The typical American family of four can use 400 gallons of water per day, with approximately 30 percent of that water devoted to outdoor uses, primarily outdoor watering. With the warmer days of summer just around the corner, now — while temperatures are cool and gardening is a pleasure — is the perfect time to think about some landscaping steps you and your family can take to conserve water.
If, like many of us these days, you're trying to reduce your family's carbon footprint, reducing your lawn area is a good place to start. Maintaining a lawn requires vast amounts of water (during summer months, outdoor watering accounts for more than 50 percent of residential water use) as well as fertilizer, weed-killing chemicals, mowing and loads of your precious time.
Take a look at the existing landscape with an eye for locations where lawn area can be reduced. Once you've identified some places to reduce lawn space, here are a few ideas for disposing of the old sod. Stack it up in place, until it decomposes, or chop it up and add it to the compost pile. You also can turn it upside down and leave it as mulch.
So-called Mediterranean gardening is well-suited to our wet winters and dry summers, and native plants work well with this approach.
Besides requiring less water, native plants in the landscape supply shelter and food for native birds and other wildlife. One family you might consider is manzanita (Arcostaphylos), including kinnikinnick, a charming ground cover with small white or pink flowers in the spring, followed by red berries.
Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium) is another good choice that needs little water, along with rosemary (attractive to bees and butterflies) and ceanothus (also called blue blossom). Just be sure the site has enough room for blue blossom, as it can grow quite large. Sedum, torch lily, salvia, sage and yarrow, available in various colors, are other minimal-moisture plant choices.
Using compost or mulch is another great strategy to reduce the watering requirements of any landscape. Researchers at Oregon State University's experiment station in Aurora confirmed that pre-plant compost application increases plant growth and the health of drought-tolerant landscape plants. So, prior to planting new drought-tolerant plants, think about enhancing the site or soil with a good mulch or compost application.
Are there opportunities to help reduce your energy bills by doing some strategic tree planting on your property? Deciduous trees (trees that lose their leaves in the winter) planted on the south, west or east perimeter of a lot can provide welcome shade during the summer but still will allow sunlight during the winter after leaves fall. And their cooling shade will mean less need for running the air conditioning in your home or business.
In general, try to keep plants with similar needs in the same locations. Locate plants that require more watering near downspouts or in the shade of your home or office. If there's a southern exposure on the property, check to see whether there is room to create a rock garden or perhaps a nice space for growing wildflowers, which don't require frequent watering. Another perk of wildflowers is that they benefit the local ecosystem, including birds and butterflies.
If you opt to retain lawn on your property, ask a nursery or landscaper about environmentally friendly, low-irrigation options that require less watering. Also, many rental companies have machines that aerate lawns by removing small plugs of grass and topsoil. This allows much better water penetration and can reduce water bills by as much as 50 percent.
In addition, control weeds, which can rob moisture from plants and soil, and don't overfertilize your garden. The excess growth will necessitate extra watering. Also, taller grass helps reduce moisture evaporation, so set your mower high.
You might also consider a drip-irrigation system. Drip irrigation will deliver water directly to plants' root zones, saving water.
Cynthia Orlando is a certified arborist for the Oregon Department of Forestry.