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February 6, 2014
Get a beautiful landscape with less water

My wife and I had the privilege of being the keynote speakers last weekend at the Utah Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers Convention held in Logan. Our topic was financial planning — how to start young and build wealth for retirement without ending up land rich and cash poor. We made quite a few meaningful connections and received a lot of invites to ranches and farms of varying types all over Utah.

I’ve found that people in rural settings and small towns seem to have a deeper appreciation for the wonders of nature, the cycles of life, the seasons, and particularly the weather. During the conference last week, one speaker petitioned those in attendance to ask God for snow and rain. The request for prayer was a humble one; the sentiment was that, as farmers and ranchers, there are a lot of people counting on their production, and they needed the moisture to fulfill their responsibility and to make a living. I say, “right on!”

We too, especially those of us that love to garden, are somewhat tied to the weather patterns, although it may not be quite as critical as it is to the farmer or rancher. Turning on the spigot can create the illusion that water will always be readily available. But remember, that water has to come from somewhere — either the ground aquifers, or the reservoirs. At any rate, I’m sure we can all do better to maximize the water we have while still enjoying a great outdoor setting around our homes. There are many ways to use less water for whatever type of landscape you prefer. We need to keep in mind that we live in a high desert area. So our practices must take into account arid conditions, including temperature extremes (both high and low), drying winds, and soil low in organic content.

 

Check your watering system for leaks at first thaw

If you simply turn on your watering system without observing each watering head and outlet, you have a very high chance of wasting a lot of water.  Winter is hard on sprinkler heads, micro emitters, and drip line manifolds. You can pretty much count on splits, missing tube ends and broken lines come spring. Run the system, and repair and replace as needed.

 

Install a Rain Sensor on your Irrigation Control

Not much needs to be said about this one. We’ve all seen sprinklers running “full blast” in the middle of a downpour. This embarrassment is totally and affordably avoidable.

 

Choose drip irrigation over sprinkling whenever possible

While sprinkling is typically needed for large areas, drip irrigation is much better for shrubs and trees. Sprinkling has some distinct disadvantages, including evaporation loss, wetting of foliage (making plants prone to disease), and providing moisture to weeds. By being precise where you put the water, you help starve out undesirable plants, use less water, and put the water right near the root zone of the plant, greatly reducing drought. That’s a great combination.

 

Use raised beds and other dedicated growing spaces

Clustered areas of growing space for vegetables or ornamentals allow you to provide higher water and nutrition needs in a small space. The overall effect is less water use, but great results. By using these types of spaces, soil compaction is also reduced because beds of this type can easily be accessed without stepping inside them.

 

Use Drip Tape in row crop applications

Drip tape is becoming more and more popular and readily available as well. There’s good reason for this: Water is put right at the base of the plants, and not in the row between plants where it will be wasted or will simply encourage weed growth.

 

Water at night

Winds tend to be calmer at night, so there will be less to contend with, and water will land where you intended it to.  Evaporation is reduced so water will penetrate deeper into the soil. By the time the heat of day arrives, the water is where the plant needs it — at the roots. While it’s true that water sitting on the leaves of many garden crops during the night can lead to problems, remember those shouldn’t be sprinkled anyway — they should have drip lines or drip tape to the base of the plants.

 

Water deeply and less frequently

A little bit of water every day or every other day is vastly inferior to a deep watering. If your soil has a significant amount of clay in it (and I bet it does), then the clay acts as a sponge and holds that water longer. The same goes for soil that has been amended with lots of organic material. The drying winds may take off the surface moisture, but deeply-watered plants will have the reserve to thrive much longer.

 

Mulch deeply

Mulch is almost magic. A thick layer incorporated into the top 2 inches of the soil and several inches on top of the soil will accomplish many positive things. The soil temperature will remain lower in the summer, and moisture will be retained much longer, reducing irrigation needs. The organic material will also help the soil itself be able to hold water and nutrients longer, and release them slowly. Mulch also helps protect the plant from drying winds. Avoid buying mulch by making your own using lawn and shrub clippings, and other composted items such as kitchen waste, sawdust, leaves and such. The deeper the mulch bed, the better.

 

Use plants adapted for our Area

A common mistake is planting items that look great in catalogs, but won’t thrive in our area without a lot of fertilization, tending, protection and water. There’s plenty of plants to choose from that are beautiful, durable and adapted. I have two cotoneaster shrubs that have no irrigation to them at all, and they are thriving! Shop for these types of plants and make good use of them.

 

Decrease lawn size

Lawns use a lot of water. I know, I presently have too much lawn. The grandkids love it, and it makes for great recreational space, but large lawns take a lot of upkeep in the form of fertilization, watering, mowing and trimming.  We already have plans to reduce lawn areas and address these issues. This will be accomplished by adding more shrub and flowering beds throughout the lawn, reducing water requirements and increasing visual interest. Lawns aren’t found in nature, as nature doesn’t have mono-cultures. A meadow will have many types of grasses, flowers and even small shrubs. As beautiful as a nice lawn is, we need to constantly work to keep it in its desired state.

Add to this the fact that most of the grasses we plant in this area are cool weather fescues and rye-grasses, which causes another issue. The grass wants to “go to sleep” in the midst of summer. It’s trying to cope with the extreme heat by becoming inactive. So we fertilize it more and pour on the water to force it to sustain through the heat. That’s why it’s hard to have as beautiful a lawn in the middle of summer as we do in the spring and fall. I’m not making any moral judgments here; I’m just saying if we have large lawns and want to have them look good through the summer, plan on putting a lot of resources, including water, into them. So, doesn’t it make sense to at least consider decreasing or modifying your grass area?

To enjoy getting great results with less water, make use of these simple but effective water-saving and guilt-free approaches. That’s something to feel great about!

 

UPCOMING GARDENER EVENTS

Learn how to prune fruit trees for productivity and tree health! Attend a Master Gardener public workshop by Wade Bitner on Wednesday, Feb. 26, from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the USU Extension Offices at 151 N. Main, Tooele.   With many years of experience in horticulture and apple orchards, Wade will take the mystery out of successful tree pruning by giving you systematic pruning steps for various back yard fruit trees, including apples, peaches, pears, apricots and cherries. There is no charge for this event.

Urban and Small Farms Conference at Thanksgiving Point, Feb. 19 and 20. Two days of intensive training for $20 per day. Visit http://www.diverseag.org/ for more information.

Spring Garden Expo, Saturday, March 1.  Registration at 9:30 a.m. Event begins at 10 a.m. and goes until 2 p.m. $5 Admission. Sessions include roses, turf, soil building, organic gardening, All American plant selections and self-watering containers. Main session at 1 p.m., Mike Pace, USU Box Elder County Extension Agent, “Fruit Trees in Your Back Yard.” Held at USU Extension Office, 151 N. Main, Tooele.

 

Jay Cooper can be contacted at jay@dirtfarmerjay.com, or you can visit his website at dirtfarmerjay.com for insights on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.

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