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Simple Ways to Be Water-wise in Your Yard & Garden

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

It is spring at last! After a winter that at times seemed to stretch on and on, we are all eager to drag out the hoses, scrape away the winter duff, and begin greening our battered lawns and gardens, are we not? It is understandably tempting, but there are a few things to keep in mind as you prepare to coax your lawn or garden into life. Early spring is an essential period to consider the importance of water saving practices and how to minimize run-off. In this article I am going to discuss why water-wise gardening and minimizing run-off are important for clean water and offer three tips to get you started.

First, while last fall’s litter-mulch may not be as exciting as fresh new growth, it is important to use caution so that you don’t remove litter-mulch at a time when the soil and young plants still benefit from it. Keeping a layer of mulch on soil is a vital strategy for avoiding precious topsoil run-off at a time of year when the soil is uniquely vulnerable to erosion. Rain exacts the equivalent force of a hammer-blow to the soil, which makes it easy for a few spring rains to wreak havoc on unprotected garden areas. A protective layer of mulch acts as a softening blanket over the spring soil, helping to prevent the force of rain from washing soil away and adding to stormwater runoff. Mulch also has the added benefit of holding existing moisture in, which reduces the need for watering during dry spells by helping to regulate the soil moisture level. This is especially important for the spring of 2021. After a lower-than-average snowpack for much of the state, and an earlier than-average warm up, we are experiencing drier conditions. The safest guideline for winter mulch removal is based on the final frost date-- the average date for the last frost in your region-- since a hard spring frost can severely damage young plants.

Another long-term consideration to avoid spring run-off is to cultivate perennial ground-covers. At a time of year when annuals are still in their seed state, or tucked away in greenhouses preparing to emerge grown and ready, perennials are the superheroes we depend upon. It is true that many ground cover perennials are not leafed-out yet, with the exception of evergreens. Nonetheless, they are still powerfully engaged in the process of taking up water from the newly-thawing soil and therefore actively aiding to reduce water run-off and the potential for sediment pollution. To reduce run-off consider planting perennial ground cover in your garden this year. There are many to choose from such as Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis), Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), and spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata). With so many wonderful options, native or otherwise, there is sure to be a plant you will enjoy and which will help protect your garden from erosion.

Lastly, consider investing in a rain barrel. A rain barrel is one of those handy garden additions that once you have installed one, you’ll never understand how you lived so long without it. With thousands of gallons of rain falling on our roofs every year, a rain barrel is a great opportunity to reduce the effect of water pollution through unnecessary run-off and conserve it for the time and locations you need it most. Keeping a rain barrel allows you to conserve rainwater and slowly water areas that otherwise may have been blasted with the excess water pouring off your roof. You can also spread out the benefits of a good rain on container plants on your patio or under awnings that may otherwise have been missed. Rainwater, naturally, has not been treated and should not be used on edible portions of your garden. Using saved rain water on your yard and ornamental garden is a great water-wise practice-- one with many advantages, including healthier water for all. You can find your own rain barrel through The Recycling Association of Minnesota, which sells them online at, or at many local gardening stores.

As you continue into the delight that is springtime in the North, I wish you all a water-wise and healthy journey into the most exciting of gardening periods. I hope my three tips-- keeping your spring soil covered with mulch, cultivating perennial ground covers, and using a rain barrel-- help you as we all work to create healthier water in our communities and waterwise lawns and gardens.

Writer Biography

Krystal Morley joined the Master Gardener Volunteer Program in Ramsey County as an intern in 2020. She lives in St. Paul with her speckled sussex hen, Mrs. Bennett, as well as with her partner and eight year old son.

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