Q:I use so much water to keep my plants alive in this heat (not to mention the two showers I take every day). Any way I can cut back without killing things?
A: You try to do good in this world, so you don't turn on your air conditioner, to keep your energy use low, but you have to take a couple of showers just to keep from passing out. Then you plant some air-purifying greenery to break up the city's concrete jungle. But wouldn't you know it, you've got to feed the little things tons of water just to keep them alive.
There's always a trade-off in life. And even the greenest of the green use extra H20 in the summer to keep themselves and their yards from wilting. You just have to be smart about it - especially since there's been a water advistory on since June! And, yes, there are lots of common-sense water-saving tips you've probably heard a million times, like watering early (or in the evenings) to save it from evaporating in the hot sun, but a lot of well-intentioned acts can backfire if you don't know your stuff.
We've all heard that spreading mulch on your garden is a good thing when it comes to cutting back on water use. But did you know wood chips, sawdust, root mulch or shredded bark can breed what's called shotgun or artillery fungi, a pesky wood-rot fungus that shoots tar-like spores. (It can even spread to your house.) And since wood-based mulches steal nitrogen from the soil as they decay, they can slow the growth of older plants and even starve new ones to death. Dyed mulch (what the hell is it dyed with anyway?) is supposed to be even worse for young plants.
So what are you supposed to cover your soil with to help it retain water? Compost! Yes, according to Ohio State researchers, 2 inches of compost is just as effective as 2 inches of wood chips at keeping weeds at bay but much healthier for your plants. For free leaf compost, head to one of city's Enviro Days held at various spots around town (www.city.toronto.on.ca/environment_days/index.htm).
Logic will tell you to avoid planting water-intensive flowers, which means steering clear of flower I.D. tags that say "keep moist" and sticking to the ones that say "water weekly."
But lots of people end up watering drought-resistant types more than other species! Why? Well, these plants can survive dry spells, but do they look good trying? Not always. In fact, some will shed leaves or won't flower unless they get lots of liquids, and as a result, well-intentioned people end up using more water than they would have on run-of-the-mill landscape plants.
Resist the urge to sprinkle with H20 frequently. If your soil is constantly moist, plant roots will never spread (as they should if they're going to gather moisture well). And don't be tempted to pull out the hose at the site of plants wilting in the midday sun - plants often send water to their roots during scorchers to prevent evaporation. Relax. They'll send it back up when it cools. If not, water them in the evening.
And don't be fooled by water-saving gimmicks. Claims made about some products called hydrogels (found at garden supply centres) say they can improve water-retaining properties of sandy soil by up to 400 per cent and reduce your need to water pots by half. Sounds awesome. Trouble is, they're made of synthetic polyacrylamides and aren't readily biodegradable. And even though they're marketed as non-toxic, they actually break down into a deadly neurotoxin and potential carcinogen. Eeesh. (For more info, check out www.puyallup.wsu.edu/~Linda%20Chalker-Scott/. , a horticulture myth site posted by a prof at Washington State U.) And why bother with the synthetics when there are natural water-retaining ingredients in your kitchen you can mix into your soil: corn or tapioca starch?
Grass is perhaps one of the biggest backyard water-suckers. But it doesn't have to be this way. Our problem is we all plant one strain of super-thirsty grass that needs tons of water and chemical inputs to look happy and "healthy" - that is, Kentucky bluegrass. You (and the planet) would be much better off if you planted some low-maintenance fescues or perennial rye grasses (available at Grassroots on Danforth or Bloor). And, no, your backyard won't look like a field of wheat. These breeds are even used on sports fields and golf courses, so your lawn can still be as green as the neighbours'.
Any rain that does trickle from the sky can be saved and used on your garden instead of just leaking into your foundation or triggering storm sewer overflows that pollute the city's beaches and creeks. Call the city's downspout disconnection program at 416-392-1807 to disconnect your downspouts free of charge and get a rain barrel at an Enviro Day for $60.
Oh yeah, and while soaker hoses or drip irrigation systems (available at Home Hardware or Canadian Tire) can be way more efficient than old-fashioned sprinklers, that's only true if they're used right. Water loamy soil for 30 to 40 minutes once a week, sandy soil more and clay soil less. Burying the hose under your mulch will help prevent water from evaporating.
As for your whole shower dilemma, as long as they're cold and quick, I wouldn't worry about it. Better that than a power-hogging air conditioner.
To calculate how much water your house is wasting, both indoors and out, visit www.h2ouse.com.
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