The Coastal Gardener: Become wise about water at workshop

"I wish I didn't have to water my garden so much."

"I want to remove part of my grass, but I don't know how to kill it."

"If I got rid of my lawn I wouldn't know what to plant."

"I wish all that precious rainwater wasn't just wasted."

If these are familiar thoughts, then spend next Thursday evening with me and other experts at Newport Beach's third WaterMiser Workshop. It's a free educational program being held at the Newport Beach Public Library.

A thoughtfully designed garden may enhance a home. However, it is often subtle things that make a difference in how effectively water is applied to that garden and what happens to that water once it enters the garden.

The compacted, clay soils that are common in many of our local gardens make water management a tricky science for most homeowners. If too much water is applied, or if it's applied too quickly, it simply runs off and into the storm drain. Conversely, if short bursts of water are applied, it fails to penetrate more than an inch or two into these poorly aerated soils.

The simple act of building a home wreaks terrible havoc on a garden's soil. Heavy earth-movers and delivery trucks converge, compacting the ground and squeezing out the important air spaces that plant roots need. That's bad news for water conservation, since most gardeners respond by watering lightly and frequently — a wasteful and inefficient habit; a habit that's also bad for the plants.

To compound matters, we tend to cover large portions of our soil with sidewalks, patios, buildings, driveways, stonework and other paving, With so many impermeable surfaces, precious water from irrigations and rainfall gushes down the driveway and into the street, taking with it fertilizer, chemicals, sediment and a hefty load of environmental pollutants. Storm drains become overloaded, and in the end the fresh water our plants depend upon ends up miles away in an ocean or bay.

Water shortages have been an issue for so long that most people now are trying to do their part by planting drought-tolerant species and watering more carefully. The thirsty green lawn is no longer the suburban prize it once was. Yet permeability in landscaping is just starting to catch on as an appropriate gardening practice. Basically, it means increasing the percentage of landscaped areas with permeable surfaces, preventing rainwater from leaving the site.

Plant selection, design, irrigation, turf and permeability are just some of the topics we'll be talking about at this city-sponsored workshop. This year, my portion of the program will be focused on "practical" approaches that just about everyone can do. I'll use my own home garden as the laboratory as I walk through the steps I took to not only conserve water, but to install a garden that requires little maintenance time, supports wildlife and doesn't pollute. Equally as important was my goal of celebrating plants; unusual plants, plants with character, plants with stories to tell, and plants that draw the viewer for a closer inspection.

The WaterMiser Workshop is from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and is open to everyone, not just residents of Newport Beach.

It is free, but the organizers do ask that an RSVP call be placed to (949) 644-3214 to ensure there will be plenty of seats, refreshments and snacks. The Newport Beach Central Library is at 1000 Avocado Ave. The workshop will be in the Friends Meeting Room. Several vendors and other experts will be set up in the courtyard, so come early if you can. A plant raffle will take place at the conclusion of the evening.

Ron Vanderhoff is the nursery manager at Roger's Gardens, Corona del Mar

Ask Ron

Question: I really enjoyed your columns on fruit tree pruning a couple of months ago. I never really know how to prune these trees. After reading your columns I realized I was making several mistakes. Is it too late to prune my grape vines? If not, can you give a couple pointers?

Chad, Costa Mesa

Answer: Most home gardeners don't grow grape vines in a classic vineyard style — on wires in a mostly two-dimensional manner. Home grapes usually are grown for a blend of ornament and fruit, so I suggest a more relaxed approach to grape pruning. For most locally grown grape varieties, start by leaving a long cane that has between 10 and 14 buds. Cut any extra length from your grape canes. As a general rule, leave four to six canes per vine. The more vigorous the vine, the more canes you can leave. Weaker vines should have fewer canes. Choose canes that are approximately half-inch in diameter and that are exposed to lots of sunlight. After selected your main fruiting canes, choose an additional strong cane that arises near the base of each of these fruiting canes and cut it, leaving a spur with one or two buds. These are called renewal spurs, and they will produce shoots from which you will select new fruiting canes next year.

If this process sounds a bit complicated, it really isn't. There are several websites that offer diagrams, making the chore pretty straightforward. It's not too late, Chad, but I'd get the pruning done this weekend if you can.

ASK RON your toughest gardening questions, and the expert nursery staff at Roger's Gardens will come up with an answer. Please include your name, phone number and city, and limit queries to 30 words or fewer. E-mail, or write to Plant Talk at Roger's Gardens, 2301 San Joaquin Hills Road, Corona del Mar, CA 92625.

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