Water-wise gardening is easy with simple strategies

Diggin' It

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When the weather's hot, and hoped-for rain hasn't arrived, a gardener needs some strategies to keep plants alive - without causing a skyrocketing water bill. These tips may help you save plants even if you live in an area with water restrictions.

Everyone knows that mulch helps soil retain moisture, but are you aware that the type of mulch you use can make a difference? Fine-textured mulches such as shredded or ground bark, mininuggets, pine needles, and hay conserve moisture better than coarse-textured materials. Use three to four inches of mulch and water deeply before and after putting it down.

If you can't water all your plants, prioritize them. At the top of the list go any shrub or tree planted in the past two years, expensive plants, shallow-rooted plants such as azaleas, vegetables that can't be obtained elsewhere, and flower beds that are in prominent places.

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Check at garden centers for hydrogels, also called water-holding polymers, which absorb several hundred times their weight in water and release the moisture slowly back to the plant. They cost about $10 per pound, but you use only a tiny amount, and they continue working for up to five years. Although hydrogels are best incorporated into the soil at planting time, using them now may still mean the difference between plants living and dying.

Because this is an unusual product - when mixed with water it resembles gelatin - it's vital to read and follow the directions carefully; never use more than the amount called for. After you've hydrated it, spread a thin layer under mulch. Or, with container plants, use a chopstick to make several holes in the soil and pour prepared hydrogel in them.

Consider irrigating nonedible plants with water that would otherwise be wasted: condensation that drains from a central air-conditioning unit, and recycled laundry, bathtub, and shower water. Check with the health department to see if there are local restrictions on the use of such "graywater." When possible, dilute water that contains detergent or fabric softener with an equal amount of plain water.

Don't use water from the kitchen sink, dishwasher, or that was used to wash diapers. Also, alternate recycled water with fresh. Gary Wade of the Georgia Extension Service suggests pricking pinholes in the bottom of clean gallon milk jugs, then adding pebbles (to keep the jugs in place when they're empty). Pour graywater inside, replace the cap, and put two to four containers on top of the soil close to medium-size shrubs and eight to 10 around trees. The water will slowly seep out into the soil where the roots grow. Don't bury the jugs, he advises; that will disturb the roots and stress plants even more.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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