Waste not: Practice ways to conserve water

When it was so cold and wet this spring, it was easy to think that we wouldn't need to worry about conserving water during the summer. Truth is, however, that water should never be wasted. Not only do plants and people need it — if we've been wasteful, it is hard on the wallet.

Water conservation actually begins during the planning stage of your yard and garden. When planning for ornamental plantings, for example, think native. The Rogue Valley receives only about 19 or 20 inches of precipitation a year, so plants that are native to this area are quite drought tolerant. It just makes sense to favor those plants in order to use minimum amounts of water. For non-native plants, again choose those that don't need a lot of water. Choices are plentiful, extending far beyond cactus and juniper, including rock gardens.

Group plants with similar water needs together. In this way, you are more likely to satisfy the moisture needs of your landscape than if you mix plants with different water needs. For example, the lawn and shrubs should be watered separately.

Choose the correct watering method, realizing that watering needs may change as plants grow. It is important to keep small seedlings, whether ornamentals or vegetables, well watered so they will develop a strong, deep root system. As plants grow, check the soil moisture before watering to be sure they really need a drink. Your index finger is a great built-in moisture meter.

Overhead watering may work well for many veggies while they are small, but as leaves get large, such as with squash or green beans, the leaves may actually shed the water the plant needs. In cases like that, soaker hoses are often the best choice. For large plants, such as tomatoes and peppers, I set a milk jug with a few holes punched in the bottom next to the plant. It is easily filled with a garden hose, and the water drips out slowly and goes deep.

If you use an automatic irrigation system, be sure to check it regularly to make sure the emitters are functioning properly. And remember to water early in the morning so you'll lose the least amount of water possible to evaporation.

When it comes to watering your lawn, consider setting your mower higher in the summer to help keep the roots cooler. Also, check to be sure you don't have a buildup of thatch, as that will shed the water. If your soil is heavily clay, it would be a good idea to water it for two or even three shorter periods, instead of all at once, in a day. This will give the water a chance to penetrate the soil instead of running off or creating swampy spots.

Mulch is a great water conserver. Organic matter turned into the soil before planting is a great help. And a layer of mulch on top of the planted area not only conserves water, but helps eliminate weeds, too.

Although it may be therapeutic for you, probably the least effective way to water is to stand with the hose in your hand and spray water over the plants. This method almost always results in underwatering. Check your soil a few inches down when you are through, and you will see what I mean.

There is no formula for watering that works for everyone. It requires common sense, taking into consideration your soil, the weather, the garden's location and plants' needs.

Coming up: Join a plant clinic/garden conversation led by a panel of Master Gardeners from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 23. Bring your questions to the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road, in Central Point. For details, call 541-776-7371.

Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. Email her at diggit1225@gmail.com.

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