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Wow, it’s a drought and we have water to throw away!

By Ken Moore

Walking and driving through the downtown and old neighborhoods of Carrboro is a real treat.

There are so many wonderful and colorful gardens that reflect an unbelievable diversity of imagination, horticultural expertise and a dedication to gardening in an environmentally friendly manner. One of my favorite such gardens is Pete Lucey’s curbside garden at the curved intersection of Pleasant and North Greensboro streets. For years, I have watched that garden mature and make a show of color and plant architectural interest in all the seasons. It is truly a “xeriscape” garden. Ten years ago, Pete planted drought-resistant species of perennials and grasses, carefully “watered them in” during the first year, and for the past nine years they have survived and multiplied on the site with only the water provided by nature. That curbside was downright spectacular with its oranges and pinks last week before the rainfall.

Also, I enjoy watching the busy routines of Carrboro’s Public Works landscape staff moving in and around the town carefully tending their garden beds, actually hand-extracting unwanted weeds, hand-pruning the roses, carefully pruning the town’s trees and shrubs and, during dry periods, effectively hand-watering from truck-mounted water tanks.

Thank you, Carrboro and citizens of old neighborhoods, for giving us reason to be proud.
And thank you, thank you, whatever spirit and forces, for our weekend of rain. It is a challenge now for us to stay seriously concerned about our drought conditions. That rainfall was ample for only the very short term. We need that weekly rainfall, at least an inch per week, throughout the growing season for the vigor of our native forests as well as our vegetable production and ornamental landscapes, not to mention that 4th of July blackberry harvest.

In spite of the rain, the drought continues. Don’t be surprised by the return to dry yards and gardens by week’s end. Recommendations for xeriscape gardening will be more frequent than usual. But don’t be misled about the concept. The idea of xeriscape ideally promotes responsible (the overused terms environmental and sustainable are frequently used here) gardening by designing landscapes, planting plants and creating special garden plots that can be maintained by the natural resources of the physical site and climatic conditions or with minimal and carefully applied supplemental watering during the first year of establishment. Be like Pete Lucey. It should be evident that the establishment and maintenance of emerald green turf in such areas as the dunes of coastal Carolina homes and the countless square miles of green turf covering the desert region of Phoenix, Arizona are inappropriate and glaringly contrary to responsible gardening.

Sadly, the xeriscape concept has been recruited as a grand promotional scheme by the irrigation industry. The well-intentioned gardener, homeowner and urban and corporate landscape supervisor are all advised that a well-designed automated irrigation system is required for the survival of their landscapes. It is declared that irrigation systems guarantee that plants get the water they need when they require it and this is generally once a week – frequently, daily. This is described as responsible (i.e., environmental, sustainable) watering.

We are steered away from realizing that in nature plants and whole landscapes can survive long periods without rainfall. The great diversity of irrigation options from homeowner-designed and -installed trickle-and-drip hose systems to highly elaborate, computer-automated, professionally designed and installed mist and overhead impact systems are designed to turn plants and landscapes into “water addicts” far from the true meaning of xeriscape. Frequent shallow watering results in shallow root growth and thus the plants become addicted to frequent watering. Slow, deep watering, evident when there is no water runoff, encourages deep root growth; and with well-established deep roots, all plants are better conditioned to survive droughts.

Daily observations of typical irrigation systems operating in our community include: water streaming off of well-watered sidewalks and roadways into adjoining storm drains rather than settling into the root zones of plants in need; clouds of fine mists carried off by gentle breezes away from the intended plants; and perhaps most disgusting are the frequent sprinkler systems throwing out water at full throttle during periods of natural rainfall. My complaint to the manager of one local bank about the huge lawn being watered during a downpour was met with the response: “Oh, our landscape contractor has the irrigation system on a timer and we can’t do anything about it.” Such systems seem to be justified with accompanying signage: “We use well water to irrigate.” Whether private wells or our public water resource, all the water comes from our region’s waterways and the underground water resource. We should not be wasting our precious water resources as storm water runoff, especially keeping acres and acres of grass green during droughts. Have any of you noticed how green all those unwatered, brown lawns following the recent rain have turned? Now I may be able to appreciate keeping a small plot of turf green as a special feature in a garden, if a grassy plot is held as special as flowering plants, but keeping acres and acres of lawn areas green by supplemental watering during droughts is sadly reflective of our society’s general disregard for living responsibly.

After many years of observing multitudes of irrigation systems, I freely admit that I have an intense disregard for such mechanized technology. They are expensive, inefficient, wasteful and require constant repairs and maintenance vigilance. The only dependable irrigation system is a thoughtful gardener on the end of a hose. This singular watering system will insure that needed water does not flow away from the intended plants, but is applied slowly around plants, encouraging deep root growth. Be observant next time you water; if you see water flowing away over the soil surface, it’s not helping your plants and you need to correct your watering technique.

As a responsible citizen, you have great influence. On the home front, you can began by designing a drought-tolerant landscape, selectively watering stressed plants by hand from water collected in rain barrels and, most importantly, when you see an irrigation system performing wastefully – i.e., water flowing off streets and sidewalks and operating during rainfalls, go inside and let the manager or homeowner know that they are wasting our water! Go ahead, you can do it – and enough of us expressing ourselves will make some meaningful waves!

Longtime resident Ken Moore retired as assistant director of the N.C. Botanical Garden in 2003 and now enjoys part-time work and volunteering in and around Carrboro and Chapel Hill.

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