Lush Landscapes That Don't Waste Water

When horticulturist Thomas Christopher transformed his yard from green lawn and trim boxwoods to a colorful and tumbling flower meadow, his neighbors in Middletown, Conn., wondered if he had lost his marbles. "My yard is a bit out of the ordinary," he admits. Indeed, during the summer, orange tiger lilies visually set his suburban eighth of an acre on fire. "It stops traffic," he says.

It also saves water. Christopher's blazingly beautiful pasture thrives on rainfall alone while his neighbors sprinkle and soak their turf grass only to have it burnt brown by August. Approximately 50% of the nation's drinking water goes to irrigate landscapes, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And with drought conditions and population growth straining many states' reservoirs and aquifers, more homeowners are looking for alternatives to the minifairways that have become the residential standard. "With water shortages causing water bills to soar, people have been forced to realize that water is a precious resource," says Doug Welsh, extension horticulturist for Texas A&M University in College Station.

This realization, together with the hassle of tending a traditional lawn and hedge landscape, has fueled a nationwide shift toward low-maintenance, water-wise gardening, or xeriscaping (xeros is Greek for dry). Officials with county agricultural offices and city water departments coast to coast (particularly in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, New York, Texas, and Wyoming) say they can't assemble enough folding chairs for homeowners interested in learning about water-thrifty horticultural techniques. "The movement is truly taking hold," says Ken Ball, landscape architect and conservation specialist with Denver Water. President Clinton even recently signed an executive order mandating that all federal buildings be xeriscaped--an action that follows passage of similar water-wise planting laws that apply to state buildings in California and Texas.

TURF, TOO. Does this mean cactus and rock formations for all? Absolutely not, says Richard Weir, horticulture educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Plainview, N.Y. "Xeriscaping doesn't mean you have to construct a desert." Nor does it necessarily entail tearing up turf in favor of tiger lilies. "You can have a lush lawn and formal plantings. It's a matter of how you go about it," he says.

Developing an awareness of the regional climate, microclimates (areas of shade, windbreaks, etc.), existing vegetation, and topographical conditions of the site is the first step. "Take a survey of your yard, especially during the dry summer months. What's thriving and what's not doing well?" says Lou Kavouras, water conservation planner with the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Plants that are wilted despite supplemental watering send a clear message that they're ill-suited to the environment. Next, analyze the soil to determine what types of plants the ground can sustain and if soil amendments--such as organic compost to boost moisture retention--are needed to support other desired types of vegetation. Most nurseries sell do-it-yourself soil analysis kits.

Once familiar with the lay of the land, it's time to come up with a design. Arranging plants according to thirst is key. "The idea is to group plants with similar water requirements together," says Dick Peterson, a supervisor with the Planning, Environmental & Conservation Services Dept. in Austin, Tex. This prevents overwatering one species in an attempt to quench another. "Don't put impatiens next to cactus," he says. Also don't put the cactus in a shady area where the rain gutter empties, or the impatiens on a sunny slope that loses water to gravity.

In general, you want to limit plantings that require intense watering. Terry Lewis, a landscape architect in San Antonio whose designs have repeatedly won the city's annual xeriscape competition, recommends reducing thirsty turf sections by installing or extending bedding areas filled with drought-tolerant vegetation. "Not only does it save water, but it creates a stronger and more interesting landscape," he says. Plants with shiny or small leaves, fleshy roots, spiny stems, and hairy foliage are good bets because they are structurally suited to retain water (fleshy roots hold more liquid and hairy leaves trap moisture). To help them along, mulch. Wood bark chips, pine straw, nutshells, and landscape clippings, layered two to four inches thick, cool the ground and reduce water evaporation as well as deter weed growth and prevent erosion.

For those unwilling to part with their grassy expanses, perhaps a water-thrifty turf will do. Slow growing varieties such as buffalo grass, blue grama, and turf-type tall fescue look much like traditional lawn cover. "You just don't have to mow or water them as often," says Cornell's Weir. But come watering time, do so efficiently. Water your lawn, shrubs, and trees separately according to need rather than a fixed schedule. Early morning or evening applications are best during spring and summer. Otherwise, the midday heat causes 30% of the water to escape into the atmosphere before it ever hits the ground.

Regardless of the time of day, avoid fine-mist sprinklers that emit sprays more conducive to evaporation than irrigation. Slow-drip systems (bubblers from which water bubbles upward or soaker hoses that release water through small holes) are effective alternatives, especially for trees and bed plant-ings that benefit from an even stream of water delivered to the soil directly above their roots. It's a widespread misconception that plants need water on their foliage. It's the roots that do all the drinking.

YARD WORK. Peterson at Austin's Conservation Services Dept. says the most common gardening error is overwatering. He recommends irrigating deeply (one inch of water) once every four or five days to encourage strong roots that reach far into the soil for moisture and nutrients. If the ground is too dry and water starts to run off, "quit watering and come back later to finish up," he says. To keep track of how much he is watering, he puts coffee cans in his garden to measure the accumulation.

Finally, keep up with the yard work. Plants that are pruned, pest-free, fertilized, and adequately mulched are less stressed, which reduces their need for water. But be careful not to overdo it. Denver landscape architect Jim Knopf says xeriscapes don't need as much attention as other types of gardens because they are adapted to the environment. In fact, he warns, excess fertilizer and pesticide weaken otherwise hearty plants and increase their thirst.

Converting lawns and gardens into xeriscapes need not be a chore. "There's no law that says you have to do everything all at once," says Kavouras at Southwest Florida Water, suggesting that simply mulching plant beds will create a more water-wise garden. Or accent that sternly clipped hedge with drought-resistant shrubs--like chocolate flower, which smells like chocolate milk, or red fountain grass, which is crowned by pink tufts of fluff. "Xeriscaping allows you to deviate from the cookie-cutter landscapes we've grown accustomed to and be creative," says Denver Water's Ball. That has a certain grassroots appeal.

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