Water conservation gardening

by Jan Spann

Summers in Central Arkansas can be brutal, for both people and plants.

The challenge for your landscape becomes even more critical as public water departments impose restrictions for landscapes. It’s sensible to choose human needs over shrubs and plants, but we do love our lawns, so what’s the answer? 

A Faulkner County partnership between the local water utility and Master Gardeners lets the flowers do the talking, and there has been plenty of buzz around the Legacy Gardens in Conway.

For more than a decade, Faulkner County Master Gardeners (FCMG) have partnered with Conway Corporation, the local utility that provides water and other services to Conway residents. 

When the company needed to expand onto the land where the original water conservation garden was planted, CEO Rich Arnold met with a core group of FCMGs. The goal for both the gardeners and the utility company was to provide a garden that was both attractive and educational to the general public.

The Faulkner County Cooperative Extension Service (under which FCMG falls) had moved to a new building, the Natural Resources Center, on Amity Road. The NRC building and property are owned by the Faulkner County Conservation District.

After receiving approval from the NRC Board, chief designers Joel Stout and Charlie DeBoard drew up the initial plan for the one-acre plot, outlining the borders using grass killer spray. Construction began in July 2009 when 75 dump truck loads of soil were delivered, and dozers were used to sculpt the piles of soil into the berms envisioned by Stout and DeBoard. 

Committee leaders Paula Adlong, Molly Jones and Ouida Wright coordinated FCMG workdays, where dozens of MGs volunteered hundreds of hours to bring the project to reality as quickly as Mother Nature allowed. 

In addition to the Conway Corporation backing, the concept of a public garden garnered support from Nabholz Construction Services and the Good Earth at Menifee. From businesses to garden clubs to individuals, it “took a village” to create what is now shared, experienced and enjoyed by many.

For both Conway Corporation and FCMG, the primary mission of Legacy Gardens is to demonstrate garden planning and maintenance methods that conserve water. 

Conway Corporation donated and installed the sprinkler system, which incorporates a variety of irrigation techniques to show watering methods that are site and plant specific. The irrigation system was activated in June 2010, and Conway Corporation employees showed the MGs how to adjust the zones and schedules to fit the various needs of the plants. Just one month later, the gardens were in bloom and doing their job attracting butterflies and other creatures.

Naming the garden was also important to the Master Gardeners. “We wanted to honor the gift that Conway Corporation and FCMG is giving to the public, and we want it to be a continuing inspiration for gardeners, now and in the future,” said Sunnie Ruple, Vilonia resident and Butterfly Garden co-chair.

The 10 contiguous areas have more than 1,000 feet of handicapped accessible pathways and include a rose garden developed by the Central Arkansas Rose Society. To capture a child’s imagination, the children’s garden includes “eyeball plants” (spilanthes), lamb’s ear and a peanut plant. It also uses natural “sitting rocks” and stepping stones.  

Plant selections emphasize plants that are drought-tolerant, low maintenance and non-invasive, using as many cultivars of native Arkansas plants as possible. 

Having visited many public gardens, the Faulkner County MGs were determined that all plantings would have identification that was easy to read and not hidden under the leaves. Brochures that identify the plants are available in an onsite information station. 

Within the larger design, the plan incorporates garden sections that will allow homeowners and landscapers to see possible home garden layouts for specific concepts (e.g. a rose garden, a formal garden, a children’s garden), hardscape features (such as seating, pathways and borders) and a low-maintenance fountain. A garden pergola, which will provide sheltered space for an outdoor classroom, is also planned.

For Conway Corporation, the goal is to show homeowners how to reduce grass lawns and increase garden areas that use less water. As an added benefit, the homeowner will have more time to spend on leisure activities instead of feeding, weeding and mowing the turf!

The Legacy Gardens were officially dedicated in October 2011, but the bees and butterflies and the caterpillars had already graced the garden with their presence. As intended, the Legacy Gardens has been the destination for class field trips, garden clubs, for wedding photography and for budding bug lovers.  

“The Legacy Gardens were designed to delight and to educate by providing our community with a working demonstration landscape that is easily accessible to visitors,” said Ouida Wright. “We show how to use low-water-use irrigation methods, how to attract butterflies and birds, how to establish a low maintenance landscape in Central Arkansas that is a ‘green’ alternative to traditional turf lawn and how to minimize or avoid the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides.”

But that’s not where this legacy ends. 

The 11 counties in the 501 all have County Extension Offices, with agents available
to help individuals determine the drought tolerant plants suitable for a garden, starting with a soil test. Faulkner County Extension agent Kami Marsh notes that this demonstration garden is designed so that homeowners can see the results and be inspired to try it at home. 

Contact your local water utility and ask for support in building a demonstration garden. The Vilonia Waterworks installed water conservation landscaping at its office after visiting with a local Master Gardener.

You can also use my simple method to swap lawns for gardens. Twenty years ago when we moved to Conway, I started each fall and laid one thick newspaper section down in a line where the garden met the lawn. 

I then covered that with play sand available at any home center, and by spring, the newspaper disintegrated, and the sand mulched into the soil, making it ever so much easier to pull up the Bermuda grass. 

Now both the front and back yards have large garden areas with easy maintenance plants and a small plot of Zoysia grass just large enough for the grandkids to play croquet.

In the 1950s, the suburban ideal was the manicured lawn, but it’s time to recognize the faulty logic of this turf battle. If it takes you longer than 10 minutes to mow your lawn, consider a new plan with plants that aren’t so thirsty.