Raleigh, NC

How-To Have a Water-Wise Garden

Bee Better Naturally with Helen Yoest


There was a time when I thought of water as a renewable resource. Deep down, I still want to still believe this. Although our water supply does get recharged (some years are better than others), the distribution of this water over my property varies. Each year, the gain isn’t necessarily equal to the loss—sometimes we take more than nature gives.

Since I come from a land of 44 inches of rain a year, you may be surprised to hear me touting water-wise garden design. Out West, this is a way of life. However, on the East Coast, we have been experiencing long periods of drought in recent years. If Raleigh’s annual rainfall came an inch a week, there would be little need for a water-wise design. But it doesn’t. Summers, in particular, can be hot and dry. It wasn’t until we were experiencing the worst drought in 100 years, with outdoor watering restrictions and no major rain in sight, that I began to take note.

Waterwise gardening is not new, but gardeners seem to have drifted from understanding the benefits and techniques of water-wise design. This strategy is not limited to gardening in a drought, but is a practical and effective way to garden anywhere, while at the same time promoting good environmental stewardship of our land and water.

The main way to achieve a water-wise design is to group plants with similar needs together. My design has saved me countless hours of watering, plus the cost associated with that. But I soon realized a water-saving design also cemented a map of my garden and thereby simplified my plant purchases.

In the past before acquiring a plant, I would only think of the plant’s sun requirements. If it needed extra water and I loved the plant, I didn’t pay much attention to where I’d plant it. I assumed that I would stay on top of its needs. I rarely did, of course. Now when I select a plant, I think of not only the sun requirements, but water requirements as well. I know exactly where in my garden the plant can go, based on the map of my water-wise garden. Today, I’ll put a plant back on the shelf if I can’t meet its sun requirements and also find room in the appropriate bed. Although it was hard at first, looking back, I have no regrets. With so many great plants out there, I’ll just keep looking for those that meet my needs.

Remember, too, water-wise isn’t limited to drought tolerant plants. It’s a planting scheme that uses all different kinds of plants, from agaves to tropicals, and places them into efficient beds based on their various watering needs. The beds in a water-wise garden are divided into three gardening zones: oasis, transitional, and xeric.

The oasis zone is the area closest to the water source. These sources can be drain spouts, rain barrels, or a faucet and hose. Also include the area around the front door as an oasis, where you can easily water your container plants with water collected indoors.

The transitional zone is the area away from the house, about midway from the home to the end of the property. Plantings here should be sustainable, requiring only occasional supplemental water. Typically, these areas are island beds, driveway beds, or raised beds.

The xeric zone is at the property’s perimeter. These plants should be tough and should not require supplemental water. This area can be filled with dependable, drought-resistant plants.

It’s not difficult to be water wise. Get a rain gauge, and pay attention to the local rainfall. Only water when plants need watering. Even the thirstiest plants, once established, only need about an inch of water a week. (However, container gardens may need daily watering in the heat of the summer.) Remember to mulch—it’s moisture-trapping ability will be your best defense against drought!


Being water wise goes beyond plant choices and bed placements. Think about other garden features as well. A major focal point in my front garden is a six-foot tall, three-tiered fountain. It is a fantastic feature for sound, attracting wildlife, and it’s good looking, too. I refill the water with harvested rain I capture in a 250-gallon converted food storage container. These containers abound, since they have only a one-time use. After their initial use, they either go to the landfill, or clever people find ways to repurpose them. They make great rain harvesters for gardeners, and only slight modifications are needed. My harvester sits at the corner of the property on the south side—the same side the fountain is on—but the harvester is next to the house. The drain spout diverts rainwater into the harvester, with overflow going to an oasis bed. I have a hose hooked up at the bottom of the harvester. When the fountain needs re-filling, all I need to do is turn the valve. If I don’t have water, I don’t turn on the fountain. It still provides water for the wildlife when it’s not running. When the fountain is running, it’s a signal to all that we are rain rich, for the moment anyway. While I enjoy the fountain most when it’s running, I also value its silence, which means water is being conserved and used only when available. Silence makes a major statement in the Bee Better Teaching Garden and in water-wise design.

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Pollinator-friendly, sustainable, good design

Raleigh, NC

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