As Utah enters another year of drought conditions and water restrictions, what can you do to reduce your water use and still enjoy a beautiful landscape?
You don’t have to tear up your entire landscape to make your yard more water wise — though some people might enjoy that challenge. There are small and simple steps you can take to make your landscape more drought-friendly: water less, check your irrigation systems, add mulch, plant adapted plants, use less lawn, and check out local rebate programs.
Many people water much more than their plants need. Liz Braithwaite, a garden designer, says that during the summer, it’s normal for plants to wilt in the heat of the day and for some lawns to go brown. A brown lawn doesn’t always mean the grass is dead. Cool-season turf can go dormant in the heat, but it will green and continue growing later in the fall.
Maegen Lewis, from the USU Extension Office in Heber, stated that Heber Valley has predominately clay soil, which is hard for water to penetrate. Watering less often, but for longer periods of time, is best. Deep watering less often is better for plants than frequent shallow watering; the plants will get deeper roots and will need less water overall.
Pressing a long screwdriver or metal rod that is at least 12 inches long into the soil is an easy way to tell how much water penetrates the ground. The probe will pass easily through wet soil, but it will stop when it hits dry soil. If you monitor your soil after irrigation, you can make sure you are irrigating enough. You can also use a soil probe after a rainstorm to see how much water your landscape received and then adjust your automatic system accordingly.
Adjust Your Automatic Systems
Approximately two-thirds of drinking water in Utah is used to water landscapes, and much of the water is being applied inefficiently. Lewis says that at the Heber Extension Office, homeowners can rent water catch cups to measure how much they are irrigating. Placing catch cups or cans in a grid system can help you make sure your irrigation system is watering uniformly.
You can also inspect your irrigation system for any problems such as broken heads or inadequate or excessive water pressure. After inspection, you can make necessary changes such as adjusting sprinkler heads and changing automatic clocks.
A drip system uses less water than overhead irrigation. Drip irrigation delivers water directly to the plants that need it and reduces water waste. It also helps prevent weeds, reduces disease, and saves time and money. A drip system also needs regular maintenance.
Hand irrigation can also help reduce water usage in the right situation, such as when establishing new plants or when watering potted flowers. Many water wise plants only need irrigation on occasion, so hand watering can be more efficient.
The Utah Legislature recently allocated $50 million for pressurized secondary irrigation providers to install water meters on existing systems by 2030. Installing meters is estimated to reduce water usage by around 30%. Heber is in the process of implementing a secondary water meter installation. Measuring pressurized secondary irrigation allows homeowners to see how much water they are using so that they can learn how to better conserve.
Braithwaite says that adding mulch results in plants needing less water. Mulch can keep plants cooler, minimize evaporation and reduce weeds. Organic mulches, usually wood chips, should be 2 to 6 inches deep. On a vegetable garden, clean straw and compost are good mulch materials. Organic mulches can decompose and improve soil quality. You can also use rocks and gravel, but when used in sunny areas, they tend to retain heat. And avoid black plastic, as it does not allow air, nutrients, or moisture to get to plant roots.
Chose Adapted Plants
A water wise landscape does not need to be filled with rocks or cacti. Lewis says that a water wise garden can be lush and very beautiful. There are many trees, shrubs and perennials that grow in our environment with little water that bring beautiful colors and textures into your landscape. Some adapted plants are native to Utah, but others come from other regions that also grow well in our dry climate.
If you do choose to plant and establish water wise plants, make sure that you don’t give more water than what they need.
When you design your landscape, establish hydrozones. Different areas in your yard have different light, soil, wind, and water conditions. Grouping plants that have similar needs together allows you to customize irrigation so that every plant gets just enough water. You can place plants that need higher water near water sources, downspouts or in cooler areas.
Lawn can take up a lot of water, so reducing lawn is an important step to making your landscape more water wise. But lawn can still be a part of a water wise landscape if it is only used where it is functional. Lawn may be needed for high-traffic areas, play areas or sports fields. If you are never walking on your grass, chances are it could be replaced by something else.
Some lawn varieties can grow with less water. For example, tall fescue stays greener than the traditional Kentucky bluegrass. Wheatgrasses can also be used for a low maintenance lawn without much mowing or irrigation.
Mowing your lawn at a higher setting can also reduce the amount of water your lawn needs.
Participate in Flip your Strip or Localscapes Rewards
As part of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, homeowners in the Heber Valley are eligible to participate in the Flip Your Strip and Localscapes Rewards programs. To get started, visit utahwatersavers.com, where you can create an account and enter your information and water bill.
The Flip Your Strip program is limited to the park strip, or the grass between the curb and the sidewalk. Zack Seipert from the CUWCD says that’s a great place to start your landscape change, as you can still see water savings in that small area. The rebate incentive is tied to the amount of grass you are removing and replacing with a water wise landscape. The rebate is $1.00 per square foot of grass removed, or, if you complete an optional free online education class, you can get $1.25 a square foot. The class teaches you how to make your park strip water wise and eligible for the rebate. Once your application is approved, you must complete the Flip Your Strip program in six months.
The Localscapes Rewards program offers rebates for larger landscape projects, such as your front or backyard. The incentive amount is related to the water savings, and you must take an education class from Localscapes to be eligible for the program. The classes teach you how to create a water wise landscape plan and put it into practice in your own yard. Once you create and submit a plan, your landscape is drawn to a scale that meets the Localscapes requirements, and you can get a rebate estimate. Localscapes Rewards allows you to complete your landscape in 12 months. Once completed, you upload photos and schedule a landscape review. After passing the review, you get a cash reward. If you participate in the Localscapes Rewards, you are not eligible to participate in Flip Your Strip.
The CUWCD also offers a rebate for using a smart irrigation controller.
Keep on learning
There are many helpful websites to help you conserve water and some are found below. You can also visit demonstration gardens such as Red Butte or the Jordan Valley Water Conservation Garden. And the best learning is in your own garden. Not everything you plant will grow, but you can continue to learn as you observe what dies and what thrives in your own yard.
Localscapes at localscapes.com
Conserve Water at conservewater.utah.gov
Utah State University Center for Water-Efficient Landscaping at extension.usu.edu/cwel
Slow the Flow at slowtheflow.org
Utah Water Savers at utahwatersavers.com
Combinations for Conservation Book, found at usuextensionstore.com/combinations-for-conservation/
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