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May 032011
 

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Paul James offers expert gardening advice on HGTV.

Water shortages are coming, though it seems not to have registered with most Americans, who will expend billions of gallons of water on their lawns this summer so they can grow non-indigenous grasses and thirsty ornamental flowers.

Blessed with abundant water until lately, Americans also will continue to shower, clean, flush and eat with little thought of the water scarcity predicted to imperil far more than our lawns.

But by 2013 – in just two years – some 36 states are expected to face water shortages over part or all of their territory, forcing rationing and restrictions.

It’s time to drink in that information, and blunt the blow by taking a variety of conservation steps, especially in the yard, where most homeowners (except in rainy regions) use more than half of the water piped to their household.

Take it from master gardener and DIYer, Paul James, aka, The Gardener Guy of HGTV fame: We can do better. James has been helping viewers green their landscapes, sensibly, for more than 15 years on HGTV’s Gardening by the Yard. Now he is working with public gardeners, who are celebrating National Public Gardens Day, on May 6, to direct people to their nearest public garden to learn the latest water conservation techniques. Many public or botanical gardens now have demonstration areas, showing low-water native or adapted plants, native turf developed for urban settings and special irrigation techniques. (Find a city, state or university-affiliated garden at this online locator. )

We caught up with James (naturally he was working in the yard back home in Oklahoma) to ask him to share his best ideas for how homeowners or even renters or apartment managers can take easy first steps, and progressively more involved measures, to conserve the precious water that we take for granted.

Here are his recommendations:

1. Put the automatic sprinkler system on “manual.” Then water when it’s time to water. You’ll know when it’s time because the plants will begin to wilt (or maybe a little sooner). Then turn on the sprinkler. And don’t get caught being a double-dipper. “How many times have you driven by (someone’s system) when it’s pouring rain and the sprinklers are running full blast?”

2. Get a good moisture sensor for your sprinkler system. Once you do, you can use the “auto” sprinkle mode, because the sensor will report when the landscape moisture is depleted.

3. Water grass deeply, but less often. “Really soak it well. That can be counter-intuitive to people, but plants do much better as a result. Then they don’t have a ‘drought’ followed by 10 minutes of watering…If you dig into the soil after that amount of time, there might be only ¼ inch of soil that’s wet.” Soaking the soil, but watering less often, replicates nature and creates healthier turf.

4. Cut grass a little taller than average. Remember that the height of the turf reflects the height of the root system. Whatever the height of the turf, that’s the height of the root system, and deeper roots can better support the grass.

5. Be a “mulch maniac” and mulch well in the ornamental beds. “Nothing retains better moisture better than mulch…but more than retaining moisture, it cools the soil, which plants appreciate. It encourages microbial activity in the soil, as well as earthworms and all the other living things in the soil.”

Demonstration gardens at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

6. Collect rainwater in a rain barrel. But don’t use that water on edible crops if it comes rolling off the asphalt shingle roof. It could contain hydrocarbons and bird poop. Use this collected rain water for ornamentals and trees.

7. Plant native plants because they’ll enrich the outdoor environment. “Anything that will feed the birds, the butterflies and any wildlife is icing on the cake.” But remember, they do need to be watered during the first year.

8. Reduce or take down water-hungry turf. “There’s no getting around the fact that most turf grasses are the most resource-consuming plants in the landscape…However there are species like Buffalo grass (and) grama grass that are native, and new varieties are coming along that are quite attractive and easy to grow.” (Check High Country Gardens to find some of these new neighborhood-adapted wild turf grasses.

9. Plant a new variety of Buffalo grass if you have the opportunity. Once established, it can go five or six weeks without water and only requires about five mowings a year. Its nutrient needs are low, so it doesn’t require chemical inputs. Reconsider Bermuda grass, if you are starting over with your turf. That is, consider getting rid of it! “Bermuda is cursed by half the people who grow it and adored by the other half,” but unless you have bricks and stones around your flower beds, it will invade with a vengeance. It’s “extremely rugged” and will win out over any other grass, so you must remove it with a sod cutter if you’re going to make a change.

10. Visit a public garden. Not all of them have advanced low-water demonstration gardens, but those that do are instructive.

Public gardens such as the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center outside Austin, Texas, display a full palette of natural flowers, grasses and shrubs that are native to the area and easy to grow. The center’s displays and expert gardeners can help you learn how to corral nature’s beauty into a native landscape suitable for your home.

Across the country many more public gardens are becoming water-wise and promoting native plants.

“They offer plant sales and have seminars. They have herbs and edibles,” James says. “They’re a really rich source of ideas and inspiration.”

Copyright © 2011 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network