Oh, dry up

Xeriscaping: Droughts are not unusual. Gardeners should choose plants with an eye to water conservation. IN THE GARDEN


Water shortages are an important social and ecological issue, and gardeners are on its cutting edge: No matter where the water goes, we are often its most visible consumers.

Three of the last five years have produced record-breaking droughts in our area. This year seems destined to join that number, with the familiar pattern of little or insufficient rainfall between mid-April and early September, except for the odd shower or thunderstorm.

While we may lament the lack of rain, our predisposition is essentially to do nothing and wait for a return to "normal." Although many parts of the country have had water shortages and restrictions for years, we believe that could never be the case here. We cling tenaciously to water-guzzling lawns, and our attachment to thirsty, English-style landscaping is legendary.

However, recent research using tree rings to look back hundreds of years (to 1694) is indicating that 20-year cycles of drought are the historical norm on the East Coast, and that the period since 1940 has been one of the wettest on record, and has had unusually reliable precipitation to boot.

Droughts, it appears, are the norm. So, what is one to do?

Many areas and municipalities across the country are turning to a concept known as xeriscaping, or water-wise gardening. Some have already written it into law.

The tenets of water-wise gardening are simple and few. Here are the recommendations of the experts.

* Water only between 5 p.m. and 9 a.m. If you water during the heat of the day, up to 50 percent of water can be lost to evaporation before it even hits the ground. Another 25 percent evaporates almost immediately from sun-warmed soil.

If you don't like padding outside in your pajamas to turn the water on and off, install a timer at the faucet. This is more efficient as well as more convenient. Just remember to turn it off when not in use, or you may end up watering when you don't need to.

* Try to use native, locally adapted plant material, or that from a similar climatic zone, which can survive without supplemental irrigation. Avoid exotic plants from areas of high rainfall.

Maryland has a great variety of beautiful native flora to draw from when replacing or putting in new landscaping. Look for drought-tolerant species.

* Group plants within the landscape in communities with others of similar water requirements. For ease of maintenance, place plants with greater water requirements closer to the house, and those needing little or no supplemental irrigation farthest away.

* Mulch, mulch, mulch. Two or three inches of fine wood chips should be considered minimum on all ornamental plantings. Vegetable beds will also repay mulching handsomely. Why weed when you can mulch?

* Where possible, contour the landscape to channel precipitation to areas where it is needed most. Use raised beds, low berms or masonry walls to guide water and prevent it from escaping.

"Dry" streambeds carry runoff to catchment areas where it can soak in, and prevent erosion. Use water-permeable hardscape whenever feasible, such as brick, stone or concrete pavers loosely laid over sand or gravel for walks, terraces and even driveways.

* Direct irrigation to where it is needed. Use sprinklers only for turf, and install drip irrigation or soaker hoses whenever you can. These deliver water only to the base of the plant, where it does the most good. This will also starve off the great villains of the xeriscape garden -- water-stealing weeds.

* Learn to recognize the signs of water distress in your plants. Don't panic if the leaves droop during the middle of the day in the summer. On a hot, sunny day, the plants may simply not be able to pump water to the leaves fast enough to keep up with the water lost through evaporation. Check the plant in the morning: If it is still drooping, then it needs watering. Too much water, especially in clay soil, can also cause flagging: The plant is literally drowning because no air can get to the roots.

* Restrict turf to those areas where absolutely nothing else will do. Eliminate grass as a default landscaping choice, and use it solely in high traffic locations, such as children's play areas.

If giving up a lawn is too big a sacrifice, be tolerant of brown and tan lawns during the height of summer. Set your mower blades at the highest setting.

Rest easy in the knowledge that summer dormancy is the natural habit of the most popular turf grasses in this area, the fescues.

Indeed, it is far healthier for them not to be flooded several times a week in an effort to keep them green, which too often results in thatch, root rot and frequent mowing.

Pub Date: 06/27/99

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