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Petaluma gardens getting ready for a drought

With every Petaluma garden, large or small, representing a drain on local water resources, replacing thirsty grass-patches and water-dependent flower beds with drought resistant gardens is not only a potential cost saver for residents, it’s also the right thing to do.

We asked local master gardeners Karen Guma and Suzanne Clarke for tips on successful gardening throughout the drought. Their answers ranged from no-brainers like adjusting your landscaping (say “so long” to your front lawn) to highly technical rearrangements of your garden (say hello to “Hydrozones”).

Such steps may seem like a drop in the bucket, but as Guma stresses, we really can run out of water — so every drop matters.

“We are in a severe drought, and as the climate changes, we will probably be alternating droughts with floods,” said Guma, who, along with Clarke, works with the UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County. “Our water collection system in California is not set up for this changing climate, so it's important for all of us to conserve.”

Here are 10 ways to prepare for a summer without water.

1. Get rid of your lawn.

It’s the best thing you can do to conserve water. Guma said it doesn’t mean that you have to convert the front of your house to a gravel parking lot. There are plenty of attractive low-water-use plants that can potentially cut your water use by a third. Guma said they also won’t need pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, making your drought-tolerant landscaping easier on the environment.

2. Use sheet mulching.

Guma explained that this organic method of getting rid of your lawn will also enrich your soil. Simply put, after covering your lawn with cardboard, a delivery of mulch is spread out, around which an array of water friendly plants can eventually be installed, likely in the fall. Petaluma’s Water Department has a Mulch Madness program set up to provide you with the necessary supplies, including free mulch, compost, cardboard, and an irrigation conversion kit.

3. Stop using sprinklers

With sprinklers, valuable water is lost to evaporation as well as covering more area than is necessary. Switching to a drip irrigation system will save lots of water. Guma explained that drip irrigation directs water to the roots where it is needed.

4. Consider catching the rain that does fall

Rain catchment systems help to direct the water to your plants before letting it sink into the groundwater system. Rain barrels are a popular way to catch rainfall. Clarke uses an underground rainwater catchment system, storing rainwater for use during the drought.

5. Use your gray water

Clarke captures and directs gray water from her laundry to her garden. It’s important to consider the detergents you use so that they don’t harm your plants, but there are many gentle eco-friendly brands to choose from. Clarke also has a dry well which directs rainwater into the ground to replenish the groundwater system.

6. Think ‘Slow, sink and spread’

Clarke suggests using this motto when approaching your use of water before it goes into the ground and the groundwater system. She suggests using swale and berms to capture rainwater and slow down its percolation into the soil. You never want to see your water flowing into the street and sewers.

7. Think permaculture

It’s a more holistic method of gardening that means thinking about where you are placing your plants in order to work with the wind, sun, and rain. For instance, Clarke places plants that need more water at the bottom of a slope where most rainwater goes. She places ones that need less water higher up the slope.

8. Think hydrozone

Clarke suggests arranging plants into similar hydrozones. That means locating plants together that want the same amount of water. Then you can time your drip irrigation for each hydrozone, which will save water.

9. Consider planting California native plants

They don’t require the same amount of water because they have evolved and adapted to the local environment. They’re also heartier and won’t need chemicals to keep them thriving.

10. Control pests by planting for habitat

Clarke does this by interspersing native butterfly nectar and host plants among her fruits and vegetables. She has pumpkin, strawberry, and tomato plants growing among native pollinating nectar plants, like penstemons, salvias and sages. She said this is a great way to entice beneficial insects in to control pests like aphids on vegetables and fruit.

Check out the UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County website. It’s a great resource for finding more information on these ideas and more.

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