a boots-on-the-ground view of the change that's a-foot

With rising temperatures and more frequent drought everywhere, the future of water supply looks bleak. Drought notwithstanding, it is critical that we change how we view and use our water.

There are many ways that we misuse water in our personal and professional lives, and we may well be landscaping ourselves into deep trouble. We’ve been fooled into thinking that we need to manage our home or business landscapes beyond reason. There’s something almost eerie about those manicured lawns around most homes and businesses and the water used on it’s upkeep is the living nightmare. Here’s what my local botanist and eco-hero, Ken Moore, has to say about it. Excerpted from his column in The Carrboro Citizen:

Sadly, the xeriscape concept [of landscaping] 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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5 Responses to “”

  1. Sarah Says:

    While I do believe the only dependable irrigation system is a thoughtful gardener on the end of a hose, this is not realistic because in today’s world we need someone or something to do the work for us. We don’t have time to stand there with a hose and water every square foot of our lawn. We don’t even have time turn off the automatic irrigation controller when the sprinklers are running in the rain. This is why we need smarter, more technologically advanced irrigation products that do more of the work for us. The irrigation industry is still in the horse-and-buggy days and each year irrigation manufacturers are advancing their product line and making water-efficient irrigation devices. Give it time.

  2. tao Says:

    Interesting response. You must sell irrigation systems.

  3. Garden Wise Guy Says:

    Your post echos my feelings exactly. I’m here in the Santa Barbara area in So. California, and water has never been a luxury. As for the previous comment about the irrigation industry being in the horse and buggy days, quite the opposite. As a landscape architect and co-host of a local sustainable landscaping TV show, I know that there are some marvelous devices out there that can help people mind their irrigation needs.

    But the key is to break this silly mindset that we need lawns around our homes. Even if water wasn’t a factor, what about the petrochemicals and herbicides we dump on our green patch of paradise and the pollutants that come with it? I heard recently that there are 80,000 lawn-related emergency room accidents a year, many related to flying debris like sticks and rocks from mowing.

    My philosophy is that form follows function, and unless you’re playing catch with the kids or nude sunbathing, there are better, more sustainable surfaces to use as floors in our gardens. Stop by my blog for some rants about lawns, poor irrigation habits and gardeners who are asleep at the wheel.

    I’ll peruse your blog in the near future (this is my weekend to move my home) and perhaps we can trade links? Thanks again for a stimulating post.


  4. tao Says:

    Hi BG,
    Thanks for the reply.

    I have great respect for the knowledge coming from the new breed of landscape professionals. Thanks for reminding us once again that lawns are only a misguided facade of our culture. It’s a comfort to know you are speaking out about it on your show and your blog and even ranting a bit. I will be following you!
    (In fact, when I think back to horse and buggy days, I don’t believe they had lawns, did they?)
    Yours in Change, Tao

  5. The Tao of Change » Blog Archive » Gray Water Bucket Brigade Says:

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