With gardens wilting under these dry, hot, brittle conditions and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection declared a statewide drought watch, Union County gardeners have some tips to keep gardens lush and alive.

Native plants are the way to go to conserve water, said Union County Commissioner Bette Jane Kowalski.

These do best in all kinds of conditions and can tolerate the extremes.

She said people may like the look of bright, tropical flowers that come from other places but if you have to water them every day and there is a drought, they are not the best plants to have in a garden.

But there are many beautiful native plants to choose from. Union County’s free downloadable guide to planting native species, “Plant This, Not That” is available online.

Rain garden with native plants at Trailside Nature and Science Center (Photo Credit: Rutgers NJAES)
Rain garden with native plants at Trailside Nature and Science Center (Photo Credit: Rutgers NJAES)
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Drought-wise gardens not only help avoid the cost of high-maintenance plantings, and they save on water bills, Kowalski said.

“Overall they need less water and they can do well without the chemical fertilizer and pesticides which is going to save money too. It’s another benefit,” she said.

Plus, native plants also attract butterflies, birds, and other beneficial pollinators.

If you like ornamental grass, Kowalski recommends using switchgrass. Dense blazing star is a nice flower. Barren strawberry is a great ground cover. For shrubs, she suggested a Christmas fern. As far as native trees, she said go with white fringe and red maple.

Besides native plants, how else can you keep gardens from wilting?

Use mulch to keep water from evaporating. Deploy native plants and shrubs in specialized rain gardens to help reduce ponding and flooding during heavy rains.

Rain gardens are designed to absorb more of the rainwater into the ground, she added. This helps to sustain the garden bed during extremely dry periods.

“If you have an in-ground irrigation system, we recommend that you have a look at that and make sure that it’s not leaking. We ask that people avoid sprinklers in times of drought and use a hose or watering can,” Kowalski said.

She knows these tactics may be more labor intensive but in times like this, it’s better for the environment and it will help save water.

Rain garden with native plants at Trailside Nature and Science Center (Photo Credit: Rutgers NJAES)
Rain garden with native plants at Trailside Nature and Science Center (Photo Credit: Rutgers NJAES)
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Using rain barrels is another great way to save water. Rain barrels are hooked up to the spouts coming down from house gutters. Instead of having all the water rush off the house and into the street, possibly contributing to flooding, the rain barrels save the water, and then gardeners have extra water for thirsty plants and flowers if needed, Kowalski said.

Another way to conserve water is to have a lot of trees. She said the more trees you have on your property, the more drought resistant your property is going to be.

“I happen to have a property with a lot of trees. My front lawn, even in this dry period is not looking all brown. It’s mostly green. The reason is it’s shaded by trees. Trees conserve water and they also are resistant to periods when the water is not so much in supply,” Kowalski said.

There are tree stewards with the Rutgers Co-op of Union County that will talk to any group about which trees to plant and how to maintain them, she added.

Where can you get inspiration for a garden full of native species?

To see local rain gardens in person and to get some great inspiration for your own garden, Kowalski suggested visiting Union County’s Trailside Nature and Science Center located in the Watchung Reservation in Mountainside. There are five gardens in all to see. The gardens help prevent storm runoff from damaging a nearby hiking trail, as well.

Rain garden with native plants at Trailside Nature and Science Center (Photo Credit: Rutgers NJAES)
Rain garden with native plants at Trailside Nature and Science Center (Photo Credit: Rutgers NJAES)
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They are open to the public every day from dawn to dusk.

For more information about landscaping for water conservation in New Jersey, visit the Rutgers New Jersey Agriculture Experiment Station at www.njaes.rutgers.edu/home-lawn-garden/water-conservation.

Jen Ursillo is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach her at jennifer.ursillo@townsquaremedia.com

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