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The Garden Decoder: What Is ‘Hydrozoning’?

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The Garden Decoder: What Is ‘Hydrozoning’?

November 3, 2022

Most people know that I’m a total plant nerd, but I’m also—not surprisingly—a word nerd. (See, I even love that those two words rhyme.) So, naturally, when I heard the word “hydrozone” for the first time, I tried to sleuth out the whole definition. Obviously the concept revolved around water, but the question was how? Here’s what I learned.

What is hydrozoning?

Photograph by Marta Xochilt Perez, from \10 Edible Garden Ideas to Steal from Michigan&#8\2\17;s Favorite Foodie Farmers.
Above: Photograph by Marta Xochilt Perez, from 10 Edible Garden Ideas to Steal from Michigan’s Favorite Foodie Farmers.

Simply put, it’s a water-conserving gardening method whereby plants are grouped by their water, soil, and light needs. Unless you have planted only one plant (which I assume you haven’t), then a landscape with different plants will have varying thirst needs. But most irrigation systems provide the same amount of water to the entire garden. By setting up hydrozones, you can fine-tune the amount of watering so that all the thirstier plants get more water than the drought-tolerant ones.

Why create hydrozones?

Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista, from Ask the Expert: Roof Garden Basics with Designer Julie Farris.
Above: Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista, from Ask the Expert: Roof Garden Basics with Designer Julie Farris.

When you incorporate the hydrozone concept into your design, you can create a lovely garden that is both sustainable and water-wise. By managing your water and meeting the irrigation needs of each hydrozone, you can also encourage healthier plants that aren’t over- or under-watered (either can make plants susceptible to pests and disease.) Even if you don’t have an irrigation system set up and you hand water instead, clustering plants with the same needs makes the watering chore more efficient and effective.

How do you create hydrozones?

Photograph by Justine Hand, from Garden Visit: A Revolutionary Landscape in Concord, MA
Above: Photograph by Justine Hand, from Garden Visit: A Revolutionary Landscape in Concord, MA

The general idea is that you group plants that have similar water and growing needs so that the irrigation can be set up as efficiently as possible. Keep in mind these factors when figuring out your groupings: light requirements, water needs, soil conditions, temperature preferences, slopes and swales, and root depths of plants. Also, think about creating four main hydrozones: high (routine), moderate (reduced), low (limited), and very low water usage.

Ideally, every hydrozone should have a dedicated irrigation valve; the emitters in each zone should be spaced out and release the same amount of water to each plant in the zone. Pro tip: Plant your water-loving plants near your high use area, where they can be enjoyed, and your more drought-tolerant plants near perimeters and underused areas.

For more on watering plants, see:

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