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In midst of drought, look for water-saving measures

By MARY COLLISTER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 1, 2001


We did have a nice spring, but now the summer weather has hit with a vengeance. Between the heat, wind and drought, our landscapes are being fried. My lawn is so dry it crackles when I walk on it. The sprinklers just don't put out enough water to wet the soil thoroughly on my watering day. If we don't have rain soon, green grass will be but a fond memory.

I added two large containers to my lanai last weekend, thinking containers would allow less debris to enter the pool. I purchased a potting soil with polymers to help retain moisture. It cost more but will require less water.

When picking out plant materials, I stayed away from those requiring evenly moist soil. In fact I was very surprised to see so many plants in the garden center requiring high water usage. I chose pentas and dahlias, both of which have performed well in my yard with minimum water. These pots will be receiving my "recycled" water from the house. The water used to cook pasta, steam vegetables, or boil eggs is used on my containers once cooled.

Catching water in the shower while waiting for it to reach a comfortable temperature will allow me to keep the flowers in the containers by the front door adequately moist. If we don't get rain soon, I don't think any amount of water recycling will be enough to keep our landscapes attractive.

The news is full of alternatives including painting our lawns green or using artificial turf. The Southwest has always relied heavily on decorative stone in landscaping. We may be moving in that direction.

If we haven't already, we need to make changes in our landscape and lifestyle to cut our water usage tremendously. Look around your yard. Are there areas where you can install features that require little or no water? As an example, about four years ago, I removed the lawn on the east side of the house, where my peach trees, blackberry and blueberry bushes are located. This area, now covered in mulch, is now much easier to maintain.

To take this one step further, I am now working on a design for micro-irrigation in that area of the yard. Micro-irrigation will ensure that the water is only applied exactly where it is needed. There is no need to water the mulched areas. All that does is encourage weed growth.

As you look around your yard and your neighbors' yards, it becomes obvious which plants are surviving and even flourishing in the drought. These are the plants we should concentrate on when replacing plant materials in our yards.

Some surviving do not surprise me, including the crepe myrtles and India Hawthorne. Others do surprise me such as the beautiful stand of sword ferns under an oak tree in my back yard. We often think of ferns as thirsty plants, but these have adapted beautifully. Another surprise, my begonias, are not growing as big as they have in the past when water was not an issue, but they do provide the yard with a bit of color from the bronze leaves and the flowers.

Drought aside there still is plenty to do in our yards. Weeds seem to grow with no water. We may be cultivating them shortly to fill in the bare spots devastated by the drought. Even when (if?) the drought ends, I hope we never take the availability of water for granted again.

After weeding, I would hold off doing much planting. Wait and see if we have a rainy summer. If it appears we will, add some color at that time. Now may be a good time for stepping stones, mulches and decorative stones in your yard. I like the contrast between the eucalyptus mulch in my planting beds and the river rocks placed around the foundation of my house. The river rocks were added to discourage termites from munching on the house.

I had a neighbor ask about how to cut water use for his vegetables. There really is no way; vegetables are huge water users. The plants grow so quickly that cutting down on water affects the quantity and quality of your vegetables. I chose not to plant any this season. I do have two tomato plants growing in the bed in the front yard. I did not plant them. The seeds must have been placed there by a bird flying over. There are three small tomatoes beginning to ripen. They have received no special treatment. It will be a bonus if I get any harvest at all.

Remain hopeful and enjoy your garden. We are all in the same situation, just hoping it will rain.

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