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Garden Edition: Water-smart lawns

by Linda Coyner

The drought parching the ground in many parts of the country is a stern wake-up call for water users, especially gardeners. The prospect of choosing between having water to drink and watering the garden is inching closer. For a closer look at where drought is predicted, current or subsiding in the US, check the weekly National Weather Service's Drought Monitor maps at

Some areas got a head start dealing with the water issue in areas where development or agriculture outpaced natural water supply, or where lush landscapes and moisture-loving crops were defiantly planted in arid environments. The rest of the country can learn from them.

Those of us who are located in the semi-tropics of South Florida have been grappling with the water issue for some time. First, it was too much. After all, who wanted to live in a swamp? Much effort was put into draining land, diverting water, and planting the melaleuca, M. quinquenervia, a tree with an unquenchable thirst. All three efforts have come back to haunt the state, with millions of Federal and state dollars being spent to undo it all.

Local governments are taking aim at the biggest landscape water-guzzler: lawns. Officials are using a combination of carrots and sticks to get the message across:

1. The Southern Nevada Water Authority offers homeowners 40 cents a square foot to replace all or part of their lawn with less water dependent plants. It's paid in the form of a credit on their water bill of up to $25,000 for residents and $50,000 for commercial properties.

2. Albuquerque will reduce water bills for residents up $500 for xeriscaping, conserving water through creative landscaping; businesses up to $750.

3. In Sarasota County and most recently in Tampa, Florida, builders must limit irrigated lawn to 50 percent of the area of a residential lot not covered by the house, driveway, sidewalks or pool. The other 50 percent must use low-volume irrigation systems, usually called micro-irrigation systems.

Landscape watering restrictions are becoming commonplace, some of them year-round. Many homeowners, including myself, have to check the day of the week and the house number before turning on their sprinklers. An odd- or even-number address determines which days of the week watering is allowed—scarily reminiscent of the days when one's car's license plate number determined which day you could get in line for gas.

Watering less or as needed

While the expanse of green we call a lawn has become symbolic for our wasteful water ways, the reputation isn't entirely deserved. Most lawns simply are over-watered. A healthy lawn only requires an inch or so of water a week, though exactly how much varies with the texture of your soil. Deep but infrequent watering encourages deep-root growth and fortifies the grass against drought conditions. For an excellent summary of what you need to know about lawn maintenance, see Whitney Farms' website at

The most frugal way to water a lawn is on an as-needed basis. To tell if Kentucky bluegrass, the most common type of turf, needs water, step on it. If it springs back, there is ample moisture. If it lies flat, it needs water. St. Augustine grass, which is what's used extensively in South Florida, tells you it's thirsty when the blades fold. If you're not sure how long it takes your sprinkler system to deliver one inch of water to your lawn, mark several cups one inch from the bottom of the cup. Set out the cups around your lawn and time how long your sprinklers take to deliver one inch of water to the cups.

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©2002 Linda Coyner for SeniorWomenWeb

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