Articles by Jim Gainan

As published in the Billings Gazette

Gardening Today: Water-Wise Gardening

Waterwise Gardening:
Why Should Native Landscaping Be Important To Us?

Are you familiar with the term Xeriscape? If not, it is a term everyone should become familiar with, as it will have significant influence on our environment now and into the future.

The word Xeriscape is derived from the Greek word “xeros” meaning “dry”. In many parts of the West, rainfall is scarce. In Billings, we average approximately 10-12 inches of moisture a year. This classifies us as a semi-arid to arid desert climate. It is time we began educating ourselves on how to be efficient water-wise gardeners.

Consider this amazing fact: over half of all home water consumption is used on our lawns, plants and trees! With Billings and the surrounding Northwest entering our fifth year of severe drought, what can we be doing to conserve water?

There are 6 simple steps that can help with water conservation:

1. Plan and design comprehensively. Really think about your future needs.

2. Improve your soil with compost and organic matter to assist with moisture retention.

3. Reduce the size of your lawn area.

4. Plan ahead and group plants with similar water requirements together.

5. Irrigate efficiently. Set sprinkler heads to ensure water goes to plants and lawn only.

6. Use 2-3”of bark or rock mulch along with a landscape fabric underneath the mulch to slow water evaporation. Use caution with rocks as they can absorb and reflect heat.

By using water wise plants you could reduce your water usage from 1.5 inches a week to as little as half an inch every 2 weeks. Wow! Wouldn’t we all like to save that much water, money and energy when watering our plants and trees?

Remember the frequency of irrigation is dependent on the moisture requirements of the plants and the water holding capacity of the soil. Monitoring soil moisture to determine when to irrigate is far better than using a pre-set schedule. Soil water holding capacity varies due to soil types, the amount of organic matter that has been worked into the soil, and climatic changes such as wind, sun and cloud cover. Improper water use and poor irrigation scheduling waste millions of gallons a year.




Water Management Tips

1. Use mulches around all plantings to a depth of 2-3”.

2. Thoroughly wet soils to the depth of the root systems. Use the top growth as a measurement to water the same area underneath.

3. Sprinklers, soaker hoses and drip irrigation are more efficient than flood irrigating.

4. Prioritize which area needs water the most in severe drought or during water restrictions. Ex: vegetable gardens vs an established perennial garden.




Soil and its water holding capacity.

1. Soils with slow penetration can only take brief watering, otherwise run-off occurs.

2. Sandy soils dry out faster and hold less water.

3. Don’t apply water faster than the soil can absorb.

How can I measure the amount of water applied? It’s simple. Just use a spade to turn up a soil sample and check the amount of moisture present.

When we think desert or drought-tolerant sometimes all we can envision is cactus and yuccas. Not so. Here are some of my personal favorites. Experiment and enjoy while benefiting from the rewards of water wise gardening.




All of the following shrubs, trees, perennials and annuals have low water requirements.

Amelanchier - Juneberries.
Caragana - Peashrub.
Caryopteris - Blue mist spirea
Cercocarpus montanus – little leaf mountain mahogany
Diervillea - Bush honeysuckle
Eleagnus - Russian Olive.
Euonymus - Burning bush
Hippophae - Sea Buckthorn.
Juniperus - Columnar and spreading junipers
Lonicera - Honeysuckle all varieties.
Prunus - All varieties from trees to shrubs:
Amur chokecherry
Princeses Kay plum
American plum
Sour cherry
Flowering Almond
Rhus - All varieties of Sumac.
Rosa rugosa - groundcover shrub roses
Shepherdia - Buffaloberry
Syringa - All lilacs
Viburnum - Wayfaring tree.

Alliums - All varieties
Achillea - Yarrow all varieties
Aurinia - Basket of gold allysum
Arabis - white rockcress.
Armeria - Sea thrift
Artemesia - All varieties
Cerastium - Snow in the summer
Coreopsis - Threadleaf varietiescoreopsis
Coronilla - Crown vetch groundcover
Centranthus - Valerian
Chives – chives
Chrysothamnus - Rabbitbrush
Dianthus - all varieties
Echinacea – coneflower
Euphorbia - euphorbia
Gaillardia - blanketflower
Geranium - groundcover varieties
Gypsophilia - all varieties of baby’s breath
Helianthemum – Rockrose
Holodiscus – Ocean spray
Iris - german/bearded iris
Limonium - statice
Linum - Blue flax
Lychnis - all varieties
Origanum - oregano
Oenethera - evening primrose
Papaver - poppies
Penstemon - all varieties
Perovskia - Russian sage
Salvias – Meadowsage and edible sages
Sedum - all varieties
Stachys - Lambs ear
Thymus - all varieties (makes great small lawn substitute or between walkways)

Annuals: to add all summer color
African daisies
Annual statices
Babys breath
Calibrachoa – Million bells
Chrysanthemum multicaule
Dianthus - all varieties
Dusty miller - silver brocade
Herbs - most varieties
Papaver - California poppies
Portulaca-moss roses

Ornamental Grasses: clump forming
Big blue stem
Blue fescue
Blue lyme
Blue oat.
Little blue stem
Praire dropseed

Prairieland grasses: or alternative ideas to the typical water thirsty bluegrass lawns
Blue grama
Crested wheat
Side oats gram
Try Nebraska Blend or Low Profile Prairie Mix
All of the above in mixes work the best for a dryland native grass look and these grasses can be mowed monthly.

Trees: typically trees will need more moisture
Amelanchier Autumn Brilliance
Amur maple
Plum varieties
Russian olive
Plum varieties
Russian Olive

American Bittersweet
Silver Lace Vine
Dropmore Honeysuckle
Virginia Creeper