By John Goldsmith
Master Gardener, University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE), Davis, CA
Now that the rainy season is officially over and we are turning on our watering systems, it is important to consider water conservation as a top priority. Appropriate watering is essential to the health of a plant – did you know that most plants die from OVER watering? Also, as of this year, Turlock residential water bills are no longer a flat rate, but on based on a tier system. The more water you use, the more you will pay. Fair enough?
As summer approaches, demands on our local reservoirs will be pressed for indoor needs, but also for our perennial garden beds and lawns. Using your water wisely in the garden is actually easy and with some simple guidelines, you will have a gorgeous garden and a manageable water bill.
One of the easiest ways to start is to ask a professional! Did you know that the City of Turlock, Municipal Services Department offers a free ‘water audit’ for its residents. A trained Water Auditor will come to your home and provide personalized advice on how to reduce water use in the garden. Call 668-5590 to schedule.
In the meantime, here are 5 important steps to start conserving water right now:
Adopt the philosophy of “Right Plant, Right Place”. Not all plants have the same requirements, whether it is watering needs, soil type or sun exposure. Some plants like ferns prefer a moist soil in a northern, shady part of the garden, whereas succulents love full sun with minimal water. More folks are getting interested in planting California natives because they are beautiful and provide food and habitat for beneficial insects and birds. Once the native plant is established it may need only an occasional shower or no supplemental water at all. Simply plant it – and enjoy it!
Mulch. This is one of the very best methods to build healthy soil. It creates a harmonious environment, brimming with important microbes. The microbes assist plants by transporting essential nutrients into the plants’ roots. Mulch also shields the soils from the harsh sun, prevents evaporation of water, and keeps the soil cooler. These components prevent the plant from getting stressed from the heat. There are so many types of mulch to choose from, and you can pick and choose based on aesthetics or your pocket book. The important thing is to cover the exposed soil with 2-3 inches with mulch. It is also more cost effective to buy it from a landscape supply company rather than buying small bags at the local nursery. Shop around for prices.
Drip. Better than overhead sprayers, drip irrigation systems provides water right to the targeted plant. With sprayers, so much of the water evaporates in the air and the coverage is unreliable. By using drip emitters, the gardener is able to fine tune water quantity for each plant, with the goal of minimizing water as the plants mature. Although many gardeners are a little scared of all the equipment, piping, timers, etc. it really isn’t that complicated to install it by oneself. If you want you want it initially set up by a professional, always work with a licensed contractor familiar with irrigation installation.
Compost, the natural counterpart to mulch, is like the sugar in a cake! By composting annually, you are supplying soil with additional living microbes – keeping it in excellent form as the goal is to build ‘loamy’ soil. Loam is the perfect blend of soil, clay and sand. The topsoil is what is typically lacking in a garden. If you are using manure make sure that it is ‘cooked’ meaning that it has set for some time and won’t burn the plants. Rabbit and chicken manure can be used right away. Also, having a kitchen compost bin is an eco-friendly way to make what gardeners call “Black Gold”.
Lawn reduction. Of all plants least-adapted for California’s long, dry summer climate, it is grass. It literally takes thousands of gallons of water to keep a humble-sized lawn healthy and vigorous for a typical season. There are different types of grass that require less water, such as the warm-season Bermuda grass, that can handle lots of foot traffic. There are more ‘grassy’ type grasses, such as the Pacific Sod’s No Mow and the Delta Bluegrass. There are also herbal alternatives, like thyme and chamomile and smell great when stepped upon. Or maybe it is time to ditch the lawn for some attractive hardscaping or a patio. Grass is the biggest culprit when it comes to water usage for the typical home and garden.
And I mentioned that the Turlock water bills were switched from flat rate to actual usage, right? So be prepared! Reconsider your garden and its watering needs. You can very likely remove some things and add to elements that can make your garden a lush oasis without the expensive price tag.