How to use water in the garden
Like most gardening issues, how to water, and how much, has many prescriptions. Here are a few of them, compliments of our three water-wise gardeners and some local experts:
• Soaker hoses or drip-irrigation systems are way more efficient than sprinklers. But if you must use sprinklers, avoid those with a misty spray. You want big drops that won't evaporate.
• Get a rain gauge to figure out how much water the sprinkler is tossing or how much rain has fallen. (You want about an inch a week.) You can buy a fancy pluviometer with digital features and an ice-warning system, or you can do what Becky Szkotak, of Rutgers Cooperative Extension in Camden, N.J., suggests: "Get a small Tupperware container."
• Try not to let your sprinkler water the sidewalk, street or house, and don't hose down your sidewalk, driveway or patio, either. Use a broom to clean up debris.
• If you water by hand, do it deeply and less often. It beats a cursory spritz every day. And do this in the morning; Szkotak likes 6 to 8 a.m. Night watering promotes fungus.
• Use fertilizers sparingly. They bulk up your plants, then make them thirsty.
• Look for drought-tolerant plants, such as salvias, purple coneflower and rudbeckia.
• Use compost and mulch for healthy soil that retains moisture.
• Keep weeding. Weeds are big drinkers.
• Install a rain barrel, with dunks inside and mesh on top to discourage mosquitoes.
• Consider converting some of your water-hogging lawn to a garden. For the remaining lawn, plant a drought-tolerant zoysia grass or tall fescue. And mow high, 3 to 4 inches. This shades the roots and holds moisture better. "Everyone wants that golf-course look without paying the golf-course fee," says Rutgers' Nick Polanin. (Yes, he's a golfer.)
• Choose porous materials like gravel for pathways, so water seeps into the ground instead of skimming off.
• Fix hose leaks. A garden hose can put out more than 6 gallons of water a minute.
• And make some tough calls. Try not to water unless it's extremely dry, and then skip established plants and lawns. Most probably will make it to the next downpour.
Anyone who ever has stood out there, hose in hand, counting the seconds until quitting time, might be surprised by this: Experts say overwatering is a bigger problem than underwatering.
They also say that at this time of year, when as much as 80 percent of household water consumption takes place outside, we waste as much as half of it.