WEATHERING THE DROUGHT: HOW TO MANAGE YOUR YARD SUSTAINABLY

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NASA scientists are predicting an increase in drought conditions in the coming decades and as a result, many homeowners are wondering how best to prepare. Many, too, are wondering how to weather drought conditions in the most environmentally responsible way.

First, it’s important to keep things in perspective. While watering bans are sometimes a necessity, one shouldn’t forget the tremendous environmental benefits our landscapes offer. Trees, shrubs, flowers and even grass help regulate outdoor temperature and humidity in urban areas, harbor pollinators and other wildlife, protect the soil from erosion, and introduce welcome beauty into our daily lives. They also often offer the only patches of nature many children experience. Therefore, it’s important to do what we can to help keep our landscapes as healthy as possible when conditions get tough. 

There are a number of eco-friendly things homeowners can do to brace for the inevitable severe dry spell. Some of these include: 

Choose drought-tolerant plants. Just because a plant will grow in your zone doesn’t mean it is a good choice for your area. Different plants – even two cultivars of the same species – can have vastly different watering requirements and drought tolerance. Your local landscape professional can help you select varieties that will do well in your area.

Go native. Choosing plants that are native to your area can be a very smart environmental choice. While they may need some supplemental water in a severe drought, many native plants need very little irrigation once they are established, because they are adapted to your specific climate. You can also look for plants that are native to other areas of the world similar to yours. For example, plants native to the Mediterranean region typically do well in California with minimal irrigation.

Cut back on grass, if you must. While we all love our lawns and they are very beneficial to the environment, some homeowners decide to reduce a portion of their lawn. If you make that decision, fill in the newly created space with attractive, drought tolerant plants, trees, shrubs, or ground cover. 

Mow high and often. Keeping your grass towards the upper limit of its acceptable mow height will encourage strong and deep root development. This will help your lawn weather dry spells more readily. For most grass varieties, a 2 inch to 4 inch mowing height is about right. However, this can vary by species so consult your lawn care professional to be sure you’re mowing your lawn optimally. 

Fertilize. Well-nourished plants are better able to withstand any kind of stress, including drought. In dry conditions, cut back on the amount of nitrogen you feed to discourage lush new growth, which requires lots of water. You may want to start composting if you haven’t already; compost is a wonderful way to sustainably nourish your plants. And don’t forget to watch the pH of the soil. Too high or low pH will “lock up” the vital nutrients, no matter how good the fertilizer program is.

Mulch. Mulching your bedding plants and trees retains precious moisture in the soil. There are many different kinds of mulches, from peat moss to gravel. If you’re not sure which is most suitable for your property, a professional landscape designer should be able to suggest some attractive and effective options and make sure that it is not applied to deep or cover the crown of the plant.

Tune up the irrigation system. The number one reason for water waste from the irrigation system is poor coverage. Even a system that was ideal when it was first installed needs to be altered to meet the ever-changing conditions of plant growth, water supply, and wear and tear of the components.  Evaluate the system at least yearly to make sure the sprinklers are operating at the right pressure, are still in the best place, watering the plants that still need it, have the correct nozzles, and are in good condition.

Design for water retention. Much can be done to alter the landscape in such a way as to take advantage of existing rainfall. Swales, retention ponds and rain gardens are all possibilities that your landscape designer can help you explore.

Consider alternative irrigation water sources. Many communities are now offering incentives for installing rain barrels. If you live in a highly drought-prone area, you might also want to explore the possibility of re-using your bath and laundry water in your landscape with a greywater system.

Install a smart irrigation system. Today’s smart systems consist of new technology in sprinklers for improved coverage and controllers that collect temperature and moisture data from your property and automatically deliver the perfect amount of water for your plants’ needs. In combination with the right sprinklers, at the right pressure, in the right place, with the right nozzles,  a smart system can cut water use by 20% up to in excess of 40% compared to a conventional system. For optimal efficiency, such a system is best installed by a professional. Most smart irrigation systems pay for themselves in water savings within 2 years.

Finally, it’s important to remember to keep drought in perspective. Droughts, even severe ones, have periodically affected nearly every region in North America since the beginning of history. It’s inevitable that your area will eventually be hit by drought, but with proper management you should be able to weather the event with minimal damage to your lawn and landscape.