones from dryer environments do quite well for us here and almost all are water conserving. Below you will read how they accomplish this.
CYCADS: Tropical Appearing Plants That Don't Demand Much Water
Of the many types of plants that conserve water, there are few types that can create a "tropical garden". But, cycads are one of these types. Leaves tend to be upright, can be quite long and are typically lush and green. There's no question that, with a few palms, you'll get a tropical look and maybe even look over your shoulder for that dinosaur. Cycads are small or medium in stature. Some actually look like palm trees when mature. As a group, they are quite varied in their size, color, characteristics and rates of growth.
The amazing thing about cycads is that, despite their lush appearance, they can easily go weeks without water in many areas. In fact, with many, you could leave on vacation for a week with no one watering and on your return the cycads look the same. During most of the year in Southern California, these cycads can be watered as little as once every two weeks and typically get by with nothing but rainwater during the winter. Even during hot months, weekly watering is often adequate. And, with this they maintain that lush tropical appearance. The photos below show cycads in gardens.
HOW DO CYCADS CONSERVE WATER?
By their nature, most cycads prefer good draining soil and dislike "wet feet". They actually prefer that their soil dries out a bit. In fact, continually damp soil will often result in a cycad’s decline and continual wet soil will result in its death. In their natural habitat, many cycads endure long hot and dry periods. And, we know that they require little water in our gardens. So, how do they do this?
Cycads natively have characteristics that tend to conserve water. These include a large tuberous root system that holds water. Also, these roots typically go much deeper than one would suspect. Cycads also have protective waxes on the leaf and stem surfaces as well as hairs that prevent transpiration of water, The waxy coat may lead to a blue or blue-green color to the leaves and can also reflect light away from the leaf. Also, the leaflets of cycads are also quite small compared to other types of plants. This leads to less water loss. Also, their basic metabolism and habit of growth conserves water. Only when conditions are advantageous, do cycads produce new leaves. All these factors lead to less water demand by cycads.
Cycad Durability Helps with Water Conservation
Cycads are really tough and durable plants. You can literally dig one up bare root, lay it somewhere in the shade, return in two weeks and plant it. It doesn't miss a beat. They are incredible easy to transplant. Regarding watering, gong a few weeks without water is typically tolerated well. In fact, a bare rooted cycad trunk can survive for several months without water and then reestablish roots after this time, producing a very healthy plant. Lastly, unseasonably dry periods have little effect on the overall health of the plant.
Being so incredibly durable, they still look so lush. Many species hold huge heads of stretching, vibrantly green leaves. With some species, leaves can approach 20 feet in length, almost appearing to be a palm tree. Or, if you prefer smaller, there are species with leaves under two feet.
A combination of cycads with palm trees is a natural. They go together so well. The palms get overhead and below the smaller cycads flourish. Below are presented types of cycads you can use in the garden to make it look great but also to save water.
DROUGHT TOLERANT CYCADS - TYPES AND SPECIES
Below are shown an assortment of types and species of cycads that have low water requirements. Almost any
species you pick will tolerate less watering than most commonly used
landscape plants. But, there
are some species that are also known to be even more drought tolerant.
photographs below show species of various cycad genera. Within each genus, there are many more that would
be considered xerophytic. And, we can help you pick the
perfect cycads for your needs.
USING CYCADS IN YOUR GARDEN OR PROJECT
Cycads can be utilized as the only plant material in the garden or mixed in with various other types of plants. We prefer to mix them with palm trees and other companion plants. Whatever you do with them, you'll enjoy these plants. The species you select will determine the overall appearance of your garden. Cycads form a very beautiful lower to mid-canopy of planting. Most species prefer sun while others will tolerate shade. Below are some pictures of cycads utilized in garden landscape. You will note various themes that the gardens are creating just by design and selection of plants.
Which Garden Do You Want?
I hope the reader is not one who'd just stop watering and watch everything die. If you do want a nice looking garden and you do want to conserve water, you have to make a choice. Are you going with succulents and arid type plants only? Or, do you want to follow the formulae presented here?
To make it easier for you, I'm going to show you photos below of your options. The first group comes from a drive around Encinitas looking for gardens that solely relied on cactus, succulents and other such plants. I'm calling them the "Arid Garden". Next I'll show you more tropical looking gardens using palms and cycads.. You be the judge as to which you like more:
1. Arid Gardens using mostly water conserving succulents, cactus and similar
2. Tropical Looking Gardens with Palms and Cycads
You decide which garden style you like most.
ARID TYPE GARDENS FOR WATER CONSERVION
TROPICAL TYPE GAREDENS WITH PALMS & CYCADS FOR WATER CONSERVATION
A multitude of techniques are presented above solely for the purpose of conserving water. Another consideration for the home owner or garden designer is what types of plants to utilize in the garden design. Shown here are two types of classical plants that can be water friendly yet still help create the beloved tropical garden. In fact, some are almost as water friendly as many cactus and succulents. I hope that the photographs have helped guide you to the tropical garden you want. We are here to help you if you want and we do offer all of these plant species for sale. Just contact us for advice or photos of plants available.
Jungle Music Palms, Cycads and Tropical
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