Craig The need for landscaping to conserve water has received new impetus following the recent years of drought and the realization that nearly 50 percent of the water used by the average household is for turfgrass and landscape plantings.
Unfortunately, many homeowners have cut back on grassy areas by substituting vast "seas of gravel and plastic" as their answer to water conservation. This practice is not only self-defeating as far as water conservation is concerned, but it also produces damaging effects to trees and shrubs.
As a rule, south and west exposures result in the greatest water losses, especially areas near buildings or paved surfaces. You can save water in these locations simply by changing to plants adapted to reduced water use.
However, don't be too quick to rip out the sod and substitute plastic and gravel. Extensive use of rock on south and west exposures can raise temperatures in and near the house, creating or increasing the use of air conditioning to maintain occupant comfort.
Whether you want to redesign an old landscape or start fresh with a new one, a plan is a must. The plan does not have to be elaborate but should take into consideration the exposures on the site. Carefully select plants to be compatible with soil, exposure and irrigation systems.
Slope or grade is another consideration.
Steep slopes, especially those on south and west exposures, waste water through runoff and rapid water evaporation. A drought-resistant ground cover can slow water loss and shade the soil.
Strategically placed trees also can shade a severe exposure, creating cooler soil with less evaporation. Terracing slopes helps save water by slowing runoff and permitting more water to soak in. Avoid narrow strips of turf, hard to maintain corners, and isolated islands of grass that need special attention.
Not only is maintenance more costly, but watering becomes difficult, often wasteful. In outlying areas, use more drought-resistant grasses or even meadow mixes containing wildflowers, particularly if your property is large.
If you do not have a sprinkler system and are just beginning to install a landscape, you can avoid the pitfalls of poorly designed and installed systems. Have a professional irrigation company do the job correctly.
Make sure the system is designed to fit the landscape and the water needs of the plants and that it is zoned to reduce unnecessary applications of water. Coordinate the landscape design itself, selection of plants and the irrigation system to result in a sensible water-saving scheme.
Consider a drip system for outlying shrub borders and raised planters, around trees and shrubs and in narrow strips where conventional above-ground systems would result in water waste.
Avoid frequent, shallow sprinklings that lead to shallow root development. Trees and shrubs separate from the lawn are best watered with deep root watering devices.
Properly selected and applied mulches in flower and shrub beds reduce water use by decreasing soil temperatures and the amount of soil exposed to wind. Mulches also discourage weeds and can improve soil conditions.
There are two basic types of mulches:
Organic mulches include straw, partially decomposed compost, wood chips, bark, and even ground corncobs or newspapers.
Inorganic mulches include plastic film, gravel and woven fabrics. Sometimes a combination of both organic and inorganic is used.
If soil improvement is a priority, use organic mulches. Wood chips and compost are most appropriate.
As these materials break down, they become an organic amendment to the soil. Earthworms and other soil organisms help incorporate the organic component into the soil. Organic mulch is preferred because most soils in this area are low in organic content and need organic amendments to improve aeration and water-holding capacity.
Inorganic mulches, such as plastic film, effectively exclude weeds for a time, but they also tend to exclude the water and air essential to plant roots.
Woven fabrics and fiber mats are preferred over polyethylene films. Fabrics and mats exclude weeds yet allow water and air exchange. Used in combination with decorative rock or bark chunks, they often outlast the less expensive but short-lived polyethylene films.
For more information or free CSU Xeriscaping fact sheets, contact your local CSU Extension Office. In Moffat County, 824-9180, 539 Barclay St.