The longer I garden, the more certain I become that this garden of mine will never be finished. It’s all good, though. As one gardening season follows another, I like to think that I’m growing a little wiser as I grow older. One thing I’ve learned is that my small patch of earth is deeply connected to the rest of the world.

I have a confession to make. I admit that I’ve long considered water to be something I had plenty of, and I lavishly sprayed it over lawns and garden beds (and sometimes inadvertently down the driveway and street). As clean water becomes a more precious commodity, conservation should be everyone’s concern.

These days, it’s impossible to ignore a gardening style that’s more sustainable. Xeric gardens (“xeros” is the Greek word for “dry”) are popping up everywhere. The term used to scare me. I thought xeric gardens consisted of a few prickly plants, no flowers, lots of rocks, and the requisite bleached cow skull to reinforce the impression that conditions were very, very dry.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Lush, colorful native plants, along with hundreds of newly introduced perennials from all over the world, thrive in arid eastern Washington, but with fewer resources, less effort, and without sacrificing a garden’s beauty. I just needed some help in learning how to build a garden around them.

That’s why the day it was announced, I registered for a free March workshop at the Yakima Area Arboretum, “Heritage Gardens of the Columbia River Basin.” Sponsored by the North and South Yakima Conservation Districts, its focus was not only to create landscaped areas (Heritage Gardens) that utilized water conservation, but also to honor the cultural and natural heritage of the Columbia Basin.

It was a good thing I signed up quickly, because the class was filled to capacity. Thanks to a grant from the Washington State Department of Ecology through the Municipal Subgroup of the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, I discovered that tremendous resources are now available, at no cost, to Yakima County gardeners and business owners interested in converting to lower water-use landscapes. A concept that was planted in the Tri-Cities is ready to bloom in the Yakima Valley.

It all started with a fairly simple idea. In December 2010, Donna Lucas, a member of the Columbia Basin Chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society, approached Heather Wendt at the Benton Conservation District about developing a program to promote low-water-use landscaping using native plants. The timing was perfect, because the BCD was having difficulty changing the public’s perception that low-water-use landscaping was barren and uninteresting. Donna suggested that, if the BCD called what they had in mind a “garden,” and not a “xeriscape,” their idea would be far more appealing.

Together the BCD and the Columbia Basin Native Plant Society spent the next 18 months refining the Heritage Garden concept, which includes these elements:

FLORA

Five different species of plants, sited in locations that match their requirements for water, light, and soil conditions, must be used. 75 percent should be Washington State native plants, and 30 percent of them must need less than 10” of water annually. No more than 10 percent must need more than 30” of water annually.

FAUNA

At least one water source is available for wildlife.

CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE

At least one plant species of cultural significance is included. Examples are plants that indigenous people used for food, shelter, or medicine; or species noted on the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

GEOLOGICAL FEATURES

Basalt flows and ice-age floods shaped the predominant geologic features of our Valley. Include at least one of these features, such as basalt columns, large basalt for mulch, small crushed basalt for mulch and foot paths, river rock, basalt used as a bench, or flood-tumbled boulders.

IRRIGATION SYSTEM

The system is designed to apply appropriate amounts of water to each planting zone. Usually a drip system will provide water to plants that, once established, will require less than 10” of water annually.

WEED CONTROL

All plants on the Washington state Noxious Weed List are excluded. The simple fact is that if you don’t control weeds before you plant, they will control you.

If the above requirements are met, and the garden complies with all county and city codes, laws, ordinances, and HOA rules, the garden will receive a yard sign stating that it is a certified Heritage Garden. What’s the big deal? Implementation of these elements provides an average water savings of 20 gallons per square foot each year, compared to growing a lawn.

Planners were wise to recognize that if their program was going to be successful, site-specific plant recommendations and individualized advice on how to create a Heritage Garden had to be available to the public. They didn’t have to look far to find the perfect person to do that.

Ann Autrey attended a Heritage Garden workshop in the Tri-Cities four years ago. Ann is a beekeeper, gardener and former educator, living on a small farm in West Richland. An area behind an old barn she upcycled into a working greenhouse grew nothing but Wood’s Rose and weeds. Armed with information from the workshop and boundless enthusiasm, she decided to transform the eyesore into a Heritage Garden.

Before Ann could do anything else, she mowed down the weeds and brush and covered the stubble with black plastic. Allowing the area to bake all summer killed most of the weeds and gave her a blank slate to begin with. Native plants are tough and resilient, but they cannot compete with invasive weeds.

Next, she installed 100 native plants on the hillside, traversed by meandering gravel trails she laid herself, and completed the other requirements for having her Heritage Garden certified. Along the way, she developed a deep understanding and love for arid eastern Washington’s native plants.

As part of that grant from the Washington State Department of Ecology, the Benton Conservation District was able to hire Ann as a Heritage Garden program assistant. Currently, she travels to Yakima on Tuesdays and Thursdays, meeting with local gardeners and business owners interested in making a Heritage Garden. There is no charge for her visit.

Scheduling an appointment doesn’t mean that you’re ready to rip out your entire landscape and start all over again. Perhaps there is a narrow strip of lawn along your driveway that’s impossible to keep green, or you have a weed patch of your own that you just know is destined for greater things. Maybe a list of native plants that thrive in Yakima would help you get started, or you need help making your irrigation system more water-conserving.

While six criteria must be met if your garden becomes a Certified Heritage Garden, Ann can help you define just one or two aspects to begin with.

Carol came to Yakima 34 years ago from Buffalo, NY. She and her husband, John, found paradise on one and a third acres just west of Franklin Park, where they raised three children and became Master Gardeners.