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Garden walks can help gardeners conserve water, maintain beauty

  • Jane Scurich
  • Has your garden wilted? Are you adding more frequent days to your irrigation schedule and watching your water bill soar into the second and third pricing tier, and getting sticker shock? Do not fear — help is near!

    Marin-friendly garden walks are a free service offered by a partnership between UC Marin master gardeners and Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) to provide homeowners countywide with information and advice on improving their irrigation practices to help conserve Marin’s precious water resources.

    After scheduling your complimentary walk, a two-person team of master gardeners, trained to conduct a water use audit, will arrive. We are an all-volunteer organization with a mission to extend research-based knowledge and information on home horticulture, pest management and sustainable landscape practices to Marin residents.

    I recently had the opportunity to spend time with Becca Ryan, a 10-year “walker.”

    Ryan and her walk partner, Doyleen McMurtry, have conducted more than 350 of the almost 1,600 completed walks, and each brings a unique perspective. McMurtry has a California native garden and is knowledgeable about drought-tolerant plants. Ryan has studied irrigation systems and can help solve your water delivery problems.

    What can you expect from a garden walk? Ryan arrives with a folder filled with information for helping make better choices for conserving precious water resources while still enjoying a beautiful, floral and edible garden. She emphasizes she and her fellow walkers are in no way planning to advise you to get rid of that lawn or give up your favorite water guzzlers. What she will do is offer you options to balance your water needs. While you might feel comfortable planting a water-thirsty specimen based on last year’s rainfall, will you be able to maintain that plant when we enter another inevitable drought cycle? Perhaps a similar specimen with a Mediterranean heritage might be more sustainable.

    For that thirsty plant you absolutely can’t live without, walkers may help you identify a location where its water needs might be less, or suggest grouping it with plants having similar cultural needs.

    When asked what is the most common water-wasters she encounters, Ryan identifies three: something is broken in the irrigation system or the plants are being watered too little or too frequently.

    I asked Ryan and McMurtry what home gardeners should do to prepare for a walk. Both agree that no advance preparation is required.

    “Many people think their garden has to be in perfect shape to have a garden walk, but from the master gardener perspective the most gratifying walks to do are those where people and their gardens need a lot of help,” says McMurtry.

    Ryan offers some practical advice: “Be familiar with the irrigation controller.”

    Of course, I was curious about what motivates Ryan to volunteer her time for these walks. She explains that she has always been interested in ecology and sustainability. She also confesses that she joined the group not so much as a gardener, but as an extension of her social consciousness. She’s interested in helping people enjoy their gardens, while also being conservative with their water use and not being wasteful. She considers micro-climates, slope, shade and desired use among other factors when she visits: No “one-size-fits-all” solution exists.

    While water remains the focus of the walks, it is also an opportunity to quiz the team about other garden concerns. What is this plant? What do you think is bugging my geranium? While the team may not always have the answer, they do know how to refer it to the help desk, our resource to address challenging questions.

    Do yourself, your garden and our limited water supply a favor and schedule a free garden walk. Go to ucanr.edu/sites/MarinMG, scroll down to garden walk in the lefthand column, click on the link and complete the application. Or call 415-473-4204.