Staying Hydrated: The Case for Drought-Resistant Landscaping in WNC
By Garret K. Woodward
After the wildfires that raged through Western North Carolina and greater Southern Appalachia last fall, the region is still not out of the woods when it comes to overcoming the drought conditions that have a become more of a norm than an exception in recent years.
“Last year was so dry,” said Ruth Gonzalez. “It’s surprising sometimes how people don’t realize how dry it was, and still is. We went for months last year without rain. This year, we’ve been blessed with rain. But, with having a lot of rain, it can be misleading, because it becomes so dry for those couple of weeks in this middle of a hot summer when it doesn’t rain.”
For the last 14 years, Gonzalez has seen it all as part of Reems Creek Nursery, just off Interstate 26 in Weaverville. Though Western North Carolina has a unique scenario in which steep mountainsides and drought conditions can create a deadly combination for landscaping and prevention of erosion, Gonzalez sees the promise of drought-resistant plants and techniques as way to prevent wildfires and property damage, and also conserve the most precious of resources—water.
“Let’s say you know you’re planting an entire flower bed, you would amend that flower bed with 50 percent compost that’s turned in with 50 percent native soil,” Gonzalez said. “So, now there’s a native affinity for the soil, and it also breaks up the edges so it’s not like a hard clay surface, almost like a pot, so water won’t absorb. On the other hand If you just put all potting soil in the planting hole, and then the edges of the hole become hard clay, the plant drowns.”
Mixing the compost and the native soil creates spaces for air and water to collect and sit as storage for a hot, dry day.
“Although the clay has many beneficial qualities like a lot of minerals, the particles are so small there isn’t a lot of room in there for air and water retention,” Gonzalez noted. “When you amend your soil, you’re making microscopic holes in there for air and water, and also water storage, where if you didn’t do that, your clay would turn hard and affect the plant.”
Nowadays, with local rainfall, the storms are either nonexistent or are violent and intense in nature when they do occur. With that, water doesn’t get a chance to deeply penetrate the ground, it simply washes away down the mountain, into nearby rivers or storm drains. And by having a proper rain collection system, such as rain barrels draining into a cistern reservoir for storage, a homeowner can capture the precious, fleeting water and use it at a later time instead of dipping into city or well water.
“Having that cistern can make all the difference,” Gonzalez said. “It takes very little time for a rain barrel to fill up. The amount of water that hits a roof and washes away just with a short rainstorm is astounding.”
In terms of driveways and commercial lots, Gonzalez points out that one must make sure they are actually putting down permeable pavement, where hard gravel might not work as efficiently or effectively as open side concrete blocks or other materials.
“A hard gravel bed isn’t really considered permeable pavement,” Gonzalez said. “Concrete blocks work well, where water is allowed to go down into the ground and it isn’t completely lost, whereas with regular pavement it acts like a roof and the water runs off.”
When looking at a property, it’s useful to pay attention to where the sun goes throughout the day. This will inform where to place plants that need more sunshine or more shade than others.
“You want to put the right plant in the right place. With the microclimate of your property, you’d be surprised how much the sun moves around into spots you might not realize,” Gonzalez said. “As well, nothing is drought-tolerant until it’s established. Even if you buy a drought-tolerant plant, you want to give it extra love and water that first year so it can establish itself.”
Gonzalez also suggests creating swales, which are indents made along the contours of the property that allow for water to collect (say on a hillside) and be dispersed throughout the property.
“You could install a swale that is almost imperceptible—a low, shallow ditch, so shallow you don’t even notice it—but it has a big effect on your water retention,” Gonzalez said. “Water is a huge resource, and anything we can do to protect not only the amount of water, but also the quality of the water, is important, especially for our region that’s still in the midst of a drought.”
You can also view this article as it was originally published on page 28 of the 2017-18 edition of the directory.