Lessons in water saving from a local public garden

Visit the Sonoma Garden Park to find water-wise garden ideas you can use at home, from a rain catchment system to landscaping around pavement.|

The average yearly rainfall in Santa Rosa is about 38 inches. Yet, 10 months into the annual rainfall year, calculated from July 1 to July 1, the city has received only slightly more than 26 inches. It’s another dry year in a succession of critically dry years. Similar dismal rainfall counts have been recorded all over the North Coast and the state.

Statewide, the Sierra snowpack now sits at 38% of average, about a third of where it is normally at this time of year.

That means that this summer, those of us with food and ornamental gardens have to conserve as much water as we can, and many already have taken measures to reduce water consumption. So what are the best strategies for saving water? Where can we turn for solid, practical information?

Here’s an answer: Plan a trip to the town of Sonoma.

At 19996 Seventh St. E., you’ll find the Sonoma Garden Park. This 6.1-acre city park, overseen by the Sonoma Ecology Center, has been turned into a water-wise landscape where a range of water conservation techniques keep the park thriving during drought. These are examples you can use in your own garden and landscape.

A bulletin board holding brochures faces the parking area. Look for a brochure called “Do-It-Yourself Water-Saving Features.” It will take you on a self-guided tour of the grounds, leading to 11 markers that explain the conservation features in front of you.

Some features are simple, such as mulching around crops or ornamentals. Mulching means covering the soil with a thick layer of leaves or other organic material. It prevents ground water from evaporating, reduces erosion from hard rains, suppresses weeds and decays into soil-enriching humus.

Other techniques are more elaborate. You’ll see a roof water-catchment system set up so winter rains on the roof drain into a pipe that fills a 1,500-gallon storage tank used to water plants during the summer.

A drinking fountain diverts its drain water to an underground basin so the water can soak into the ground rather than run off. A gray-water system like this also can catch used water from a sink, bathtub or washing machine and pipe it into a tank to use for irrigating plants.

You’ll learn 11 methods, simple and complex, to stop water waste during this drought, when every drop is precious.

Young visitors

Aside from highlighting ways to save water, the park has another purpose: inspiring and educating kids.

On a recent day, environmental educator and naturalist Jonny Ehlers was working at the park with a dozen kids from second, fourth, fifth and sixth grades at schools around Sonoma Valley. He’d spotted a swarm of bees resting in a nearby tree and set up a telescope so the kids could get a better look.

Evie Neves, 10, was enthusiastic about the bees, how they made homes in the local trees and how they made new colonies by swarming. She’d just learned from Ehlers that fungi and insects form hollows in the trees, and the bees use these hollows as homes for their colonies.

Because the park is staffed by Sonoma Ecology Center volunteers, it’s been maintained organically for the past 20 years. This has allowed a great diversity of wildlife to flourish.

Visiting school children get to see compost being made, a working chicken coop, a hedgerow, a fig forest, a native plant installation, rows of properly pruned apple trees, a bird garden, an oak woodland, a butterfly garden and even a community garden where local residents can raise crops.

Complementary methods

Sonoma Ecology Center educator Julia Megna was there to give the day’s gaggle of grade schoolers a timeout snack of pickles and pretzels.

Also there that day was the Sonoma Ecology Center’s executive director, Richard Dale. Asked to name the one water-conservation method he thought was most valuable, he demurred.

“They work best as a group of techniques,” he said. “The more techniques you use, the better it works. It’s hard to pick out just one.”

The plants you choose for your garden also can help you conserve water, he added. Plants native to this area have evolved with the regular summer drought of our Mediterranean climate. They get by with very little summer water.

A fine example is the late-blooming Zauschneria californica, or California fuchsia, which produces scads of little red trumpets in late summer to fall and seems to need no water at all. Mix natives with other plants that evolved in the Mediterranean climate of Europe, such as lavender, rosemary and thyme, for a beautiful but functional garden for Northern California.

Some of the most interesting features of the park’s water-wise landscaping are the low spots and swales used to hold water so it can percolate down into the soil instead of running off the surface into nearby waterways.

These shallow depressions can divert rainwater from buildings and restock groundwater in the garden’s soil. The extra groundwater can then seep into streams in the dry months of fall, allowing fish to return upstream more easily.

The walking tour also will take you to infiltration basins. These simple, gravel-filled basins fill with water during rainstorms, then slowly release their water into the ground. Infiltration trenches are a variation of the basins. These are long, narrow trenches filled with gravel and strips of vegetation that filter stormwater before it soaks into the ground.

Edging any nonpermeable surface, such as cement or asphalt, with strips of dense vegetation also slows and filters stormwater runoff, adding to subsoil moisture. The Sonoma Garden Park has done this on a large scale with its parking area. Instead of asphalt, it has installed a gravel parking area with infiltration features and hollow pavers to hold the gravel in place. It’s strong but permeable, allowing stormwater to soak in, not run off.

This large park is beautiful, educational, water-conserving and managed by people who care about the health of the flora and fauna here. It’s a wonderland for gardeners of all ages to see conservation and ecology in action.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.

Visit the Sonoma Garden Park

Where: 19996 Seventh St. E., Sonoma

Hours: Open dawn to dusk daily

More Information: sonomagardenpark.org, 707-996-4883 or garden@sonomaecologycenter.org


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