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Garden Guru: Be water-wise in case of dry summer sky

By By John Porter

This year, I’ve had the opportunity to do some traveling.

It turns out, though, that all of the wonderful places that I have visited have had one thing in common: drought.

Earlier this year I traveled twice to California, and just last week I had the fortune of touring farms around New Mexico. Signs everywhere tell you to conserve water, and restaurants serve water only when you ask. New Mexico, mostly desert, is especially dry.

I still don’t feel quite back to 100 percent hydration.

When there is scarcity, it is necessary to conserve. Farmers in New Mexico have only limited access to water from irrigation canals, to flood irrigate their fields, or even wells for drip irrigation.

This severe lack of water got me thinking about how much we take water for granted in our own gardens, despite our recent water woes. The chemical leak in January got many of us thinking about the safety of our water. But I think it is also an opportunity to think about conserving what water we have.

Here we are blessed to have water falling from the sky. Sometimes there’s too much, and at others there’s not enough. But that’s much better than some parts of New Mexico that I visited, where they get seven inches of rainfall in a normal year.

Thinking about conserving what water we have means that we are good stewards and are ready for when issues do arise. And let’s face it, there are some times in the summer that are dry where water conservation will help reduce using water, which can also save money.

When we talk about conserving water, there are two ways to go about it. First, look for ways to reduce the need for water. Then, look at ways to reduce water waste and usage whenever you need to use water on your lawn, landscape or garden.

Reducing the need for water

During dry times, it can be necessary to provide water to the garden to keep it growing healthfully along. However, there are many ways to reduce water loss or increase the amount that stays in the soil around the plants.

n Mulching not only reduces weeds, but also helps hold moisture in the soil.

Having one to two inches of mulch on landscape beds can reduce evaporation from the soil and decrease the amount of water you need. Newly planted trees should be mulched for the first few years to help hold moisture in the root zone as well.

Mulching is also important in the vegetable garden. Using straw or shredded newspaper are simple ways to conserve moisture, beat weeds and even reduce diseases. Larger gardens or farms make use of landscape fabric or black plastic as mulches to do much the same thing.

n Choose plants that require less water. There are many plants available that have lower water requirements. Ornamental grasses, Liatris (blazing star), Kniphofia (red hot poker) and sunflowers come to mind. Most native plants are commonly thought to have lower water requirements. Most bulbs also are water efficient and do not require extra watering, as are most culinary herbs.

n Mowing less often in the hot and dry summer also can conserve water if you are one who waters the lawn. I’m not a big fan of watering lawns, since it is such a large water usage. Instead, when the summer gets hot and dry, leaving the grass on the taller side can help it stay green even without water. Most of the grasses we grow here are cool-season and go semi-dormant in the heat. Stopping mowing when the heat starts slows down growth and the need for water.

Watering more efficiently

When it comes to getting water to the garden, there are definitely more efficient ways to make it happen.

Unfortunately, the most common method — using sprinklers — is also the least efficient. It is hard to direct the water to the right place, and during periods of high heat evaporation takes up much more water than you think.

But there are ways to get water to your thirsty plants without running up the water bill.

n Drip irrigation is my favorite method and is among the most efficient. You use a series of hoses, tubes and emitters to direct small drips of water to exactly where they are needed.

It all sounds complicated, and larger systems can be, but there are many kits available for home gardeners to install their own within a matter of hours. Drip irrigation is great for both vegetable gardens and landscape beds and can be hidden beneath the mulch.

n Soaker hoses are a similar concept to drip irrigation, but instead of small drips these hoses just emit water all along the hose. Still better than sprinklers, these hoses are quite a bit less efficient than drip, since you can’t direct the water exactly where you want it.

Installation is pretty simple, though, since you just lay the hose down where you want it.

n Water catchment is just a fancy way of saying that you use a rain barrel. Here you are collecting rain runoff to use in place of water from the tap. There are some ultra-low-flow drip irrigation systems that you can use with rain barrels (if they are raised high enough to get water pressure), but this use is usually for watering by hand.

Rain barrels became very popular following the water crisis, not only for gardening, but as a back-up water system for drinking and washing.

This week in the garden

n Seed snap beans.

n Seed carrots.

n Seeds summer squash.

n Seed late sweet corn.

n Mulch vegetable garden to reduce water use.

John Porter is the WVU Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources in Kanawha County. He may be reached at john.porter@mail.wvu.edu or at 304-720-9573. Follow John on Twitter: @WVgardenguru.


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