Earth Day 2015 – We Can All Lead the Way on Water Conservation

Today is Earth Day, and it causes me to pause and reflect on my concerns about our planet. I live in an area of the U.S. that historically has been heavily affected by drought. We might be doing better this week than many parts of the West, but that hasn’t always been the case. And it doesn’t relieve the groundwater situation.

Earth Day 2015
Earth Day 2015. This year’s campaign is about taking the lead.

I also live in an area where people, for the most part, deny climate change. I avoid political discussions, but I love science. Here are a few facts from NASA:

  • The global temperature is up 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1980.
  • Many argue that temperature relates just to regular shifts, and not permanent change, so how about this one: The Arctic ice minimum is declining 13.3 percent each decade.
  • Melting Arctic and land ice have led to the sea level rising 3.19 mm per year.
  • In addition, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are up 400.06 parts per million, and the forest cover is down.
Ruidoso burn scar
Burn scar from massive fire in Ruidoso area a few years ago. This is from the top of the Apache Ski area.

I struggled years ago to explain the phenomenon to a neighbor who used the classic line “So much for global warming” every time we received a late snow or had cool temps on a spring day. The science is complex, but in my mind, it’s intuitive. Less ice at the surface adds to the vicious circle of warming and less melt on land where it’s needed. More water in the ocean increases sea levels, like a bathtub running over. Add cold water to the mix, along with air and water that are warmer because of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and you’re going to affect ocean weather patterns.

thermal-imagery-seas
The swirling of sea surface waters is shown in this thermal infrared image from the Suomi NPP spacecraft on April 12, 2015 in an area just southeast of Cape Cod, Mass. The VIIRS sensors can detect slight differences in temperature at a resolution of 375 meters per pixel, and here they are colored – blue for cold, and red for warm. The warm waters of the Gulf Stream meet and mix with the much cooler surface waters from the North Atlantic. An incredibly tight gradient between these two masses of water is especially evident on the left side of the image, where the area of white is very fine between cool and warm. These boundaries are often ecological hot spots, especially for fisheries. Image courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

 

I do know that the first quarter of this year was the warmest on record for Earth. I’ll leave the discussions to the experts, though. For now, I know I could do more individually. I could cut down on some waste and recycle more. We’re already trying to grow more of our own food because it’s hard to get fresh vegetables locally. We have a passive solar home, but we could do more to cut down on electricity and natural gas use.

hike along Rio Bonito
My family on a hike we took along the Rio Bonito near Ruidoso one August.

And water, that precious resource. I’ll increase my efforts there as well, trying to capture more rain water during monsoon season. And I’ll try harder inside the house to decrease water use, because every drop adds up. Finally, I’ll continue to research and offer as many practical ideas as I can on saving water in your landscape.

Smart Xeric Strategy: Grow Edible Plants

It’s a trend that was a long time in coming, but edible landscaping is here to stay, and it can be a great xeric landscaping strategy. More than 80 percent of Americans say they have grown edibles, but nearly one-fourth are concerned about irrigation, so incorporating edibles into the garden landscape just makes sense!

I plan to increase some of the space in our rock garden devoted to edibles this year. We already have some great xeric herbs and I love the blooms of our Western sand cherry, which I hope will bear fruit this year. We also get a few rose hips from our native (Fendler) roses.

Apple tree and red bud in full bloom
The red bud looks edible, but only at the bird feeder! The rose bush on the left leaves hips in the late fall. And if that apple tree by the river makes as many apples as it has blooms, we’ll be heading to the farmers’ market!

Use space and save money

Adding a few edibles means we use some of the space and relatively good soil that’s near our kitchen and outdoor dining spaces for a few more herbs and vegetables. I’ll supplement our fenced vegetable garden and try to select critter-proof plants or hope the area is close enough to our patio to shy them away.

Like me, you might want to grow your own edibles for freshness and cost savings. In particular, herbs are much less expensive when grown from seed or cuttings than when you buy them in a store. I’ve used fresh and dried ones from our rock garden all year long. But so many edible plants also add visual interest. I don’t have to tell you how gorgeous lavender can get. And if not cut, rosemary and sage also produce lavender-colored blooms.

Grow xeric herbs

Then, there is the scent. I can hardly walk by thyme or lavender without rubbing my fingers on the leaves. Here’s a list of low-water herbs to add to your garden landscape:

Sage, thyme, rosemary, and lavender (which can be used to flavor dishes or for many aromatic uses). Basil uses a little more water, but recovers well if neglected, as long as you keep it in well-draining soil. Oregano also needs only occasional watering, and though dill can be particular about soil, it also does well with little water. Read more about low-water herbs in my March post.

Add edible shade trees

If you’re looking for a shade tree, why not plant a fruit or nut tree that is native to your region? Instead of watering for the sake of leaves and summer shade, you can water for some juicy apples or peaches.

Chinese apricot tree for edible shade
No shade needed on this spring day, but in summer, we rest from outdoor chores under this established Chinese apricot tree. It was loaded with fruit about three years ago.

We just ordered a few bare-root trees from the Upper Hondo Soil and Water Conservation District. We’ve already planted a pinon tree. Sure, it will be a long time until it rewards us with pine nuts, and we’ll probably always fight the wildlife for them, but it’s a fast-growing native tree in New Mexico and I’m happy to try for a few delicious nuts to add to some basil for pesto! On the way soon are a serviceberry and cherry. The serviceberry is sure to feed the birds, if not us. And our established currant is in full bloom.

currant bush
This low-water currant provides year-round color and edible berries for wildlife and humans.

Consider interspersing a few edibles into your garden landscape and start small. For example, fill containers with edible flowers. Artichokes add interest to the garden;  just be sure to leave those guys plenty of room. If a few of the edibles you choose take a little more water than typical for xeric plants, consider this: Farmers use even more to irrigate their crops and you use no carbon footprint to drive to the store and buy greens when you grow your own in containers or a raised bed in your own garden. Water as much as possible from a rain barrel and feel even better about your edibles!

nasturtium in old washer
Why not fill an empty container (even a salvaged washer) with edible flowers? Nasturtium look pretty in the landscape and on salads.

Also, be sure to consider where you place your edibles. Spinach and lettuce have shallow roots and need cooler, shadier conditions. But avoid adding a crop of edibles under the canopy of a tree, where they’ll compete with the tree’s roots for water. I plan to use an area of our rock garden area to grow more peppers this year, and our southern-facing rock wall serves as a perfect microclimate to add some extra warmth for tomatoes and peppers.

planting edibles in xeric gardens
We recently weeded, turned the dirt, and added mushroom compost to the rock garden soil to prep it for some edibles as soon as frost danger passes.

Low-water Use Tips To Meet Restrictions and Good Water Sense

We spend a lot of time talking about xeric plants, and recently posted some tips on low-water use for gardeners. California has implemented emergency regulations to conserve water during their drought, and the ones related to landscaping are the sort of common sense practices that xeric-minded organizations and gardeners have always touted:

  • Avoid runoff when irrigating.
  • Don’t irrigate during or 48 hours after measurable precipitation.

This post goes into more details on the restrictions, which, along with scheduled days or times of watering, are pretty common municipal regulations in drought-stricken areas.

Avoid runoff when irrigating

Runoff obviously can come from too much water. Of course, good planning of landscape, plant selection and irrigation choices upfront can prevent runoff. Correct an existing problem by first checking the area after the system runs. If you normally water while at work, do a manual run so you can test your system on the weekend. If you have runoff, study where flow occurs. If it’s down a slope, consider terracing the lawn area or welling around the tree or shrubs that you’re watering. You can also cut watering time, of course. If you’re worried about one tree or ornamental that needs more water, cut the irrigation system watering time and supplement the tree’s water every once in a while with a hose or bucket. Don’t waste all of that water irrigating concrete or pavement, and possibly weeds, just to keep one plant healthy. For a small lawn or several plants on a drip system, you can decrease watering time and increase frequency if necessary.

terraced lawn to prevent sprinkler runoff
This Albuquerque lawn has some bermuda grass, but notice the terrace to avoid runoff. Also, note the exposed drip lines being reset in the xeric garden area on lower right.

The runoff might be from a misdirected, leaky, plugged or defective head or emitter. It’s easy to turn and redirect the head so the water goes where it should. A small leak in the system can waste hundreds of gallons of water. Plugged sprinkler heads are a common cause of pooled or misdirected water. Running a stiff wire, such as a straightened paper clip, through the emitter hole can clear some debris. If the entire head is full or dirt or grass, you can turn off your system, lift and unscrew the head, soak it and use a small wire brush to clean it. Then rinse it and screw it back on.

Avoid watering a wet lawn

This should be a no-brainer, but I already ranted in my previous post about neighbors who left their automatic sprinklers on no matter the weather. My best advice is to set automatic sprinklers to “manual” and water regularly but only as needed based on weather conditions. You can set a reminder on your smartphone or other device to jog your memory if that’s a concern. But it’s sometimes more difficult to remember to override the automatic setting on the sprinkler, especially if you’re not there to do it! Otherwise, pay attention to the weather forecast each evening and override the auto setting when rain is predicted the night before so you don’t have to add the task to your busy morning schedule. You can always water a little in early evening or the next morning if the forecast is off the mark.

Of course, if you’ve switched out some or all of your turf for a xeric landscape, at least you are using less water. It also means less need for an automatic system. Most xeric plants need such infrequent watering that you’re best served by a manual irrigation system or the totally manual system of carrying a water bucket from your rain barrel only to the plants that need a little more water — and only when they need it!

raised ornamental bed bubblers
We raised part of this bed and replaced spray heads with bubblers to conserve water.

Other water-saving tips

  • Water early in the morning, especially if you live in a hot climate. Your plants take up more water before the stressful heat of the day, and if you’re using spray irrigation, less water evaporates.
  • Use drip irrigation when possible instead of sprays and sprinklers, or at least keep the spray as low as possible. Spraying water can lead to some leaf diseases, and you want most of the water to go into the plant’s roots, not into the air.
  • Well around plants, especially new plants, any plant that needs more water than others, and anything planted on a slope to trap the water.
  • Choose xeric, low-water and native plants.
  • Use mulch as appropriate to help keep plants cool and roots damp.

    welled shrubs
    Wells around shrubs at Tucson area nonprofit

Of course, it never hurts to call in a professional landscaper or other pro to get some help with your irrigation system or to better plan your lawn and garden for low-water use. For example, avoiding steep slopes in your landscape (with terraces and other strategies) can prevent water runoff, and use of microclimates can increase plant viability while decreasing water needs.

Water-Wise Gardening Tips

It’s dry out there. We had pretty good moisture over the winter months, but the early spring has been unseasonably warm (OK!) and dry. We’ve come to expect that in New Mexico, and a few days ago, I wrote about the wildfire danger. Today, let’s review a few tips for water-wise spring landscaping that help homeowners here and just about anywhere in the country where drought can be an issue.

  • Set out your rainwater harvesting system. If you live in a climate zone that’s warm enough to leave rain barrels out all winter or have underground cisterns, your system has been efficiently gathering water all winter. In other climates, rain barrels can freeze in winter. Ours are on the south side of the house and should be past danger of long and hard freeze. Now, all we need is rain.
rain barrel in New Mexico
A simple rain harvesting system that came as a kit. All we had to do was shorten our downspout.
  • Update your irrigation system to a low-volume method. The most practical and water-efficient way to hydrate ornamentals is with drip irrigation. When you use spray heads, water evaporates into the air. It also hits leaves and nearby plants. The spray can cause leaf disease in some plants, plus it’s more efficient to soak roots deeply than to water the entire plant.
  • As you plan your irrigation, or check out your current system this spring, make sure to adjust the water amount for the plants or areas where you have bubblers. For example, succulents and many xeric plants need no water at all once established, unless you’re in an extreme drought. You can cap those bubblers off. Too much water can actually harm some xeric plants. Use drips at the base of low- and medium-water flowers and groundcovers. Increase the flow rate for larger shrubs and trees, and add a few extra emitters around trees, especially while they’re becoming established. Remember that tree roots grow out, just like the canopy.
drip system for xeric gardening
A drip system irrigates rosemary, yucca and other plants in this xeric garden.
  • Water in the morning to get your plants through the heat of the day, and when less evaporation occurs.
  • Use raised beds. Raised beds and containers concentrate water, so if you want a few herbs or vegetables or some medium- to high-water ornamentals, confine them to an area that takes a little more water than the others. If you place the raised bed near your drip system, you can add it to the mix and adjust the flow on your emitter if necessary. Just remember, some containers, such as clay pots, dry out more quickly, even though they use less water each time. It’s like having a smaller tank on a fuel-efficient car. It’s not necessarily using more gas, just needing more frequent refilling.
  • When adding plants to your garden, build a small well around them to hold water. This helps the plant soak up the irrigation and keeps water from running down and off the plant, wasting your precious resource.
well at base of tree
This well helps hold water until this small tree is established, especially since it’s on a slope.
  • Use mulch when possible to help retain water and keep roots cool during the heat of the summer.

Finally, automatic irrigation is most efficient, and the consistent, timed watering is best for plants and lawns. But override it whenever you can after a good rain. I used to bemoan the waste when my neighbor’s sprinklers would come on as scheduled while their lawn already glistened with rainwater.

deer in xeric garden
Most of the plants in our xeric rock garden receive no irrigation, just supplemental watering to establish new plants or an occasional drink during drought.

How To Read Plant Label Codes for Watering Needs

Plant tags, labels and catalogs are much more attractive if they use icons instead of text instructions. Much like infographics, it’s a newer direction in communication. I see the good side of it, especially for people who have low literacy or shop with small children and don’t have time to turn the tag around for more information. I could say the drawback is that the more we put in symbols, the less we need writers, but that’s not a rant for this blog post.

As far as I know, water symbols are not standardized. If I’m wrong, I would love to be corrected. I think a standard nomenclature and symbol system for plant watering would be a great service to gardeners.

plant-catalogs-labels
Catalogs, seed packets and plant labels use a variety of methods to give us clues about a plant’s water needs.

Most water requirements are represented by a water droplet symbol that’s empty, partially filled or completely filled. My summary of similar legends, like the one used by the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Water Authority, provides the following clues to irrigation:

Empty drop: A plant that requires only rainwater or no supplemental watering once established. So be sure to give a new or transplanted tree or bush extra water until it appears healthy. This can be up to a year for trees and some bushes. After that, there’s no need to irrigate the low-water plant at all. Half-filled drop: This is a medium-water plant. It will always need some supplemental water, depending on what Mother Nature delivers. Most medium-water plants need supplemental water once or twice a month during the hottest days of summer.

seed-packet-water-drop
This seed packet shows the moderate water needs of a sunflower.

Full drop: I am not familiar with these plants. Seriously, they usually aren’t going to make it in places that deliver little rainfall, and if they do, it’s not water-wise gardening. But they often can survive in the right climates and conditions, maybe in a welled spot or container, or where there’s run-off from a streambed. Of course, if you live in a tropical area, that’s just not fair. There are additional variations on these labels, like partially filled drops. I’ve also seen use of watering pails as symbols. Most add text alongside the icons, but if in doubt, ask for help from the nursery staff or a local master gardener.

portulaca-bloom
And because I have to include a pretty flower picture, here’s a portulaca bloom. I love these low-water heat lovers.

No matter what the label shows, circumstances can affect water needs, so don’t take your water icon at face value! Aside from plant establishment, wind and unexpected heat waves can dry plants out. Summer monsoons can nearly drown our drought-resistant plants! And welling and mulching around plants helps them retain water, maybe helping you push a half-filled drop to a quarter-filled one…

This is Not Real Drought

I want to take a serious turn today. I saw an article on a news site a few weeks ago about a real water crisis and it gave me pause.

On this blog, I write about how you can have a beautiful garden by using less water. I do it mostly because I have to; we’re still in a serious drought in the Southwest and our property is on a well, so it’s not like we can access an unlimited supply. I also believe it’s the right thing to do. But my little efforts and musings are nothing, and I mean nothing at all, compared to the crisis faced by people around the world.

The article on CNN by Ian McKenna described the work Matt Damon does with Water.org, an organization he co-founded with Gary White in 2009. According to Damon, the nonprofit organization helps provide affordable access not only to safe water, but to sanitation, through projects like microfinance loans. It seems there’s a black market for water in some areas. And I fret when my rain barrel fills and I miss some. I just don’t have a real problem. I don’t have to walk very far to collect water from my faucets; it comes into several rooms in my home. We even have a few faucets outside. What would it be like to spend three hours a day just collecting water for your family? Or to have no sanitation in your local village?

Gardening, well, that would be the last thing on your mind. But so this doesn’t end on a downer, the CNN article talked about one small success from a microfinanced loan, and how an African woman was paying 40 rupees a day for her family’s access to a public toilet.  With a loan she was able to connect to a utility and add a faucet and toilet in her home. The 40 rupees a month went to paying off the loan, which took two years. She now saves that money each month and has access to water and sanitation in her home.

How Do Gardeners Conserve Water?

I’m a member of the Garden Writers Association, and one of the benefits to membership is access to research conducted by GWA’s foundation on consumer gardening trends. The Fall 2013 report explored how gardeners conserve water and provided three years of historical data for comparison. I have to say that the results gave me pause.

About 68 percent of consumers surveyed said they have a lawn or garden in 2013 and of those surveyed, here are the top ways they conserved water this summer:

  • Used more mulch (28 percent).
  • Used more drought-tolerant plants (17 percent).
  • Watered with drip irrigation (15 percent).
  • Used a rain barrel (12 percent).
  • Didn’t water at all (30 percent).

OK, not bad overall, but my concern is that on every water-conservation measure, the percentage was down — from two to five percentage points — from the 2010 survey. Is it a matter of awareness that peaked, then waned? Or is it simply an anomaly, something to attribute to the size or randomness of the sample surveyed? Probably not the latter, because GWA says that the sample balances the population geographically. In that case, we’ve got work to do to raise gardeners’ awareness of water conservation. That’s certainly a goal of this blog.

rain barrel
This rain barrel soon will connect to another barrel and we’ll add a third barrel on the southwest side of the house. One barrel can fill with a good summer rain.

Here are a few more findings to ponder, though. An additional 28 percent of respondents said “Didn’t think about it,” and 8 percent responded “not sure,” or refused to answer the question. So that means more than one-third of gardeners are doing nothing at all to conserve water in their lawns or gardens. It could be that many of those people, like a portion of the 30 percent who didn’t water, live in lush, rain-heavy areas that require no supplemental water. It made me think of how envious I would get when visiting the northeast or Hawaii. I get it; nature takes care of most of the watering there. Then again, the last time I went to Maui, restaurants only served water upon request because the island was experiencing a drought. That’s right. I know a tropical drought is not the same as a desert drought, but it’s all relative, and an island (even though surrounded by water) has finite resources.

plant in fence post
Plants grow just about anywhere in Maui, even during a drought.

We’ll discuss more ideas of how to conserve water, including rain catchment and whether it’s a good idea not to water at all, in future posts. For now, I just really want to raise awareness. I’m not perfect in my conservation efforts either, but I’m learning more as I write these posts. And there’s a certain degree of natural conservation that comes with the territory when you live in the desert Southwest.

Fall List of Water-saving Activities

The weather is cool and plants are going dormant, but there still is plenty homeowners can do to improve water saving and plant health for spring. It will keep you in the water-wise frame of mind and cut down on spring chores.

First, if you have automatic sprinklers or drip systems, be sure to adjust them for your plant’s new winter watering needs. I used to lose it when I would see my neighbors’ lawn sprinklers running full force on a windy and frosty November morning, partly because I nearly froze getting into my car, but mostly because of the wasted water. Watering plants too heavily in fall weather can soften them and make them more vulnerable to frost damage. And if you continue to water them too much in late winter or too soon in early spring so that they leaf out, they’re more vulnerable to late frost damage.

Another good fall project is to mulch around plants. Some xeric plants do better without mulching, but those that need a little more water can benefit from mulches that help retain the moisture. Mulching now also protects more sensitive plants from potential frost.

mulch in bed
Mulch in this bed helps hold in moisture. Note the manual sprinkler control near the home’s front door. It’s not much more work and avoids watering when unnecessary.

Well or shore up plants. Leaving a shallow depression, or tiny well, around low-water plants helps hold moisture in, especially right after they’re planted. If you have some trees and ornamentals that already are established, you can shore up some of the water by building up a ridge of soil around the plant’s base. This is particularly helpful for plants on grades to help prevent water from running off the plant instead of soaking in.

apple_tree_well_web
Tim built up a ridge around this small apple tree to help well the water.

If you’re really feeling industrious, start planning for spring by planning or setting up a water harvesting system. It might be as simple as diverting roof water into a flower bed against the home’s foundation or so that it runs through a dry-river bed (an assortment of rocks and gravel made to look like a river) that leads to a favorite tree. Or plan a new xeric layout for your yard.

calif_poppies
This post lacked color, so I had to add these. Called California or Mexican poppies, they’ll grow in the poorest, driest conditions.

The High Desert Just Got…Higher

side view2
View of house from the northwest side shows apricot tree, garden and view toward river.

 

We live in New Mexico, and spent the past year preparing our house with its nice lawn, beds and straw bale wall to look nice for potential buyers. It sold in the spring and in April, we were fortunate enough to move from Albuquerque to an area just outside Ruidoso, NM.
Still dry? You bet! Still short on water? Of course! We have two acres of water rights with our 4 acres of property and a river that runs through about 180 feet of the back acreage. About three weeks after moving in, it was a dry river bed. More on that another time. Suffice it to say that xeric gardening still rules for the most part, and it’s made a little more fun by hard well water and no sprinkler or drip system.
Did I mention that we also changed zones? At about 6,300 feet in altitude, we’re close to USDA Zone 6, just below some gorgeous mountains but in a canyon with strong, dry winds, along with daily and seasonal temperature extremes.
These are all minor challenges, though, and the good news far outweighs any of the water and climate issues. We’ll take the views, the river, a passive solar home, and an awesome xeric garden already laid out by the talented former owners. I’ll talk about some of our solutions and document the seasons as we go. We’ve even got some ideas for more new plantings.
Yes, life is good even when it’s high and dry.

 

I Say Xeri and You Say Zero

OK, maybe you say and spell xeriscaping correctly, but you might be in the minority if you pronounce, much less understand, the term as it’s intended. I’ve heard people from all walks of life, including professional garden communicators, say the word with the big ZERO in it. The best example was the landscaping company that placed a flyer on my door last summer offering “zeroscape” services. You just can’t beg mispronunciation at that point.

What’s most disconcerting is that the landscaper likely got a few takers, because my Albuquerque neighborhood was ripe with homeowners switching from lawns to gravel-covered “zero” scapes. People misunderstand the fundamental concept of xeriscaping. “Xeros” is the Greek word for dry, not for barren, brown, desolate, nothingness, or zero.

I’ll talk more about what xeriscaping means in a future post, along with its absolutely positive side. For now, it feels so good to get that off my chest.