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For Your Yard's Sake, Spending Money Like Water

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, October 11, 2007

A hot, dry summer turns into a hot, dry fall, this week's heavily anticipated showers notwithstanding. Surviving shrubs and trees display scorched leaves and early color and leaf drop. Persimmons usually wait until frost before ripening and dropping, but not this year. Like the gardener, they want 2007 to end.

Autumn is supposed to be the season to install new plants and set bulbs, but how to dig through concrete? "This is the worst," said Connie Bowers, a federal government employee who lives in Colesville. "My water bill proves it."

Gardeners I talk to report water bills that are typically twice the usual summer amount. (Bowers says more than 90 percent of her water use has been for the garden.) The initial shock of the bill is followed by the view that the cost is worth it to save expensive plantings and old trees that are irreplaceable.

The bigger worry is that there will be watering restrictions and that the pattern of drought will persist through the winter and spring. Watering restrictions have been imposed in eastern Loudoun County, and authorities in greater Washington and 15 Maryland counties have asked residents to curtail water use, but the reservoirs are still full enough to avoid widespread bans on landscape watering.

Still, this has been a trying year for people who love plants. The effort and expense of watering have hardly paid off in lush landscapes; it's more a question of keeping things alive than of keeping them beautiful. My fish pond needed 800 gallons the other day just to top it up.

Across the region, untended trees are dying, and survivors are stressed and likely to invite assaults from pests and diseases for months to come.

Bowers moved to her large yard three years ago and set about turning a barren horse pasture into a landscaped garden. A part-time landscape designer, she has unusual and choice varieties of trees, shrubs and conifers that are just getting established. Among her charges: a Franklin tree (notoriously difficult to establish), an unusual Japanese species of summersweet, and a robust hybrid of the smoke tree called Grace.

Among the conifers in her young collection are a deodar cedar, dawn redwoods and groupings of Japanese cedars. For her, not watering is not an option. She uses a combination of hand watering, soaker hoses and sprinklers. If she is not working weekends, she will turn the spigots on for 12 hours on Saturday and Sunday. If she is working, she waters weekdays before and after work.

Between mid-April and early August, Bowers used 79,000 gallons of water on her yard. When she got the bill, for $338, "I decided to cut down a little, but then I decided my investment was so high, particularly with these trees, that it doesn't make sense" to let them die. "I'm just waiting for some sort of watering restriction to go into effect."

I called my friend Bill Harris last week, because he has the water going much of the time at his garden in Spencerville. His water supplier "occasionally wants to know what I'm doing," he said. "They thought my meter wasn't calibrated right. I just got a statement the other day. I hate opening it so much, I haven't."

I called him back on Monday, but the envelope was still sealed. And on Tuesday.

In the Glencarlyn section of Arlington, Rhonda Buckner and Diane Ullius have been watering with hoses and sprinklers since the spring, when they "totally landscaped the back yard" with trees and shrubs. "We have put thousands of dollars into this, and if we couldn't water, it will all die," Buckner said. They used 23,000 gallons of water between April and July, about twice as much as in the same period last year. The next quarterly bill should arrive soon. "I imagine it's going to be a lot worse than the last one," she said.

In Columbia, Dianne Fox reports that her usual $90 bill has jumped to $175 as she tries to maintain a modest-size one-fifth of an acre. "I did water my perennials, but I let the lawn turn crispy brown, and some huge pots of zinnias died before their time," she wrote in an e-mail. In her Clarendon home, Tiffany Smith received a quarterly bill for $193, "the largest water bill in almost nine years at the same house. I've been watering a 12-by-12 section of bed in the front and a little bit bigger bed in the back," she said. "I have let the grass go."

There are ways of lowering bills. Richly amended soil acts as a sponge and will hold water more efficiently than unimproved soil, and a two-inch layer of organic mulch will go a long way toward retaining moisture. Water early in the morning to reduce evaporation, and make sure that sprinklers are not dumping water on paving and sidewalks.

In Prince George's and Montgomery counties, customers of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission can pay to have a landscaping sub-meter installed. Water used in the landscape is exempted from the utility's sewer charges, and the savings can be considerable over time for people with thirsty landscapes, irrigation systems, water features and pools. The sub-meter costs about $450 when permit and inspection fees are added, but that doesn't include the cost of installation by a plumber.

Bowers, who has a sub-meter, calculates that the amount she anticipates paying for water in 2007 -- $700 -- would be approximately $1,200 without the sub-meter.

Sub-meters are also available for customers of the District's Water and Sewer Authority, a spokeswoman said. Northern Virginia's largest water utility, the Fairfax County Water Authority, doesn't have a sub-meter system because the sewer charge for the year is based on usage in winter, when residents use little or no water outdoors, spokeswoman Jeanne Bailey said.

Other strategies include using rain barrels to store water from downspouts. "Rain?" you say, scratching your head. Presumably the two or three heavy downpours in August and this week's expected showers produced enough water to last a couple of weeks.

Some readers have told me about using condensate from air conditioners and dehumidifiers to water plants, though the amount is relatively small.

Other sources include recycled water from domestic uses such as clothes washing. When he relied on a well, before his home was connected to municipal water, Christopher Pinchiaroli bought the largest plastic garbage can he could find, placed it next to the washer and captured about 40 gallons or more of rinse water. He put a sump pump in the can, ran a hose from it through the garage, and pumped the water to his garden. With four young children, he and his wife washed a lot of clothes, and he used the setup for nine months of the year. "No bleach loads went to the veggie garden; bleach loads went to my trees or lawn," he said. The bleach was sufficiently diluted that the plants didn't mind, he said. He continues to use the old water from his children's kiddie pool, which is filled from the well and holds about 200 gallons. His yard in Valhalla, N.Y., is sloped, so he can deliver water to needy plants below the pool by using a siphon. His daughters are between 4 and 9 years old.

"If my kids aren't looking, I'll dip my watering can in the pool, even if they're in it, and head off to my plantings," he said.

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