June 14, 2011

"Honey, I shrunk the lawn!"

That’s how I greeted my husband recently after my busy morning with a shovel, newspapers and a few bales of pinestraw mulch. Some of our shrubs had overgrown their borders after eight years and mowing around them had become difficult.

So I solved the problem by enlarging the beds. I dug a new edge trench, then covered the grass with overlapping triple sheets of newsprint. That does a dandy job of killing the turf without chemicals. Cover the newspaper with a few inches of pinestraw and you can say “goodbye” to some of your turfgrass. Some golf courses in Nevada are removing large swaths of grass to deal with their water woes.

Lawn are now the largest “crop” grown in the Chesapeake watershed and are increasing at an annual rate of 8.6 percent—faster than the rate of population growth. Nationwide, 21 million acres are covered by grasses. World Bank predicts that two-thirds of the global population will suffer from lack of access to freshwater by 2025. Some rivers that formerly reached the sea no longer do so—all of the water is diverted before it reaches the river’s mouth. I saw that in Sonoma, California a few years ago as we drove westward along the Russian River. It slowly dwindled to a pond just a few hundred yards from the Pacific.

Does the average homeowner really spend $1200 watering their lawns and landscaping each year? 30 percent of the water used on the East Coast is used to water lawns. Yikes! And many of my neighbors still nearly scalp their lawns. REMEMBER THAT TALL FESCUE ENJOYS BEING 4 INCHES TALL. Then it can shade the soil and not dry out so soon. Chokes out weeds too since the seeds need sunlight to sprout.

Here are some tips if last summer’s water bill got your attention or you’re tired of mowing large expanses of the green stuff. Most homeowner associations will approve these small changes to your landscaping plan, but ask for permission first.

Groundcovers — Provide terrific alternatives to water-hogging turf especially in shady areas. A generous neighbor gave me a few bayberry volunteers seven years ago. They came with a hidden gem—periwinkle—that has now covered three large areas of our landscaped beds. No need to mulch there now. Technically, periwinkle is a non-native “invasive exotic” plant but I find it charming and far removed from invasives like kudzu and Japanese stiltgrass. Groundcovers that do well in our area include Liriope (if you don’t have deer) and most varieties of thyme and sedum.

Visit Virginia Native Plant Society’s website  for more info on invasive plants. Or Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation at http://www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural_heritage/invsppdflist.shtml

Go native — Native grasses are resistant to drought, insects, and disease. Maiden grass is one of my favorites although it too is considered invasive. But I welcome these “volunteers.” The helpful folks at James County Service Authority (JCSA) provide a list of “Water Smart” plants at http://www.bewatersmart.org/resources/plants/plants.html

If you want to see an attractive drought tolerant garden, visit the Ellipse Garden at Williamsburg Botanical Garden at 5535 Centerville Road. I was very impressed driving back to it.  James City County has preserved a LOT of land! (757) 903-9103

Think rain barrel — One inch of rain on 1,000 square feet of roof yields up to 600 gallons of rainwater. James City County averages 47 inches of precipitation per year—or 28,200 gallons per year.

Both Ace Peninsula stores in our area, as well as most garden stores have these barrels in stock. JCSA offers rebates up to $25 per rain barrel—limit four barrels. If your development signed a “Water Conservation Agreement,” you may not be eligible for this rebate. See JCSA’s rebate info at http://www.bewatersmart.org/pdfs/rebates/jcsarebatebooklet_10.pdf

* The Historic Triangle Senior Center (5301 Longhill Road, Williamsburg; 757-259-4187) sells rain barrels made from recycled 55 gallon olive barrels and include a screen, overflow valve and spigot--all for $50.

Give our aquifers a break — Let the soil dry between waterings to prevent lawn disease and help fight the unsustainable demand on groundwater. During hot, dry spells, a healthy lawn can survive on just one inch of water, including rain, per week. During our peak summer season, water usage dramatically increases by 60-70 percent.

If you are a JCSA customer, you are using water from the Chickahominy-Piney Point and Potomac Aquifers that are hundreds of thousands of years old and whose extraction is not being replenished by rainfall. Mining them for water today means depriving future generations of liquid treasure.

Turf is tricky in our area because we are in a transition zone between northern and southern climates. Neither cool season nor warm season turf absolutely thrives here, and maintaining a healthy lawn takes work.

Instead of long watering times on each station, I set our irrigation system to 10 minutes per oscillating station and 2 minutes per pop-up station at 5 a.m., with a repeat an hour later.

Or you can let your fescue go brown and dormant—just water once a month and it will (may?) bounce back in the fall.

Sure wish we could easily irrigate our plants with "gray water." There's little rationale for irrigation water (or to flush our toilets) to be the same quality of water as we need to brush our teeth or make ice cubes.