Cutting back on Watering

Even if you don't live in an area experiencing drought, you don't want to waste water, no matter what you pay for it or how much you have to use. Remember that for most efficient delivery, water in early to mid-morning — after the dew has dried but before the heat of the day sets in and much of the water evaporates. And mulch, mulch, mulch individual plants and entire beds to hold in the water right by the roots, where plants most need and appreciate it. I go into more detail about mulch earlier in the chapter in "Much Ado about Mulch."

Wherever possible, build up a basin of mounded-up dirt or mulch around the edge of the rootball of each plant at planting time. Water goes right in the basin and soaks directly down into the root system instead of running off onto the lawn or driveway or elsewhere where it isn't needed.

The method of delivery can also save water: In-ground irrigation systems are wonderfully efficient, as I mention earlier in the chapter, and soaker hoses are also good. Drip systems shouldn't produce any appreciable runoff on slopes. And although some sprinklers are good, others are very wasteful. Check out mail-order catalogs that specialize in types of sprinklers. They're filled with good information on how to choose the right ones.

Depending on what kind of soil you have and how well it absorbs, you may find it worthwhile to run the water slowly rather than fast, and perhaps ten minutes on, ten minutes off — either or both of these techniques often drenches an area quite efficiently with little waste.

Deciding whether you need professional help

Valves, risers, timers, controllers, moisture sensors, and pipes, oh my! If all these parts and how they should go together makes your head spin, hire someone. Hire someone who's done it hundreds of times; find such a contractor via your local garden center, in the yellow pages, or through a reference from a friend or neighbor. (Get a written estimate for the work, labor, and parts, and check references.)

However, if you're an affirmed do-it-yourselfer, handy, and confident, by all means, install your watering system yourself. Check with your local utility companies — gas, water, and electric — (if the system's underground) before doing any digging to avoid costly and potentially dangerous accidents. Detailed information and advice is available (where else?) in Lawn Care For Dummies (Wiley), by Lance Walheim and the editors of the National Gardening Association.

Rain gauges are useful for measuring water when you apply it with overhead sprinklers. For drip systems, run them for an hour or two and then dig down into the soil around the plant to see how far down and wide the moisture has penetrated. Run the system longer if it hasn't yet penetrated deep enough to reach the root zone. After you do this exercise a few times, you should know how long to run the system each time you water.

Another way to cut back on the amount of watering you need to do is to use drought-tolerant plants in your garden. Gardeners in the Southwestern portion of the United States are particularly good at this type of gardening, largely through necessity. Drought-tolerant plants include cacti, succulents, ceanothus, rock rose, native dryland plants and their cultivars (such as penstemon and gaura), and deep-rooted perennials like prairie natives and their cultivars (such as baptisia, liatris, black-eyed Susans, and purple coneflowers).

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