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EARTHWATCH : A Blade of Green : You don't have to sacrifice a lush lawn to the drought. A few easy steps will save your grass, and your water.

February 28, 1991|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ojai water conservation expert Connor Everts has been studying the map and watching the calendar. In explaining to me the southward drift of the water problems that have plagued the state in recent decades, he held his palm over the northern half of the state and said, "What happened there in the last 10 years will happen here in the next 10 months." And he moved his hand over Southern California.

What will happen? We are going to have to learn to live with 50% less water. For Ventura County homeowners used to lush green landscaping this is going to mean a change of habit. Regular readers of this column may suspect that I'm going to suggest that you ring your house in Joshua trees. Calm down. I'm talking about a natural lawn, the very one you have already, with a few changes in decorative planting and altogether using less water and almost no chemicals. And this means forever, with no return to water-wasting days.

Half our urban water goes for outdoor purposes. I, for one, am willing to think very seriously about changing my outdoor habits in order to preserve some of my indoor habits. Let's cut to the chase here. Half an hour's lawn watering equals 10 showers.

I have consulted some experts and it turns out that you and I have been overwatering the lawn by 100% and more, wasting water we now want to save. We should be watering once a week, not once a day.

Owen Bell, a landscape contractor who specializes in drought-resistant planting in Ventura and Santa Barbara put my mind at rest about the "look" of landscape to come. He teaches a class at the Botanic Garden in Santa Barbara called "The Drought Tolerant English Garden." I think that says it all, in case you were worried that Bell was planning to turn Ventura County into Death Valley-by-the-sea.

During our conversation, Bell described the changing styles of landscaping already under way. The recent freeze killed a lot of Florida-style plants in this county. These, he said, should be replaced with breeds that look quite similar but have been developed locally by a good old Darwinian survival-of-the-species process. "With the water crisis, things will change everywhere in California," Bell says. "Go up to Santa Barbara and look at your future. It's not terrible, it's different. They've had water cuts for a long time."

It seems that by watering for five minutes daily, spreading on artificial fertilizers, cutting lawns short, throwing away grass and tree clippings and bringing in exotics from Sumatra, we've just been buying a peck of worries.

Ben Faber, Ph.D., an expert from the Ventura County branch of Agricultural Extention--part of UC's Cooperative Extension program--says that with this kind of watering, 70% evaporates. Better to water once a week, he said, for half an hour (twice weekly in summer) for a deep soak, which will make the roots go down deeper where the natural nutrients are. Short sprinkles combined with artificial fertilizing on the surface make the roots grow shallow. They hang around near the surface like addicts waiting for their fix. (Faber actually said that during a drought it is preferable to water not at all, rather than the short sprinkle method. The roots will go down looking for whatever water there is.)

Then there is the issue of non-chemical or "organic" lawn and garden practices and their meaning during a drought. The County Resource Conservation District's Lee Waddel said: "It's another water-saving tool. Organically treated soil holds more water and it allows infiltration down to the roots." We should spread mulch over bare soil, turn it under prior to planting, and if we replant a lawn, put two inches of it everywhere. Also, during a drought, leave your clippings on the lawn. They'll act as a mulch and hinder the evaporation. And, by the way, mulch is a herbicide. When you put it over bare ground the weeds don't grow.

These organic practices provide a "timed release" of the nutrients plants need. The natural biological process of plant matter decay produces nitrogen slowly and steadily. If you just pour nitrogen out of a bag it's here today, gone tomorrow--into our water supply. The plants only get a junkie-like "rush."

Many California city officials recently surveyed by the California State Water Conservation Board about proposed water legislation say it is possible to cut the "inorganics," as Faber calls them, by 100%.

Later this month, Ventura County will begin to release a daily report to the media on the "Evapotranspiration Rate." Akin to humidity and smog rates, this environmental indicator will tell you how many minutes to water your lawn that day to keep it from dying. If you've been taking steps to make your roots go deeper, covering bare soil with mulch and spreading natural rather than artificial fertilizers, you'll be able to cut watering time significantly, probably to one "Evapotranspiration Rate" watering a week.

* FYI

* Ventura County Water Conservation Program Info, 654-2440.

* Ventura County Resource Conservation District, 386-4990.

* U.C. Cooperative Agricultural Extension, 654-2924.

* Drought-resistant plants: Green Thumb Nurseries, Ventura, 652-8517 (also ask your local nurseryman for ideas and ready-made mulch).

* Owen Bell Landscape Contracting, 962-3253 (also see landscape contractors and landscape architects in the Yellow Pages).

* Classes at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, 682-4726.

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