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Keep lawn looking good in drought

Thursday, March 21, 2002

NEW MARKET, Va. -- Although a persistent drought is baking the soil brick hard in more than 20 states, that doesn't mean having to hang up the hoe for the upcoming growing season.

Water restrictions and burn bans have been ordered from Miami to Maine, and Montana to New Mexico. Shallow residential wells are going dry in New Hampshire and sections of Virginia.

Officials are forecasting that a lack of rain and a meager snowmelt will continue the drought well into the year.

Gardeners should be particularly sensitive to warnings about water use since it's believed half the water used by homeowners goes to the landscape.

Low water or no-water conditions, however, can be countered with some common sense conservation.

A number of agencies suggest adopting Xeriscaping, a dry land form of gardening that takes its name from the Greek word "xeros" for "dry." Xeriscape landscaping, according to the Texas Agricultural Extension Service, incorporates seven well-grounded principles that help save water:

Plan and design. Make it easier to water your proposed garden area. That could mean planting in squares rather than in small, irregular shapes or in narrow strips between sidewalks and curbs. Eliminate runoff and channel whatever rainwater you do receive into barrels or growing areas.

Do a soil analysis. Get more growth for your dollar by adding organic matter to the ground. That helps soil absorb and store water.

Keep practical turf areas. Translated, that means downsizing your lawn. Replace the grass with a flowering ground cover or a drought-hardy herb plot. Many popular herbs fit well into xeriscape design because they're native to the hot, dry Mediterranean region. Consider replacing moisture-craving Kentucky bluegrass with prairie-tough buffalo grass. Once established, it requires about 60 percent less water, Western horticulturists say.

  • When grooming the grass you do save, raise mower blades a couple of notches when the weather turns hot and dry. Tall grass provides shade for the soil and discourages weeds.

  • Appropriate plant selection. That means stocking up on native plants naturally adapted to your area. Balance those with drought tolerant exotics, especially perennials.

  • Efficient irrigation. Embrace the trickle down theory by using soaker hoses or drip irrigation. Water sparingly, but early in the morning. That avoids evaporation loss to the hot, mid-afternoon sun. And don't water until your lawn tells you to, by wilting.

    "Most lawns receive twice as much water as they need for a healthy appearance," according to the Texas Agricultural Extension Service. "It is best to water by the calendar, for example, once a week. It is better to water when the plant needs watering."

    The key to watering lawns is to apply the water infrequently, yet thoroughly.

  • Mulching. Double whatever you've been adding. That helps lock in subsurface moisture.

  • And do the appropriate maintenance. Not only do they look and produce better, but pruned and manicured plants need less water.

    Take a few of those drought-busting steps and you'll be able to gather your rosebuds come May.


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