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Cut water use in half

Matt Zalaznick

Gardeners bare the brunt of summer water restrictions because barely a drop of the water used on lawns and landscapes is returned to local streams and rivers. Most of it evaporates and is, therefore, lost.

On the other hand, much of the water used in homes returns to streams via local water treatment plants. That’s why local water agencies – despite steady snow and rain this spring – are strongly urging conservation, both in and outside homes.

Inside, residents are urged to take shorter showers and do only full loads when running dishwashers or washing machines. Outside, local water managers are hoping a landscaping method called “xeriscaping” – which horticulturalists say could cut water use in half – will catch on.

“You can still have petunias, but you just limit their areas. You don’t do the whole front yard with petunias,” says Michael Bauer, a Colorado State University horticultural extension agent in Eagle County.

Rated “X’

To conserve water, “xeriscaping” uses native – or “x-rated” – plants placed more strategically in a yard or garden. The technique is based on seven principles. The one getting the most attention during Colorado’s drought is watering more efficiently, Bauer says.

Many gardeners and landscapers use far more water than they need, Bauer says.

“It’s putting the right amount of water at the right time, at the right intervals and with the most efficient methods,” Bauer says.

Most plants do not need to be watered with sprinklers, he says, and drip irrigation systems are suitable for most x-rated plants. National studies have found sprinklers and other irrigation systems use between 20 and 50 percent more water than is needed to keep lawns and gardens alive, Bauer says.

Plants used in xeriscaped lawns and gardens are rated by how much – or how little – water they need, says Leslie Isom, administration manager of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District.

“The X-rated plants need an inch a week, XX-rated need an inch every other week, and XXX-rated plants a half-inch every two weeks,” Isom says.

Not just rocks and cactuses

It is a common misconception that xeriscaped lawns and gardens are ugly or invoke deserts, Isom says.

“When you see some of xeriscaped gardens, they’re beautiful and they’re all natural plants of Colorado,” she says. “It’s not to make your front yard look like you live in Arizona, with rocks and cactuses. It doesn’t mean you eliminate all the grass in your yard, but you replace grass with native plants.”

A lot of water is lost when sprinklers and other irrigation systems spill over into driveways and streets. To prevent such loss, grass shouldn’t be planted right up to the edge of paved areas. Streets and driveways can be bordered with “x-rated’ plants that need less watering, Bauer says.

Soil also should be tested for moisture, Bauer says.

“Take a ball of soil in your hand. If it falls apart easily, it needs water, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t,” Bauer says. “Over-irrigating has the same negative effect of under-watering plants.”

Landscapes also can be geared toward conservation based on how certain areas of a yard or lawn are going to be used, Bauer says.

“The idea is to identify areas than can support lower color situations,” Bauer says. “Front yards can typically be a low-water use area because they don’t necessarily have to have a lawn. You want lawn where you’re going to be sitting and entertaining, like the back yard.”

Hydro-zoning

Under another principle, known as “hyrdo-zoning,” plants that need similar amounts of water are planted near each other, Bauer says.

“A lot of these plants have good color, good leaf-texture and do real well,” Bauer says.

Using organic mulch, such as bark and wood chips, rather than rocks is another way to save water, Bauer says.

Organic mulch can keep soils from drying out and prevent the growth of weeds that rob water from pants, Bauer says.

Pruning plants at the right time also saves water. For example, flowering plants should be pruned after they flower and fruit trees should be pruned in the spring, Bauer says.

“Keeping plant growth efficient is a good way to reduce water use,” Bauer says.

“We can cut our water use in half in most cases by employing these principles,” he adds. “That would be amazing if we cut landscape water use in half.”

To reduce the strain on local water supplies – even though drought conditions appear to be easing this spring – water restrictions will remain in place along with conservation campaigns, says Dennis Gelvin, general manager of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District.

“Even with the snowpack being at or above average, we still live in an arid place,” Gelvin says. “Getting people to think about ways to approach landscaping that are more suited for this climate is one of the ways to ensure that we’ll all have enough water in the years to come, while keeping our valley landscapes vibrant and beautiful.”

More information on “xeriscaping’

The following Web sites provide tips on landscaping and water conservation:

– Colorado State University Eagle County Horticulture – http://www.coopext.colostate.edu/eagle/Hort/Horthome.shtml

– Colorado State University on drought – http://drought.colostate.edu/

– Affiliated Landscape Industries of Colorado (GreenCo) – http://www.greenco.org/

– Garden Centers of Colorado X-Rated Gardening campaign – http://www.xratedgardening.com/

Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at mzalaznick@vaildaily.com.


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