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In moderation
Your gardens and lawn can flourish with less water


April 2008

Homeowners know maintaining a healthy landscape often takes a lot of work, from proper design and planting to maintenance. Those lush gardens and velvet lawns require a lot of sweat equity.

But if designed properly, one thing they donít need is a lot of water.

The growing green movement has made homeowners more conscious about the use of our natural resources, and the good news is a well-designed Midwestern landscape can naturally lend itself to the conservation of water.

"One of the first things you can do is purposely select plantings that do not have excessive water needs," says Bret Achtenhagen of Seasonal Services in Mukwonago. "Plants native to the Midwest typically have deeper root systems, which can help with your water needs."

Geography makes those choices easy for Wisconsin homeowners. Weíre fortunate in that we donít have the arid, desert climates of the West nor do we normally suffer through drought-like conditions on a long-term basis.

"It is a little bit different here in Wisconsin in that water is not typically a big problem for us," says Patrick Devereux, an owner of StoneOak Landscapes in Cudahy. "Most of the normal plantings people use are quite acclimated to our climates and therefore are fairly drought tolerant as well."

Devereux notes, as with anything else, there are always exceptions to this rule. "There are certain perennials that will droop right away," he admits.

Jim Kemp, sales manager for LaRosa Landscaping in Cedarburg, says that gardens and planting beds can be designed to meet an ownerís needs while specifically reducing the amount of attention that might typically be required with a less-than-thoughtful plant selection.

"Using drought-tolerant plants such as juniper, rudbeckia and leucanthemum will greatly reduce the amount of water needed once they are established," he suggests. "Work with a qualified and experienced landscape architect or designer to create gardens that will perform well in this climate."

Experienced professionals will also take into account certain elements in your existing landscape, such as the soil composition.

"The clay soil found in parts of our area actually retains too much water and sometimes will not give it up to the plants," says Devereux. "Likewise, it can also have the opposite effect: If you dig a hole for a tree in heavy, clay soil, the hole can almost act like a bathtub and drown the tree."

One of the easiest ways to reduce your water needs ó as well as cutting down on weeds and enhancing the aesthetic quality of your landscaping in general ó is to use mulches.

Achtenhagen mulches his home beds every other year, using a five-tine hoe to loosen up the mulch on the off years for a fresh look.

"You donít want your mulch to compress and become hard," he says. "When that happens, it makes it very difficult for the water to get through to the soil below."

Holding off on mulching every year also gives the natural enzymes in the soil time to aerobically break down the mulch, which helps enhance the bed. It also stops the mulch from building up to unnaturally high levels, resulting in a "berm" or "beaver hut" look to the beds. However, Kemp suggests refreshing a bedís mulch to a certain degree each year.

"You want to maintain a desirable depth of about 1 inch of mulch in perennial gardens and about 3 inches for trees and shrubs," he recommends.

Many homeowners place an emphasis on keeping a lush lawn during the summer months, and there are a number of ways that this still can be done.

"During the warmest months, mow your lawn at 3 inches to 3.25 inches in order to reduce root exposure to the sun," advises Kemp.

Instead of relying on a regular watering schedule regardless of the weather, Devereux suggests taking the cues directly from your lawn.

"If your lawn doesnít spring back when you walk on it or it starts to take on a gray cast, those are both signs that itís getting dry," he says.

When watering your lawn, the experts agree itís better to water heavily and less frequently than to provide a light shower on a regular basis.

"If you water 15 minutes every day, where do your roots end up?" asks Achtenhagen. "They end up growing up to the top 2 inches where the soil is damp."

Watering less frequently but more deeply keeps the lower layers of soil moist, which is where the roots naturally occur. LaRosa Landscaping suggests homeowners try to provide an inch of water a week, preferably all at the same time, to keep a lawn healthy.

"This process will promote deep root growth by giving your lawn a healthier and stronger root system," says Kemp, noting homeowners can measure how much water theyíre dispensing at one time by using a rain gauge or a marked coffee can.

Irrigation systems, when installed properly, can save on water usage as well.

"Itís better to time a system rather than just simply turning it on and forgetting about it," says Devereux. "Even better is to set up separate zones within your yard."

Another important tip, agree local experts, is to water your lawn and/or garden early in the morning. This minimizes any evaporation that may occur and it will give the soil the opportunity to absorb as much water as possible before both the sun and the warmer temperatures rise later in the day.

Finally, a great tip for conserving water is to take advantage of the natural canopy provided by trees.

"The preservation and new installation of shade trees can greatly reduce the effect of the hot summer sun on turf and plantings," says Kemp. "When properly installed and placed, shade trees will also help reduce home-cooling expenses, which also makes your home more efficient and betters the environment."

Shade trees also make an outdoor living space more comfortable, meaning you can enjoy the fruits of your labor and be kind to the earth and its resources at the same time.



This article was featured in the April 2008 issue of