Claire Nordlie, Sustainability Coordinator, City of Santa Rosa
As we experience the “new normal” of destructive wildfires paired with recent record-breaking temperatures over the past few years in California, it’s easy to feel hopeless about the effects of climate change. According to Climate Ready Sonoma County: Climate Hazards and Vulnerabilities, a report prepared by North Bay Climate Adaptation Initiative for the Sonoma County Regional Climate Protection Authority, climate change will affect Sonoma County by bringing higher average temperatures, more extreme heat events, more frequent and intense droughts, and more variable rain. This water year, Sonoma County only received one-third of our average annual rainfall, making it the third driest year on record for the last 127 years.
One small way to help our community mitigate and adapt to climate change is through gardening. Our residential landscapes are an opportunity to plant beautiful, low water use plants that attract bees and butterflies, and provide food and shelter for local birds. Our gardens are also an opportunity to slow, sink and spread rainwater offsetting water quality impacts to our creeks, and to provide shade for our sidewalks and houses to reduce high temperatures. Residential landscapes can also help reduce a property’s vulnerability to fire. Firescaping, the idea of designing a home landscape in such a way to reduce vulnerability to fire, can benefit the whole community.
An often overlooked feature of a sustainable and water-wise garden is soil health. Soil is a living ecosystem full of organisms, bacteria, fungi and microbes that provide nutrients for plant growth, absorb water, and filter pollutants. Plants cannot be successful without healthy soil. To keep soil healthy, minimize soil erosion including maintaining a 3” layer of mulch and minimizing soil disturbance, building organic matter by adding compost to the soil and limiting the use of fertilizers. Mulch also has the benefit of maintaining soil moisture, reducing the need for additional irrigation.
Although summer is associated with being outside and gardening, fall is actually the best time to plant in Sonoma County. Planting in the fall reaps the benefits of fall and winter rains, establishing the plants without the need for irrigation. Fall is also the time to turn off the irrigation system. Although it may feel like the days are still warm, plants are adapted to signals from nature such as fewer day light hours, and naturally need less water than in spring and summer. The City of Santa Rosa offers free weekly watering recommendations at srcity.org/WaterSmartYard, which can be helpful to determine if irrigation really is needed.
There are a multitude of resources available to help create a sustainable water-wise garden. Before you start your project, check in with your local utility to see if they offer a rebate to remove grass and install a low water-use garden or upgrade your irrigation system. The Sonoma-Marin Saving Water Partnership represents 12 water utilities in Sonoma and Marin Counties and offers free landscape design templates online, to take the guesswork out of designing a new garden. More information can be found at savingwaterpartnership.org. To find a Qualified Water Efficient Landscaper to implement and maintain the new garden design visit qwel.net. Be sure to look for the Water Smart plant label at local nurseries which identifies plants that are low-water use and native.
Sonoma County residents can help mitigate the effects of and adapt to climate change through our garden and gardening practices. Please do your part to help keep Sonoma County WaterSmart.