By Cindy Kerschner
The Times News, © 2002

April 18, 2002

The word, “drought” shoots chills up most gardeners’ spines. Water is the lifeblood of a garden, and in times of shortage, it is necessary to search for water in overlooked places. But before you hire a douser or get out your divining rod, let’s look at some options around your home.

On average, each of us uses 80 gallons of water per day for use indoors; up to 40 percent (32 gallons) is wasted straight down the drain. Try collecting cold water while you’re waiting for the shower or dishwashing water to warm up. This water can be used now or later for houseplants, seedlings, in a misting bottle or for cooking.

Finding water for outside use begins with taking control of your yard and garden. Spring is the perfect time for garden design. Ask yourself what you want to accomplish this season. Is revitalization in order or does your area need an overhaul? Proper planning can ensure your garden lives up to your expectations.

Managing landscape water needs can be integrated into any garden scheme. Design your beds far enough away from competing shrub and tree root systems. Also following the slope of your yard will help determine the direction water will run. After you have decided where your beds will be located, start preparing the area for water efficiency.

As in any garden project, the first step is amending the soil. Soil composition is key to a healthy start in your water conservation efforts.

The Pocono area is blessed with mineral enriched clay soil. Besides this beneficial nutrient supply, clay soil tends to hold water. Clay soil is so dense, that if you took a _ cup and spread it out to one particle in thickness, it would cover an entire football field!

But with excessive water retention, drainage problems may occur. It is always a good practice to add adequate amounts or organic material in the form of peat or compost to heavy clay soil. Work compost into the first four inches of soil. This organic matter loosens the soil, which helps plants become readily able to absorb water and vital nutrients.

Group plants according to sun and water needs. Plants tend to try too hard to get established. Stress often occurs when a plant attempts to grow in other than recommended conditions; as a result, water usage shoots up. The less a plant needs to adapt to an area, the better chance it has for survival.

Sunny areas will naturally require more water to keep the soil sufficiently moist. Select the most drought tolerant varieties of sun worshippers such as Rudbeckia, Zinnia, Sunflowers, Daisy, Phlox, Verbena, Portulaca, and Marigolds. Explore shade-loving beauties like Hostas, Heuchera, Trillium, Dicentra (Bleeding-Heart), Anemone, and Lily-of-the-Valley.

Are vegetables a priority? If so, explore different sources for seed. Heirloom varieties pack taste and predictability into the equation, while hybrids support the benefits of mixing varieties. Tried and true heirlooms may have a natural drought tolerance; but some hybrids are bred specifically for efficiency. Keep in mind to ask when ordering seed if the variety is a proven winner for your area.

Lawns consume a major gulp of landscape water. Get familiar with different kinds of drought tolerant grasses. Selections that do well in our area are Kentucky Bluegrass which goes dormant during times of water stress and Tall Fescue for rugged durability. Fine fescues and ryegrass perform poorly between extended periods of rain or watering.

After you have selected the plants, the next step is proper maintenance. When you water is as important as how you water. Morning watering definitely has its advantages. Thirsty plants receive a deeper soaking because the ground is cooler and there is less competition from evaporation. Any excess water accumulated has time later in the day to dissipate, which limits fungal growth and pest problems.

Water close to the ground. Directly hand water plants at the root system when possible. If you use drip-irrigation or soaker hoses, make sure the hoses are close enough to plants for proper use. Also check faucets, hoses and connections for leaks and replace as needed.

Other cultural practices to keep in mind are proper pruning, fertilizing and pest control. Keeping plants healthy is the best defense against plant trauma.

Mulching plants is a great way to retain water. Mulch also helps by regulating soil temperature. Soil is less likely to lose moisture through this protective blanket. Proper mulching can help keep weeds at bay. Weeds are competition for precious moisture in a garden. By keeping weeds at a minimum, your plants can enjoy every drop of water.

Redesigning your outside living space doesn’t end with the garden. Don’t forget about the finishing touches. Consider paths made of mulch, crushed stone, or stepping stones instead of concrete. Brick on sand patios also allow water to permeate the soil and raise the groundwater level.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 90 percent of all rain comes in storms that produce 2 inches or less of rain over a 24-hour period. Take that 2 -inch rainfall and multiply it over a 1000 square foot roof. That equals over 600 gallons of water pouring down your drain spouts! Unfortunately, most of this water is aimed down driveways into streets and storm sewers.

Water entering storm sewer drains does not necessarily flow straight to our waterways. Often storm sewer water picks up contaminants along the way including backwash from sanitation systems.

Redirect rain spouts to barrels, or onto gardens, beneath trees and shrubs, even onto yards. By changing the flow of water, you accomplish two things: one, you’re providing free water to your plants, and two, you are replenishing or “recharging” the groundwater supply.

Rainwater collected in barrels should not be used for drinking water or given to pets. Use this water as soon as possible to discourage insect breeding, such as mosquitoes. Some barrels are made with a screen on top to filter out debris and a spigot on the bottom for ease of use. Always select a unit with a tight-fitting lid to keep out children and animals. A simple set-up can be purchased for around $100.00.

Another source for outdoor use is greywater. Greywater is any wastewater from sinks, bathtubs and laundry (rinse cycle). Toilet water is known as black water and should not be reused without proper sewage treatment. The rule also applies to hand-washed cloth diapers. Discard diaper wash water down the toilet.

The battle rages over whether greywater is safe for outdoor watering use. Pennsylvania law prohibits greywater from being sprayed into the air and must not be allowed to flow off your property. Carbon County has no additional restrictions on greywater use. Check with your local municipality for any additional rules or regulations concerning home use of greywater. Following a few simple rules when using greywater can provide you with an enormous amount of an unclaimed resource.

Store greywater for no more than 24 hours; longer storage increases the risk of bacteria growth. Greywater can quickly turn to blackwater if not maintained properly. Allow collection and storage containers to empty completely. Any leftover water may contaminate future supplies.

Avoid greywater containing any solvents: paint thinner, drain openers, household cleaners, or laundry products with chlorine or boron. Do not use artificially softened water or water from swimming pools. High sodium concentrations from household water softening systems will damage plants and lead to soil problems. This water should also not be used on houseplants or potted plants kept outdoors. Whitening agents such as chlorine and boron can be highly toxic to plants, as well as stabilized chlorine from swimming pools.

Greywater should only be used on landscape plants. Watering edible plants with greywater is not recommended. Root crops, leafy greens and any fruiting vegetables -such as tomatoes or beans-should not be exposed to greywater.

Acid loving plants such as azaleas and rhododendrons should also be avoided. Most greywater contains soap, which is alkaline and will throw off the soil pH.

So how do you use greywater?

Apply greywater slowly by hand directly to the base of the plant. Avoid wetting leaves and stems. Rotate which plants receive greywater; continued use on the same plants invites potential problems. Greywater has no lasting effect on soil microbes and causes no pest problems.

If the above guidelines are followed, the small amounts of soap in the greywater will filter out through the soil before reaching the water table. Remember, you are in control when it comes to watering your yard and garden. Water is a precious resource and not only the lifeblood of our garden, but of all living things.

The above article is provided through the Carbon County Groundwater Guardians. For more information on groundwater protection and conservation, contact the Guardians at (570) 645-8597, or email info[at]carbonwaters.org