If there ever was a time to adopt a new water ethic in your garden, this is the year to do it. Our recent April showers will bring some May flowers, but after that, only wise use of water in the garden will ensure flowers, fruits and healthy shrubs until the rains come again.
According to the National Weather Service and other agencies, the Spokane area is two to three inches of rain short at the moment. Normally, our average rainfall at the Spokane Airport for the year should be about 5.48 inches; it stands at 3.32 as of this week. On top of the low rainfall, snow packs in the mountains that feed our region's lakes and rivers are at 30 to 60 percent below normal. Throw in the power crises and its demand on the hydro resources of the Columbia dams and everyone in the Northwest has a problem. There will not be enough water to go around this year, unless we all start to use it wisely now.
At this point in time, the experts are not certain exactly how the region will be affected. But we do know we will all be affected. Gov. Gary Locke declared a drought emergency on March 14 that will allow the state to work with large water users such as agriculture and power generation operations to assure fair distribution. But what about the small user like you with your yard full of water guzzling shrubs, trees and, worst of all, lawn?
Where you live in the region relative to the Spokane aquifer will have a big impact on the effect. Because the aquifer is as large as it is, most people who draw their water from it will probably not notice any problems. For those of you who are outside the aquifer, it may be a different story.
Todd Watson, president of Auto Rain, a Spokane sprinkler supply and installation company, says members of the Spokane Landscape Association are not reporting any shortages yet, but the group is expecting them. If you are part of a public or private water supply system, check with your supplier on what they predict for water supply challenges. If you are on a private well, do some research now and devise a conservation plan should you find the well going dry. Besides, a little conservation now is a whole lot cheaper than drilling another well.
Whether you are in the aquifer or out of it does not negate the fact that the water problem is not going to go away. In a few years, it will surface again and create more of the same problems. With the steady increase in the region's population and demands for power, the problems will only get worse. So let's start a new water ethic for the Inland Northwest: Water wisely and knowledgeably.
The type of soil you have in your garden has a big impact on how well the water stays in your soil and how deep it can penetrate. Clay soils absorb water slowly and dry out slowly. In contrast, sandy soils absorb water quickly and dry quickly. According to Sunset's new Western Garden Book, if one inch of water is applied to a sandy soil, it will soak in about 12 inches. If that one inch of water is applied to loamy soil with a good organic component, it will soak in about seven inches. In a clay soil, that inch of water will only go down four to five inches.
To find out where you fall in this continuum, run your watering system on a normal cycle. Wait 24 hours and then dig a small hole and look for the line between wet, dark-colored soil and dry, light-colored soil. If the line isn't in the range of five to seven inches, you need to amend your soil with organic material. Keep in mind that most lawns, annuals, vegetables and shallow-rooted shrubs have 80 percent of their roots in the top six inches of soil, so that is where you want the water to be.
To get the soil to hold moisture at this ideal depth, add organic material in the form of compost, shredded leaves and other plant material or well-aged manure. Organic material in the soil is nature's sponge, and adding it allows the soil to retain more of the moisture than it would otherwise. If you are just beginning a new garden bed or lawn, this is the perfect time to add organic material and work it in. If you have established beds and lawns, top dressing with compost is an easy way to increase the holding capacity of the soil.
In garden beds, two to three inches of material should be added. On lawns, add an inch or so and rake it in so the grass shows through. The grass will grow up through the layer. Now is the perfect time to do this. If you can do this each spring for the next few years, you will add tremendously to the lawn's ability to retain water.
Make your water applications as efficient as possible. Whether you use a hose and sprinkler or automatic timed system, there are a few simple things you can do to get the water to where it needs to go. First, check your systems for leaks, breaks or broken parts. Replace washers on hoses and sprinklers, check for leaky or broken lines and heads in underground systems. Our hard water tends to plug up small openings in nozzles, so clean them out or replace them.
Check the coverage efficiency of your system by setting out a line of tuna fish cans from a sprinkler head, let it run for a cycle and measure how much water is in each can. Multiply this measurement by the number of times a week you water and you have your usage per week. Most bluegrass lawns need about an inch a week in hot weather.
Use a timer to meter the amount of water that you use. New technology in timers for automatic systems lets you set a wide variety of daily and weekly patterns. If you are using a hose, a simple meter that attaches to the faucet and shuts off after so many gallons will pay for its $10-$15 cost very quickly.
If you are running an automatic system, invest in a rain switch. Auto Rain's Watson says these little switches sense the amount of rain, and if enough has fallen to make up for a cycle, it switches off the system. They are installed on a gutter or other point that is open to the rain and hook into the system wiring. "These little switches will easily pay for themselves in one season," says Watson of the devices that cost around $50.
If you have an area that doesn't need the broadcast watering of a sprinkler system, consider drip irrigation and put the water right at the plant's roots. As much as 50 percent of the water thrown in the air by a sprinkler is lost to evaporation, so this is an easy way to save water. These systems come in a wide variety of configurations and prices. Some can be tied into an automatic system. Drip is perfect for pots and planters on a patio or deck and for those areas where a recycled rubber soaker hose can be wound between shrubs or down a row of vegetables. There is an added benefit to using drip systems besides water conservation -- fewer weeds. If the weeds don't get watered, they don't grow.
Now that you have the water onto the plants, keep it there. In the heat of the summer, several thousand gallons of water can be pulled from the soil and the plants in your garden in a single day. Use mulches wherever possible on planting beds to shade the ground and cut down evaporation. Almost any organic material can be used as a mulch, including pine needles (no they don't make the soil too acidic), shredded leaves, a thin layer of grass clippings, bark and the porous landscape fabrics.
Mulches need to be about three inches thick. Grass clippings need to be fluffed up so they can dry a bit so they don't mat down and get slimy and smelly. One caution; the use of sheet plastic as a mulch is losing favor with many gardeners because, while the plastic keeps moisture in and stops weeds, it also blocks the exchange of oxygen roots need to stay healthy. The result is a slow decline in the vigor of the plants.
If each of us can save a few hundred gallons of water this year through these conservation methods, we all win. If we can change our habits and adopt a totally new ethic toward garden watering for the long run, we will go a long way toward lessening the impact of this drought -- and the next one.