Fresh water may become very expensive. Rationing is waiting in the wings. Water rates are rising. Just because it rained in February doesn't lessen the need to conserve for the dry months ahead.
I recently learned that approximately 97 percent of earth's water is saltwater; another 2 percent is held in glaciers and ice caps. That leaves one percent freshwater to be used by 6 billion people, and half of that has been polluted. A United Nations report, "Coping with Water Scarcity," projects two-thirds of the world's population will be facing a water scarcity by 2025.
At least a third of the average Marin Municipal Water District customer's bill is for the garden. If mandatory rationing demands we reduce our water consumption by 30 percent or more, would you give up watering your lawn, your thirsty rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and hydrangeas? You might think, "There goes the garden!"
The good news is you can still have a garden, a garden of water-wise plants, using California and Mediterranean natives that tolerate months without rain. All plants need some water, but the thirsty ones can really run your water bill up.
Think of Mediterranean plants, succulents and California natives. How do you find them? They will be at your local nursery. How do you know what to ask for?
The Marin Master Gardeners have just created a "fast easy way to view photographs of these plants and get quick information," according to Master Gardener Jeanne Ballestero, co-creator of a new Web site, Water Wise Plant Selector, designed specifically for Marin gardens. She and Linda Thompson envisioned the site to be user-friendly and have chosen plants they know from experience will grow well in the county. Ballestero admits to choosing some of her favorites, but the plants were selected after canvassing a number of Marin Master Gardeners for their recommendations. The site is atwww.marinmg.org and will continue to have additional information.
The site now includes how to determine your micro-climate in Marin - from the cool fogs of Sausalito to the warm brown hills of Novato. This is an important first step in choosing plant material and it's where you start when you log on. Each plant is sorted by type - ferns, shrubs, trees, vines and others - and whether or not it is a California native. It also identifies each plant for deer resistance, its wildlife value, water usage and drainage requirements.
There are planting and irrigation tips, advice on mulching and soil health. There are even links to fire-resistant and invasive plants. The photographs not only include a close up of each plant, but also a longer view of how it might look with other plants in a garden.
The site will eventually include articles on good and bad bugs and how to deal with each, and photographs of local public gardens designed and maintained by Master Gardeners with links to the particular plants in them.
I made a couple of suggestions that didn't make it onto the Web site. One is Agapanthus orientalis, or Lily of the Nile, from South Africa. In Greek its name means "flower of love." It is probably not included because the buds are deer candy, but if you can get around that problem its water use is low. In shades of blue or white, the blooms are showy and make good cut flowers. The long shiny leaves are green year round.
Another undemanding plant is centranthus ruber or Jupiter's Beard, again a Mediterranean native whose water use is low. It tolerates poor soil and gives flowers most of the year from pink to deep red. Deer don't like it, but it naturalizes and can become invasive. Some consider it a weed for that reason. Its gray-green leaves grow along the stems in well-separated clusters.
If you want someone to get you started on saving water in your garden, sign up for the Bay Friendly Water Walk program co-sponsored by Marin Municipal Water District and the UC Marin Master Gardeners. Call the UCCE office at 507-2645 to schedule a water walk and a couple of Master Gardeners will come to your garden, evaluate your water use and share helpful information.
This service (available only to MMWD customers) is free, takes about an hour and can get you thinking about conserving that most valuable natural resource - water.
The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 499-4204 from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, or bring in samples or pictures to 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato.