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Contest to honor water-wise yards

By Mary Collister

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 28, 2000

The Cooperative Extension Service, Tampa Bay Water, and Southwest Florida Water Management District have teamed up to announce the 2000 Community Water-Wise Awards.

According to contest literature, the Second Annual Community Water-Wise Awards will recognize Tampa Bay area residents, multi-family units and commercial properties that have created aesthetically pleasing landscapes, but that also protect Florida's natural environment by conserving water and reducing pollution from stormwater runoff.

Residents in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco countries as well as the cities of Tampa, St. Petersburg and New Port Richey are eligible for awards, which will be presented during City Council and County Commission meetings.

This may be a perfect year to enter since many of us have tried to renovate our landscape in such a way that water usage is at a minimum. The drought forced some changes so our yards could still be attractive but consume much less water.

Contest entrants will be judged on the following:

LANDSCAPE DESIGN: The judges want to see appropriate plant materials used. "Right plant, right place" is a key to water-wise landscaping. If a plant is naturally adapted to a site, it will be healthier and require less water and maintenance. A 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch is also recommended to help keep down weeds, keep roots cool and maintain adequate soil moisture with less watering.

PLANT SELECTION AND CARE: Established native and drought tolerant plants may require little or no supplemental water during periods of drought. Retaining or restoring natural understory areas beneath trees is encouraged, since it provides habitat for wildlife and minimizes maintenance requirements.

I've often explained the benefits of decreasing the area of turf grass in your yard and the contest literature concurs. Limiting your lawn size can reduce maintenance and water costs.

Some grasses, especially in full sun, require more water, fertilizer and pesticides than others. Contest organizers recommend having practical turf areas for use by children and pets and for entertainment. But they encourage replacing unnecessary turf with plant beds that include water-wise shrubs and groundcovers that are aesthetically pleasing and are attractive to wildlife.

EFFICIENT WATERING: Contest literature states that operating an in-ground sprinkler system costs the typical Tampa bay area resident from $4 to $10 every time it is turned on, or about $32 to $80 a month during dry periods. Properly designed and installed irrigation systems use water more efficiently.

USE OF PERVIOUS MATERIALS: Use of pervious materials such as brick, wood decking, mulch, etc. for driveways, patios and walkways will help retain water on-site and cut down on the amount of water needed for your landscape.

To enter the contest or receive help in creating a water-wise landscape, contact the Florida Yards and Neighborhoods program coordinator at the Cooperative Extension office at 744-5519, ext. 144, (e-mail Or you can log on to the water-wise website at

It's not too late to get your yard in shape for this water-wise contest. Take a look around your yard. If a plant didn't survive the drought, you may want to replace it with a native or plant material that is more drought tolerant.

Landscaping does not just include plant materials. You may want to add a number of sitting areas in your yard. Find an area, perhaps under a shade tree, remove plant material, mulch heavily, add a chair or bench. A paved or mulched walkway to your sitting area further decreases areas needing maintenance; and it adds a welcoming touch to your yard. Swings, tables and outdoor ornamentation also can add interest but limit maintenance.

If you just can't part with all of your heavy water-using plant materials, make sure they are grouped together so they can be irrigated at the same time. This is a much more efficient use of water.

Just as some people don't thrive in highly competitive situations, some plants don't either. Keep weeds away from those plants you're trying to nurture. Weeds are selfish, they'll use the nutrients and moisture in the soil that your desirable plants need. Don't over-plant areas. Small plants become big plants and the competition as they grow may inhibit the less competitive. Know the mature size of a plant and place it in your landscape accordingly.

If you're really interested in creating a landscaping that will pull through the next water shortage, drive around and see what's planted in those yards that are looking good. Talk to the owners and ask them for their tricks and advice. Most gardeners love to share their success stories.

When you're out and about, if you find anything the rest of us need to know, drop me a line. I'd love to visit some water-wise yards.

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