Prioritize irrigation to use less water
by Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp
Most Midwesterners take water for granted. Compared with parched Western states, such as Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho, the Midwest drowns in precipitation. "Even if the summers are dry, we do a pretty good job of catch-up in fall, winter and early spring, where rain and snowfalls soak in and recharge the soil," says Jim Angel, state climatologist with the Illinois State Water Survey in Champaign, Ill. For instance, the average rain- and snowfall in Illinois is about 38 inches. In Colorado, it's 19.
Water can mean the difference between success or failure for a vegetable crop, a summer planting of annuals or newly planted trees and shrubs. In the past few years, drier than normal conditions have threatened home landscapes, agriculture crops and nursery stock. In rain-deficient communities, water restrictions may kick in during drought or periods of high use, and homeowners must set priorities on the wise use of this valuable resource.
5 TIPS TO SAVE DRIPS
• Choose native plants, which have had centuries to adapt to swings in environmental conditions.
• Prioritize watering if resources are scarce or conservation is your goal. First soak newly planted lawns, shrubs, trees and perennials stressed by transplanting; then quench annuals, including vegetables and ornamental plants that need water to continue producing; and lastly sprinkle turf that can safely go dormant.
• Water early in the morning to help plants withstand the heat of the day. Watering later can mean losing a lot to evaporation. Nighttime watering may contribute to fungus diseases.
• Use drip irrigation or sweating hoses to water garden beds, trees and shrubs. These methods put the water at the root zone where it's needed.
• Use a rain gauge or straight-edged container, such as a tuna can, to monitor sprinkler watering. Stop the sprinkler when the can collects the desired level.
The Midwest's most recent serious drought was in 2005, when the dry stretch between March and June rivaled 1988, the previous record holder. In 2005, the lack of rain was widespread and — coupled with excessive heat — especially damaging, says Michael Palecki, a climatologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Midwest regional center, also based in Champaign.
Palecki says Indiana and Ohio are OK on the precipitation front; even in 2005, several tropical storms deluged the southern parts of the states along the Ohio River. "If Ohio has a worry, it's the hotter-than-normal summers," says Jeff Rogers, state climatologist in Ohio and a geography professor at The Ohio State University. "Five of the past 15 summers are on the list of top-20-percent-warmest summers ever."
Grass or lawn turf has the highest water demand of any plant in the landscape, says Steve Mayer, a horticulturist educator with Purdue University's Marion County Extension office in Indianapolis. A lawn needs 1 to 1½ inches of water per week either from rainfall or from the hose to stay green, and it's best to apply the weekly requirement in one or two long sprinklings instead of several short ones. If it rains, you may not have to water at all. "Any watering should be done deeply but infrequently," Mayer says. "If you're willing to have brown grass instead of green, a dry spell is the perfect occasion to allow the lawn to go dormant."
Established lawns can go four weeks without a drink with no ill effect. At four weeks, if the drought continues, give the lawn a half-inch of water, which is usually enough to keep the crowns of the grass alive. Responsible water usage will not only cut household water bills, but it will also help to curb rate increases for sewer usage. No matter where you live, as good stewards of nature, it's important to establish priorities for watering during drought or to conserve water.
Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp, freelance writer, author, speaker and photographer, is an Advanced Master Gardener and a regional director of Garden Writers Association. A self-proclaimed trial-and-error gardener, she also enjoys spending time with her dog, Penn, and cat, Cowgirl.