by Dave Waltzer
If you are a resident living in one of the many local water districts that impose water restrictions, or are on a well that is decreasing its water output, you are probably wondering what you can do to keep your garden.
Drought is an inevitability in California. With an increasing population and a finite amount of water, there are always going to be years when we face water restrictions in the Santa Cruz area. We are currently in Stage 2 of the City of Santa Cruz contingency plan, which calls for restricted watering on certain days of the week. These restrictions apply primarily to watering with standard sprinklers and do not affect those who water using drip irrigation. As things stand, the water restrictions are not severe, lawns can be kept green within the parameters set by the water districts.
However, if the drought continues, a redesign of our thinking and our gardens will be in order. Stage 3 of the Santa Cruz water contingency plan calls for instituting water rationing for residential customers, and Stage 4 calls for a prohibition on turf watering. What this means is that if our drought continues, your verdant green lawn may soon be reduced to a dismal brown mat of dead thatch.
While lawns may be picturesque and great play areas, they are extraordinary consumers of water. With water rates on the rise, they will soon be very expensive. According to Roy Sikes of the Soquel Creek Water District, a 1,000 sq. ft. lawn soaks up about 25,000 gallons a year. In fact, The Soquel Creek Water District is so concerned about the amount of water that people are using to water their lawns that they instituted a rebate program to compensate people who removed their lawns and installed drought tolerant plants and drip systems. The program was so popular that eventually the water district ran out of funding.
When you finally decide to get rid of your lawn, you will probably want to consider a xeriscape. Simply put, a xeriscape is a drought-tolerant landscape often incorporating boulders, dramatic mounds and perhaps even a dry creek-bed to add contrast.
There are literally thousands of drought-tolerant plants to choose from when creating your xeriscape. If you live in a coastal zone (Sunset zone 17) and rarely experience severe frost, you should give serious consideration to a garden incorporating cacti and succulents. By storing water in their “leaves”, succulents require very infrequent watering, especially once established.
Another plant group that make up a good xeriscape are California natives. Having adapted to our climate where they get almost no water 5 months out of the year, they thrive with little or no irrigation. It has been my experience that California natives are best planted in the fall and winter months when they are naturally watered in by the rains. Transplanting them in the late spring or summer months when they are not accustomed to getting any water can lead to root funguses and death.
The “Mediterranean garden” is another great water saving alternative to lawns. Splashy displays of flowers and fragrant foliage are common features to these gardens. A Mediterranean garden not only incorporates plants that are indigenous to this area, but also includes plants from all over the world that share our climate. Common elements to these gardens are culinary and medicinal plants such as yarrow, sages, lavenders and rosemary. Another advantage to the Mediterranean garden is that, unlike a lawn, they are fairly low maintenance, only requiring occasional pruning and weeding.
Drip systems Once you have installed your xeriscape, it is fairly simple to adapt your former lawn sprinklers to a drip system, which will save thousands of gallons of water. Drip systems are far more efficient as they only put water right at the plant where it is needed. Not only do standard sprinklers waste water by spraying water where it isn’t needed, but they cause a lot more weeds to come up as they are often watering bare ground. Furthermore, unless you run your sprinklers for long periods of time, they only get the top three inches of the ground wet. In contrast, a drip system, because it runs for a long time and drips the water slowly, soaks your plants to the deepest roots and leads to a much healthier plant.
To adapt your lawn sprinklers to a drip system, you need only to cap all your sprinklers save one. On one of your sprinkler risers you install a pressure reducer and then run your drip hose from that. Then you weave the hose throughout your garden running it by all your plants. At each plant you punch in a drip emitter which lets out the water at rates varying between ½ to four gallons an hour, depending on the needs and size of the plant. For areas of groundcover, you punch in a little “microjet” sprinkler which comes in all sorts of different spray patterns and gallonages.
Fall is one of the best times of the year for planting, so if you are thinking of replacing your lawn, start planning now!
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