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Garden smart by saving water

Experts offer help in PCWA workshop series
By: Gloria Young,
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useful tips
•  bewatersmart.info (a plant database for water-wise gardening in the Gold Country)
• arboretum.ucdavis. edu/allstars (a list of low-water-use and native plants)
• PCWA’s Green Gardener  at Home series — to be placed on the list for the next running, email customerservices @pcwa.net

Editor’s note: This is part one of a two -part series on saving water in the landscape. Next week will feature a yard that was recently redone to be more water efficient.
You can have a beautiful garden and save water, too.
 “I’m passionate about using water efficiently in our landscapes,” Cheryl Buckwalter, owner of Landscape Liaisons and president of EcoLandscape California, said in an email.
Buckwalter is a coordinator and one of the instructors for  the Green Gardener at Home  classes offered by the Placer County Water Agency in Auburn.
“(Approximately) 65 percent of whole household water use is for irrigation and at least 30 percent is lost to over-watering and evaporation,” she said. “The potential for water savings is huge. We can take this into our hands and really make a big difference.”
The 10-session series, which focuses on water-saving gardening methods, begins with River Friendly Landscaping.
“We take a watershed approach,” Buckwalter said. “You see up in the mountains there’s snow. That snow melts, comes down and goes into rivers, streams and tributaries. The water that comes off the land and beneath the surface all ends up in the same location. So what we do in our landscapes has direct influence on the quality and quantity of our water.”
The other topics in the series are Introduction to Soil, Mulch and Compost, Irrigation, Landscape Design, Right Plant, Right Place; Edible Gardens, Integrated Pest Management, Pruning for Plant Health and Fertilizers and Lawn Care.
“The series is great because it helps people understand the larger picture,” Buckwalter said.  
In the Pest Management class, the theme is managing pest problems using the least toxic method available.
“The integrated approach starts with being able to identify that there are good bugs and bad bugs,” she said. “If we don’t know what we’ve got, we might be trying to get rid of the good bugs.”
Recognizing the extent of the problem is important, too.
“Sometimes you can hose off a plant with water and that will get rid of (the problem),” Buckwalter said. “What if I have a pest on one small branch that is eating the leaves? Then, prune out that small section and the problem is gone. And be sure to clean the tools afterward so you aren’t spreading the problem.”
Landscape design also has a role. Attendees learn about taking into consideration all of the site — sun exposure, elevation, what the soil is like — so they can design a landscape that uses water very efficiently and select the right plants appropriate to the site and soil.
“If we plant the right plants and group them by water requirements — hydro zones — that can help us use water as efficiently as possible,” she said.
Maintaining your irrigation system is a key factor — pop-up sprinklers can be big water wasters. Buckwalter suggests a drip-irrigation system for non-lawn areas.
“It irrigates very efficiently, giving plants water in the root zone where it is needed,” she said.
Mulching is another great way to save water.
“One of the simplest and most inexpensive things people can do to nurture their soil, reduce evaporation from the soil, reduce weed growth, conserve soil moisture and moderate soil temperature is to apply wood mulch to the soil surface — approximately three inches deep,” she said in an email. “Keep the mulch a few inches away from the bases of the tree trunks and shrubs to avoid damage due to pests and diseases.”
And rethink the lawn.
“If you need a lawn, have a lawn,” she said. “... If the last time you used the lawn was when you mowed it, you probably don’t need it. There are good reasons for a lawn — children and pets — but have a size that is functional and meets your needs.”
To save on lawn watering, Buckwalter suggest using a rotary nozzle.
“The nozzle can be inserted into sprinkler heads,” she said. “What it does is apply water at a slower rate so it is not blasting water out like our traditional pop-up sprayers do. ... The slower rate (gives the water) the opportunity to soak into the ground.”
Another way to conserve is the soak and cycle method, which allows  water to soak into the ground.
“If you need to run the sprinkler for 15 minutes, let it run for five minutes, then soak in for an hour or so, then run it five minutes more (and so on),” she said.
Run the sprinkler system in the morning and schedule watering according to soil needs.
“Get a trowel or soil probe and dig into the soil to see what the moisture is. Is the top two inches dry but damp below that? Then you don’t need to water that often,” Buckwalter said.
And while native and low-water-use plants are ideal choices, vegetable gardens have their place.
“Vegetables are high-water-use plants but give us back so much more,” she said. “We can still have our edible gardens, but just water them efficiently with drip irrigation.”
Pruning plays a part in saving water too.
Certified arborist Lani Houck, who teaches the Pruning for Plant Health segment of the series,  emphasizes the importance of pruning for plant health rather than excessive growth, which will actually make a plant less healthy.
“(Pruning aggressively) causes the plant to put on a flush of weak new growth and that requires more water,” said Houck, who teaches agriculture at Sierra College and works for the Roseville Urban Forest Foundation.
Her advice is to never take off more than one-fourth of the plant.
“The exceptions are roses, fruit trees and herbaceous perennials,” she said. “Most plants don’t need very much pruning. Figure out which direction you want it to grow and then encourage it to go in that direction.”
And never top trees.
“Topping trees is an old-fashioned pruning method that is found to cause extensive decay,” she said.
Buckwalter is a longtime landscape designer and water efficiency has always been her emphasis.
“There’s more to be done definitely,” she said. “What I am seeing is this big ship starting to turn slowly as rates increase and water is metered. Droughts are inevitable. It is a cyclical sort of thing.”