Trickle... drip... gone. Save water and your garden during times of drought

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

AREAS of the United States are experiencing the 14th consecutive year of drought. Last year was the hottest year on record, and 1988 is already considered to be the drought year of the century. The mighty Mississippi has been too shallow to accommodate barges, and midwestern farms are suffering from conditions reminiscent of the dust bowl of the '30s.

Eminent scientists are warning that the long predicted greenhouse effect may have begun, resulting in abnormally high temperatures and parched soil. Along with the warnings have come recommendations which, if applied promptly, will help offset the devastating effects of carbon dioxide and chlorofluorocarbons buildup that hold heat near the earth's surface.

One of these recommendations is to initiate a major effort to halt deforestation and implement a tree planting project on a national scale. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen to sustain life on earth.

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Other recommendations are for energy conservation, development of alternative fuels, water conservation, and reuse of what is called ``gray water.'' The easier-to-take steps

Of these suggestions, probably energy conservation and water conservation are the two that individuals can act on most. Like oxygen, water is an absolute necessity for plants, man, and other animals. All efforts must be made to conserve it. Even in areas that are not yet suffering a severe dry spell or drought, one cannot afford to waste it.

To understand the tremendous amount of water being used today, and the devastating effects of being without, here are some enlightening facts about the supply available to earthlings:

Even though the earth's surface is three-quarters water, all the fresh water in the world adds up to only 3 percent of this amount; 97 percent comprises water in the earth's salty oceans.

About 2 percent of that fresh water is locked up in snow and ice.

Less than 1 percent is left for consumption because much is too far underground, or too loaded with minerals or pollutants to be useful.

Presently, the average person in the US uses from 100 to 150 gallons of water a day, and a family of four uses from 400 to 600 gallons, without any allowance for what they might use for watering plants, washing cars, etc.

The average American, in a life span of 70 years, uses 26,000,000 tons of water.

But a closer look shows that a person is accountable for an even greater amount of water.

For example, it takes 136 gallons of water to make a loaf of bread, allowing for what is needed to grow the grain and other ingredients. It may be startling to know that it takes 900 gallons of water to make a pair of cotton pajamas, considering the needs of a cotton plant.

What about a gallon of milk? Taking into account what the cow must eat or drink, studies show that an estimated 233 gallons of water are needed to make one gallon of milk. Mulch for water conservation

Since trees and shrubs provide oxygen for man's survival, and fruits and vegetables provide food, water is essential to sustain them. After water is supplied, it should be kept in the soil as long as possible.

A mulch prevents evaporation caused by sun and wind. Also, mulches eliminate the need for cultivation, since they inhibit weeds - the silent robbers that take nutrients and moisture from valuable plants. There are a number of mulches that can be used, but be sure to give soil a good watering so it seeps into the soil down around the root zone before applying the mulch.

Some folks prefer to use black plastic. In extreme temperatures it can hold heat around roots and burn them. This effect can be modified by applying bark chips or shredded bark over the plastic.

Mulches can be of hay, straw, leaves, buckwheat, hulls, corn husks, or any number of organic materials. Sawdust is a good insulator and moisture retainer, but you must add a fertilizer to it so plants will not suffer from nitrogen deficiency as the nitrogen-forming bacteria transfer their energy to breaking down the sawdust.

A liquid fertilizer solution can be mixed thoroughly with the sawdust at the rate of one gallon to a bushel. Be sure to read directions for proper dilution, and use recycled water. A light coating of bark chips over the top can make it more attractive and will add to water retention.

Newspapers make an excellent mulch, but layers must be soaked in water until thoroughly wet through. This may take several hours, depending on the paper. One inch is then applied over a pre-soaked area, and should be top-dressed with bark chips, shredded bark, hay, or other heavy mulch to keep them from drying out or blowing away.

A mulch will keep soil moist for many days. You can tell when water is needed by feeling soil under the mulch. Wilting plants may be an indication. However, hot sun and wind can cause drooping during the day, but they spring back at night when conditions moderate. How to water

Flagging (or drooping) of foliage is the plant's mechanism for preventing loss of water from leaves. However, if they continue to droop after sun goes down it usually indicates soil lacks moisture.

When plants need water, apply it early in the morning or after sun goes down. This saves loss from evaporation. Overhead sprinkling during the heat of the day wastes about one-third of the water, which evaporates before it gets to the plants. For small gardens, direct hose watering around plants is best because water can be directed to plants' roots.

Don't play fireman with the garden hose, and do not use a pressure sprayer. Do not put your thumb over the end of the hose to create more force. Turn the faucet so water runs out the hose end with a gentle stream that penetrates the mulch and soaks the area around each plant. If plantings are arranged so that soaker hoses can be used efficiently without soaking a lot of unplanted space or wetting ground too deeply, they are an excellent means of watering.

What about lawns? Do they not give off oxygen and temper climate?

Yes, lawns (and all grasses) contribute immeasurably to our oxygen supply and climatic stability. When water supply is short, choices must be made. Grass is extremely durable. In dry weather most lawn grasses go dormant, but survive until moisture returns. Sprinkling would be wasteful and take needed water away from less durable plants. Other ways to save water

Stop that drip. A big water waster is a drip from the water line. Check all connections and faucets to be sure you have no leaks. A slow drip all day long can waste from 15 to 40 gallons a day, or up to 2,500 gallons a year! Fix or replace leaky faucets.

Don't forget gray water. Dishwashing water, bath water, and laundry water should never go to waste during dry spells or if there is hint of an oncoming water shortage.

We are now dipping bath water from our bathtub. Even if we take a shower, we put the plug in to catch the water. We have discovered that a standard size bathtub with a depth of only three or four inches of water can yield 12 to 17 gallons for our plants.

Our portable dishwasher yields another 15 gallons on the short cycle. Washing and rinsing our dishes thoroughly by hand takes about the same amount.

To save laundry water we must disconnect the drain hose and run used water into the laundry tub. We allow wash water to mix with the rinse water and find no danger to plants from detergent or bleach with this dilution.

We have learned to brush our teeth using a glass of water instead of letting the water run. In our wasteful society, shaving can use up 20 gallons of water, and tooth brushing can waste 10 gallons. This all adds up to shameful negligence.

Curb toilet flushing. Don't forget the conventional toilet is a water waster. Unless you have one of the new water saving ones, put a two-quart, tightly closed plastic container filled with liquid or small stones in the tank.

Each time you flush, you save two quarts of water. There is no need to flush after each use. With careful use, a family of four could save 60 gallons a day! Innovative games

When people become conscious of how precious water is, they think of new ways to conserve.

We now play a game to see how much water we can reuse and recycle - all the time reminding ourselves never to let the faucet run more than we need for the job at hand.

We give our cooking pans and dirty dishes a cursory prewash in water that has been used to wash vegetables or fruits, then it goes to the garden to water plants. Laundry water from less-soiled clothes can be used to mop the floor before it is used on plants.

So far, this summer we have had enough of our own recycled water for both flower and vegetable gardens and our newly planted shrubs and trees. During the few light rains we have had, we collected water from the downspouts and used it on our older, deep-rooted trees and shrubs.

By conserving, using recycled water, and heavy mulching, plus the downspout water, we have been able to keep our plants healthy.

If shrubs or small trees have ample leaf growth going into a drought, you can remove or cut back some branches to reduce transpiration through foliage. Avoid excess feeding of stressed plants during drought. It may burn roots and promote top growth that will require more moisture. A dilute solution of a liquid plant food may be needed to green up yellowing plants. But other than a booster in midsummer, resist the temptation to feed.

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