It is hard to imagine that 75 percent of Earth's surface is covered by water yet only 1 percent is available to us as fresh pure water, water we need for drinking and bathing, washing our food and clothes, and for watering our lawns and landscapes. It's estimated that the average American uses around 100 gallons of water per day — and, unfortunately, about half of that water is wasted.
For gardeners and weekend warriors, much of the water lost is due to overwatering, runoff and evaporation. On average, our lawns and plants happily exist and look great on about an inch of water each week. Once established, many plants, especially natives, are well adapted to thriving and looking good only on the water received from nature. They rarely if ever need supplemental watering, yet we feel compelled to pour it on, literally.
However, in the process of coddling our plants, we're training them to depend more on us for their survival, specifically through overwatering, rather than Mother Nature. The better path is to choose plants that are naturally adapted to local growing conditions, provide supplemental irrigation until they become established and then leave them alone. It's survival of the fittest, after all, and native plants rarely let you down.
On the subject of overwatering, once the ground becomes saturated, any excess water runs off the surface, taking with it sediments and contaminants as it makes its way across your yard to the nearest storm drain or watershed. You can capture and retain water on your property with rain barrels positioned under downspouts. That's a clean, free source of water to use whenever and wherever you need it, and in spite of any watering restrictions that may be in place.
Another effective way to conserve water in the home landscape is to use soaker hoses and drip irrigation, rather than overhead sprinklers, whenever possible. Soakers and drip systems deliver water right to the root zone, where it can be slowly absorbed with little risk of water loss due to evaporation. You can expect to use 50 percent less water when utilizing these readily available resources.
Mulch may be one of the easiest and most effective ways to reduce watering needs in any landscape. In addition to suppressing weeds, reducing the spread of plant disease and moderating soil temperatures, mulch acts like an insulating blanket, keeping moisture in the ground and greatly reducing its loss to evaporation. A 3- to 4-inch layer of organic material such as bark or shredded leaves or compost is sufficient.
However, there is one caveat to your selection of mulch. Be aware of the source of it. Make sure it doesn't contain contaminants such as arsenic from pressure-treated lumber. I nearly fell victim to buying tainted mulch myself a few years ago. Thankfully, the Mulch and Soil Council, a nonprofit organization, has done a fantastic job of certifying the safety of bagged mulch and soil products. Just look for its seal on the package. I believe so much in its program, I even became its compensated spokesman and one of its biggest advocates about two years ago.
And let's not forget lawns. Although they rarely require more than an inch of water each week, we homeowners feel compelled to keep the water flowing onto the grass, for fear of losing its luster. Honestly, lawns are simply plants, too. But because of the relatively large space they occupy in our landscapes, we tend to notice any imperfections here first. Although I enjoy the look of a lush green lawn, I've been reducing the size of mine each year as I replace former turf areas with enlarged or newly created beds using drought-tolerant plants.
Joe Lamp'l, host of "GardenSMART" on PBS, is a Master Gardener and author.