Waterwise gardening

& lawn care

By: Marian Hammond


SE homeowners lose the lawn, gain beauty and livability in a waterwise garden renovation

Colorful, vibrant, bountiful, inviting—and water efficient, this SE Portland garden teems with life, has year-round curb appeal, and thrives on very little water.

When Karen and Mike Girard purchased a home nearly a decade ago, the backyard was a mess of concrete, mud and weeds that caused water leakage into the basement. The front lawn was unkempt and drab.

After completing interior renovations, the homeowners turned to Amy Whitworth, owner of SE Portland’s Plan-it-Earth Design, to help transform their outdoor space into a water-efficient landscape that’s functional and low maintenance.

“Karen and Mike pride themselves on being good environmental stewards,” said Whitworth. “We worked together to create an appealing, comfortable space that incorporates waterwise elements throughout, including drought-tolerant vegetation and permeable hardscapes.”

While the Portland metro area receives about 37 inches of rainfall annually, we get about 90 percent of that precipitation from October to May.  Conversely, during the summer months we can often experience long, hot, dry conditions with little or no rain.

“The Pacific Northwest has beautiful native plants,” said Karen Girard. “Once established, they require very little maintenance and naturally do well on their own. We knew natives were a key component to achieving our vision.”

In the backyard, the Girards installed a rain garden with native plants, including ninebark (physocarpus), sedum and spiraea. The concrete slab was replaced by a dry laid, permeable stone patio that allows water to drain through and keep vegetation healthy. A French drain was also installed to eliminate basement leakage.

“I work with homeowners to add livability to their yards,” said Whitworth. “Sustainable, earth-friendly gardens look great, are easy to care for and reduce environmental impact.”

Two large elm trees shade the home’s front yard. To protect the tree roots, the Girards slowly removed their water-thirsty lawn using sheet mulch, a dig-free, chemical-free lawn removal technique where mulch is layered over grass to kill it.

Once the lawn faded and was removed, native plants and a permeable stone walkway took its place.

“Removing the lawn was the best improvement we made,” Karen Girard added. “Our front yard is more attractive and flourishes every season.”

Lawns can typically use two to three times more water than other plants, and lawn watering can often waste up to 30 percent of water use due to overwatering, evaporation and runoff. More and more homeowners are replacing impractical grassy areas with low-water plantings and hardscapes.

The Girards’ final landscape improvement was installing a drip irrigation system that operates on a timer, and scheduled to water early in the morning or at night to prevent water loss through evaporation.

A drip system can be an efficient watering method for plants, shrubs and vegetables as it allows water to slowly seep directly to the roots of plants, one drop at a time. However, like other types of automatic irrigation systems, drip systems need to be regularly-maintained in order to function efficiently.

“Our yard is mostly self-sustaining,” said Mike. “Our time outdoors is now spent enjoying the fruits of our labor. It feels good to have a beautiful yard that doesn’t use a lot of water.”

Gardeners interested in making their own waterwise improvements can find a wealth of information including plant guides, information on lawn alternatives and a weekly watering number on the Regional Water Providers Consortium website www.conserveh2o.org.

The Water Providers Consortium is a group of 20+ local water providers with the regional government Metro committed to good stewardship of our region’s water through water supply coordination, planning, emergency preparedness and conservation.

Conservation Program Manager Lindsey Berman of the Regional Water Providers Consortium says “Waterwise gardens make sound economic and environmental sense.”

“Incorporating smart water conservation practices is one of the easiest ways to stretch the region’s limited supply of water, especially during the dry summer months.”