Publications (Paul's Blog)

August 26, 2009

THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGING PART I

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 10:29 am

We’ve passed into the new millennium and our lives have changed in many ways. History tells us that as we pass the century mark people come to expect change and are more open to new ideas. Just look at the progress we made at the turn of the 20th century. From horse to horsepower. From hot air balloons to airplanes. Paved roads, electric lights, indoor plumbing (thank God), and the list goes on.
The changes we experienced in the business of agriculture and landscaping have kept pace as we progressed through the last century. Today we are beginning to see new attitudes arising among farmers and gardeners. We are also seeing strong acceptance or at least the willingness to accept these ideas by the general public. Organic farming and ranching is growing by leaps and bounds. The demand for more organics at local markets is off the timeschanging11scale even though consumers are having to pay higher prices for these products. Likewise home gardeners have rekindled the growing of herbs for better health and affordable spices. Some folks are actually rebuilding habitat for insects, birds, and four legged critters instead of attempting to eradicate them. Backyard water gardens have become the centerpiece of this type of landscaping. Schools are building outdoor classrooms to give our children a “hands on” experience with natural science. Private enterprise and some municipalities have been highly successful at turning waste materials into compost to rebuild our soils.
The intent of this article is to help those of you who haven’t quite come to accept or just don’t fully grasp the big picture. Hopefully some will be inspired to push things a bit further. The sooner that these ideas become mainstream the better.
WATER- The most critical issue and main driving force behind change in the industry today. The availability of fresh water is absolutely essential for the continued prosperity of mankind. In recent years it has become frighteningly apparent to most of us that we have taken this most precious resource for granted for too long. Recent droughts have taken their toll on our reservoirs. Overuse and pollution both have compromised our groundwater and aquifers. According to the Texas Water Commission, an average of 60% of the water used during our warm season goes to landscaping. The main use of irrigated landscaping is aimed at growing lawn grasses. Surely this is something that needs improvement.
In 1992, Connie Ellefson, Tom Stephens, and Doug Welsh (Texas A&M) published the first comprehensive book on xeriscape technique. The seven basic principles involved are planning, soil improvement, reducing lawn area, practical plant selection, efficient irrigation, mulching, and appropriate maintenance. Taken together, these seven principles can significantly reduce water use. Those who applied xeriscape (or dry landscape, literally) found that not only did they realize a significant reduction on their water bills but they were also saving time and money on maintenance.
As the droughts of the 90’s rolled on, many of us had to face water rationing of some degree. In the worst cases some Texans were asked to stop all outdoor water use. What this did for homeowners was a real eye opener. First of all most were surprised to find that many of the plants they had survived the heat and dry conditions much better than they would have guessed. Also, in the case of once a week rationing we found that this was really all that was necessary. In fact, the folks who went ahead and used the xeriscape technique found that they could water even less than once a week and still maintain a healthy landscape. This served to make people realize that they really were wasting water. Good science studies have proven that one deep watering per week is more than enough and actually creates a healthier environment which promotes healthier plant life.
The latest thing in the irrigation world is drip. Although the idea of drip irrigation is not new but dates way back into the 1950’s as far as agriculture use, the average homeowner has only recently become aware that drip is a much better alternative to spray systems. Drip systems virtually eliminate loss due to evaporation and runoff. Another bonus is that drip reduces many common diseases and some insects as leaf surfaces are kept dry. There are still many people that don’t understand that drip is not a mere soaker hose buried underground. The technology has advanced considerably. Today’s state of the art drip systems can be fully automatic with underground moisture sensors that will keep it shut off as long as adequate moisture is available. Turf areas can be irrigated just as effectively as a shrub bed or vegetable garden. If you already own an automatic popup spray system it can be converted to drip very easily. The cost of drip systems will be slightly higher as you are installing a grid system of hoses instead of a few pipes. However, installation is much less invasive as drip lines are placed within an inch or two of the surface. Any drip system you install will eventually pay for itself as the cost of water continues to rise.
Improving irrigation is a good way to conserve water without having to give up gardening as we know it, but what if we push the envelope a bit further? What happens when fresh water supplies reach the point that they can only be used for essentials to supply our growing population? Sound far fetched? It may be closer than you think. According to expert opinion, given our current growth rate the state of Texas will surpass our present fresh water capacities somewhere in the next 20 years. Since the volume of fresh water on the planet is finite the answer will depend on limiting population growth and conserving what we have. Yet the status quo still seems bent on green lawns pampered by automatic spray systems. Talk to any city official and they will likely tell you that the best way to get the general public to conserve water is to raise the price of it. Bad news for gardeners. Are we in for a rude awakening? It seems inevitable. Cheap water, just like cheap gasoline, has become a thing of the past.
In a more recent book entitled WATER WISE GARDENING (copyright 1994) author Thomas Christopher challenges home gardeners with his basic premise. What if we were to use only those plants that are capable of surviving on rainfall alone? While many Texans might immediately shudder with visions of stark landscapes of cacti and gnarled mesquite the reality of such a landscape is (or can be) quite colorful, lush, and (of course) the absolute last word in low maintenance. Using local native plants as the mainstay, Mr. Christopher describes (with words and pictures) irrigation free landscapes from Florida to California including Texas. As a Texan you will be proud to learn that some of our local gardeners have been on the cutting edge of this back yard revolution since the very beginning. Now if you really want to have some fun, next time you are in your local timeschanging12Mega-Mart garden center try asking the sales person if that beautiful specimen they are showing you will survive on your average rainfall. You’ll get some incredulous looks or perhaps find them completely tongue tied. Yet it should be obvious that all your local native plants and quite a few of the good old fashioned imports have been doing just that for many years. Seek out your most knowledgeable local professionals. We must begin to use practicality when it comes to plant selection.
Besides conserving water by switching to more efficient irrigation and drought proof plants, another idea that is catching on is water harvesting. Once again this idea is an ancient concept but there are new technologies. Using plastic holding tanks and utilizing gravity flow or solar powered pumps, gardeners can capture runoff and distribute it at their leisure. After the initial setup cost this provides free water for landscape use. Another harvesting system uses berms and retention areas to slow runoff and allow it to soak in. A little grade work and some common sense will go a long way to keep the rain that falls on your property. You may be surprised to learn that many people who begin harvesting rain water eventually become completely self sufficient. They no longer have to pay a water bill. Water harvesting offers sustainability to home gardeners as well as those who have water features or swimming pools. It may in fact become commonplace in the very near future.
One last aspect of water as it pertains to gardening is of equal importance to conservation and that is pollution from erosion and chemical use. This will naturally lead us to a discussion on soils and soil health. That will be the topic of my next article on our changing attitudes and gardening in the 21st Century.

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