Summer can bring spells of dry weather on the East End, sometimes lasting for weeks. With the population expanding, times of drought bring with them restrictions on water usage. And that can affect the plants in our landscapes. Using water efficiently, even when we’re not experiencing drought conditions, can save thousands of gallons of water a year and lower water bills significantly. Here are some strategies for saving water.
Grow native plants. Natives are naturally adapted to local conditions, and can tolerate periods of dry weather. Some of the plants found in the wild on the East End are worthy of a place in your garden or landscape. Some to consider are eastern red cedar, bayberry, butterfly weed (which bears pretty orange flowers attractive to butterflies), New England aster, pitch pine, sumacs, shadbush, and beach plum. Salt bush could find a place in a wilder part of the garden, and you can see it covered with tiny white flowers in autumn across the East End.
Choose plants that will grow to the right size for the space you have. Plants that are too big for their space will use more water than smaller ones. Don’t overcrowd plants in the landscape, either. Allow them enough space to reach their full mature size without overcrowding. It’s tempting to put those little plants from the garden close together in the garden, only to have them packed together tightly as they grow. Allow enough space for each plant (the nursery tags and labels tell you how much space a plant needs) and you’ll have a better-looking garden. And fewer plants mean less water usage.
Mulch your garden beds and borders. When the beds are planted, a layer of loose mulch on top of the soil will help retain moisture in the soil and offers the bonus of also deterring weeds. Plus, it gives gardens a neat, finished look.
Make paths out of porous material. When it rains (or the sprinklers are running), water runs off down a hard pavement and it ends up in the street and storm drains instead of in the ground around your plants. Surfacing your garden paths with loose materials—pebbles and crushed stone, wood chips, even mulch—lets the water soak into the soil where it can benefit your landscape plants, instead of running off and eventually ending up in local bays and waterways.
Have a smaller lawn. We love our emerald lawns, but they’re notorious users of water and fertilizer. Consider downsizing your lawn. Instead of having an acre of turf, have lawn grass where you most want it (in high traffic and play areas) and plant groundcovers (which don’t need mowing) or beds of flowers or shrubs where you seldom walk.
Group water-loving plants together. Let’s face it, some of your favorite plants need regular moisture. Do you love roses? Classic hydrangeas? Peonies? By all means grow the flowers that nourish your soul. But give them their own special place in the landscape and give them the water they need. You can also put drought-tolerant plants in the sunniest parts of the landscape or garden, and moisture lovers where there’s some shade.
Don’t water during the hottest part of the day. Set your irrigation system to run early in the morning, not in the afternoon. Morning is a better time to water than evening, because plant leaves will have plenty of time to dry off before dark. Watering at the end of the day can invite plant diseases; if foliage doesn’t dry before dark, organisms that cause fungal diseases can find hospitable conditions to take hold on your plants.
And of course, grow drought tolerant plants. Depending on where you live on the East End, our soil can be rich, fertile loam or porous and sandy with little fertility and little ability to retain moisture. If your soil is sandy you’ll do yourself a favor by growing plants that can adapt to dry conditions. Drought tolerant plants to consider include shrubs such as the sculptural Hollywood juniper, which appears in many oceanfront properties, mugo pine, Leyland cypress, arborvitae (though deer like to much on the lower branches), members of the holly family, the ubiquitous privet seen in hedges throughout the East End, and rugosa roses. Japanese spiraea and vitex are two shrubs with lovely flowers in summer. For the flower garden, Artemisia, gaillardia, lavender, Montauk daisy, perovskia, black-eyed Susan, sedums, yucca and ornamental grasses can thrive without abundant moisture.