Water, Water Everywhere

by Dave on June 5, 2009

As first appeared in Coastal Sussex Weekly, May 14, 2009:

by Eric Wahl

Such as the story goes in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”  Sometimes, the same can hold true for our trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants.  Often we think that since the Delmarva Peninsula is surrounded by the Delaware Bay, Atlantic Ocean, and Chesapeake Bay, that water is often available for our flora and fauna.  However, with all of these water bodies and many of their tributaries ranging in salinity levels from mildly brackish to full ocean amounts, a majority of our vegetation cannot use it. In addition, with our seemingly never-ending extensions of drought conditions and our increasing population draining our water resources, a different approach to landscaping is warranted.

In particular, coastal living can be difficult in terms of our designed landscapes; fresh water can be hard to come by.  Many times, the only water available for plants is restricted to a “fresh water lens.”  Fresh water is less dense than salt water, so after a rain event any runoff that infiltrates the sandy soil along the coastline floats on top of the salt water lying beneath the surface.  Landscaping along the coast also needs to tolerate salt spray which is wind driven from the bay or ocean.

How do we cope with these conditions and enjoy a successful landscape, plus conserve our water resources to the fullest extent possible?

There are many solutions to this problem, and many times a combination of them is the best way to go.  One of the easiest and most beautiful alternatives is to landscape with native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  These plants and their cultivars are meant to be here and are adapted to the conditions found in our region.  In addition, the range of soil types that can be accommodated by them is diverse.  From drought tolerant plants (such as coreopsis) all the way to plants that can take “wet feet” (for example, bald cypress) can be found in our region’s plant palette.

However, a word of warning when searching for plants at the nurseries.  Make sure to ask whether your choices are native, or at the minimum non-invasive.  Even in today’s ecological movement, nurseries still sell popular plants that are not only non-native, but also invasive and will wreak havoc in your yard, your neighbor’s yard, your community open space, the nearby woodlands, and so on.  Historically and sometimes still today, plants were sold as ornamental additions to the garden, only to escape into natural areas and decimate habitat and ecosystems, such as purple loosestrife.  Don’t be afraid to ask the nurseryman about your plant, and for a list of invasive species in Delaware check out www.delawareinvasives.net/invasive_plants.

Another way to help conserve water resources and make our landscapes successful is using captured rain water to irrigate our yards.  When it rains, runoff from impervious services and even lawns can be captured in rain gardens, ponds, or underground cisterns (just to name a few) and be utilized as an irrigation source for landscapes.  This is not only an important way to conserve water use, but it also helps to recharge our groundwater by allowing the runoff to slowly infiltrate back into the ground, rather then discharging directly into a nearby water course.  In addition, infiltration helps to clean the water naturally before returning to the local aquifer.   And maybe think outside the box and turn your rain water collection device into something unique such as a decorative water feature, a small architectural pond, or even a fountain with a re-circulating pump.  Ecological doesn’t always mean naturalistic, so have fun and save your rain water!

Another alternative is xeriscaping.  Xeriscaping (from the Greek xeros meaning dry) utilizes drought tolerant plantings that decrease or eliminates the need for irrigation.  In other words, use plants that like it dry!  There are quite a number of shrubs, grasses, and perennials that thrive in these conditions and can be just as beautiful and intriguing as our traditional landscapes, native plants being among them.  If you have a large expanse to cover and want to steer clear of the typical water-sucking lawn, consider planting a meadow including native grasses and wildflowers.  Native seed mixes can be found on-line and once established will provide years of enjoyment. (Note – always check your local zoning codes or HOA before installing this type of landscape, oftentimes codes exist that restrict how tall a ‘lawn’ can be and we don’t want to break any laws do we?, unless we get involved to change them!)

So, with all that being said, I encourage you to approach your landscape in a different and exciting way, while helping to conserve our precious water resources.  Think outside the box and always have fun.  Remember, even small gestures positively impact the environment.

Eric W. Wahl is a Landscape Architect with Element Design Group in Lewes.

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