In recent years we have heard more and more about the scarcity of water. This issue is one of major concern to us as gardeners since the most likely time we will be asked to curtail, cut back or stop outdoor water use altogether, is when we need it the most. As gardeners, we should lead the way in our respective communities to meet the challenge of conserving water.
It is estimated that our water use increases by 60% during warm months. A good deal of water is used washing cars, filling swimming pools, and hosing down the kids, but a full 40% of all outdoor water is used on our lawns and gardens. It doesn’t seem logical that we should use one of our most precious natural resources this way. Here are a few facts and ideas about how we might continue gardening and still conserve water.
The best time to water (especially during hot weather) is when wind speeds are low and humidity is high. This generally occurs in the wee hours before dawn. Most of us know that this is the best time to reduce loss due to evaporation, yet how often do we find ourselves watering in the late afternoon or at midday due to convenience? Evaporation rates can run from 40% to as much as 80% on any given day, depending on temperature, wind, humidity.
Early morning watering also promotes general plant health by reducing the incidence of fungal disease due to the fact that leaf surfaces dry quickly after sunrise. If you are not an early riser, you can purchase a simple timer that connects to your faucet to turn on your water system automatically. These devices are inexpensive and easy to operate. Just be sure to make sure it functions properly and turn the system off if rain is likely.
Today’s automated irrigation systems can be equipped with rain sensors or moisture meters to shut off the system when rain or adequate moisture is present. When used prudently, automatic irrigation can save us time, money, and water. When used thoughtlessly, it can waste more water than any other system. Please don’t “set it and forget it.” Check your system regularly for leaks and malfunctions. Adjust heads to avoid watering the street, sidewalks, driveways, and other hard-surfaced areas.
DRIP MORE SPRAY LESS
Drip systems have a bright future and will definitely play a major role in helping to conserve water. When it comes to water conservation, drip is hard to beat. Drip systems apply water directly to the ground so very little is lost to evaporation. The slow delivery allows water to soak in so runoff is not a problem. In addition, drip irrigation has the added benefit of less plant disease since leaf surfaces are kept dry and there is no splashing of water droplets to carry spores from plant to plant.
We don’t see a lot of folks collecting rainwater or irrigation runoff, but you do see avid gardeners doing it. The amount of water that flows off our rooftops and down our streets is astounding. Whether you employ a five-gallon bucket or a 5,000-gallon storage tank, any amount you can store is free of charge. There are as many ways of collecting and storing rainwater as there are ways of building compost piles.
Watering deeply when you do water can eventually lead to less watering altogether. We are well aware of the ability of plants to adapt to a multitude of situations such as different soil types, hot and cold, sun or shade, and so forth. What we may not be as aware of is the fact that plants will also adapt themselves to the routine care we give them. In other words, if our plants become used to having a constant supply of water, they will become more susceptible to damage during droughts.
Plants that are constantly being watered have no reason to put down deep roots. Conversely, plants that are allowed to dry out between waterings will extend strong roots deep into the soil as they follow the available water down into the soil profile. I learned to do what nature does, that is, I water deeply but less frequently. Look for signs of wilting before watering. Landscapes that are “drought-proofed” in this manner will have better survivability when the chips are down.
The best plants for your particular area are, of course, the plants that are native to your area. The state of Texas has in recent years been delineated into ten different vegetational zones or ecoregions. These regions give us a better idea of the types of plants we can easily grow than do the standard USDA plant hardiness zones that only give us a reference to average winter lows and plants that can survive those low temperatures.
For example, Texarkana, Wichita Falls, and El Paso are all in USDA zone 7b. Yet, when you look at the vegetational zones, you will find that Texarkana is in a forested region, Wichita Falls is on a prairie, and El Paso is in a desert. Three vastly different ecosystems! We can’t expect to grow the same plants successfully in all three of these cities. The nursery industry has traditionally sought out plants that will grow in a wide range of soil types and weather conditions. As water shortage continues to become a serious issue, the nursery industry will have to turn away from this one-size-fits-all type of marketing.
Gardeners should be leading the way by planting our landscapes with local native plants and well-adapted imports. You may have to drive a little farther to find a good native plant nursery, but it is well worth it as these folks know their business and can save you literally thousands of dollars in maintenance.
FEED AND MULCH SOIL
As all veteran gardeners know, compost is truly a miracle. Compost feeds all plants and improves all soils — and it helps all soils hold water. It is nature’s perfect fertilizer as it slowly releases all minerals and nutrients needed by plants. Mulch helps suppress weeds and slows evaporation and protects roots from extremes of heat and cold. Furthermore, if you begin your plantings with compost and continue with the regular addition of a good covering of organic material as mulch, you will create a soil environment that is self-sustaining, perfect for plants, and require no chemical input. Spread the word — and the compost!
Gardeners and gardening make the world a better place. The more we can do to set good examples and make ourselves heard within our communities, the sooner we can expect change for the better. Cast your votes accordingly. Also, let others know that you practice water conservation techniques and encourage them to do the same. Act now while we still have a choice.