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Water, Water Everywhere but Not Much to Spare : Gardening: Climbing temperatures make plants the neediest this month, when there's a whole lot of growing going on, but an official end to the drought doesn't mean it's OK to overdo it.


July is the thirstiest month of the year for plants, when lawns and landscapes still grow vigorously even as temperatures climb.

But just because California's six-year drought ended officially this year doesn't mean it's time to end wise water management of home landscapes.

Even though less than 2% of California's developed water supply is used in home landscapes, water experts are cautioning homeowners against returning to wasteful water practices.

"Southern California is still experiencing what I call an Administrative Drought--too many people for not enough resources," says Tom Ash, a water management expert with the Irvine Ranch Water District.

The state's population is 31 million, with approximately one-half million more added yearly. So what should the concerned homeowner do to enjoy lawn and landscape?

"Get personal with your plants," Ash recommends. "Know your soil, your plants and what amounts of water they really need."

Ash says he follows this principle at his house in Irvine, where he waters his 2,000-square-foot landscape only with a hose. Of course, Ash happens to be a trained horticulturist who knows exactly when and how much water to apply to his lawn, shrubs, plants and trees.

During the hot summer months, he waters his landscape for 15 minutes twice a week (half that amount in spring and fall). He prefers not to use the irrigation system installed by the builder because he likes to control the exact amount of water each plant receives.

He substituted an informal English country-style garden for the small ornamental lawn and shrubs that had previously been installed in the front. The only original plants remaining are the Kentia palms. These share space with Mondo grass, penstemon, Mexican primrose, coreopsis, schefflera, and a climbing Cecile Bruner rose.

He retained a small lawn of hybrid Bermuda grass in the back yard where his two young children play. Ash also grows orchids, day lilies and irises and likes to experiment with unusual plants.

He follows the principle of grouping plants according to their water usage.

"If I were to use an automated system, I'd have too many zones to make it practical, so I prefer the hand-watering method," he explains. "Also this gives me the chance to observe my plants closely.'

In addition to a trained eye, he relies on a soil probe to determine when to water and just how much. His methods work: He uses 30% less water than his neighbors, and his landscape is colorfully vibrant and healthy.

"There's no point putting more water on the ground than the plants need, a common mistake many people make," he says.

While the hand-watering method is useful for people with small landscapes, it's not practical for larger properties where irrigation systems are best used.

But many people make the mistake of installing a system, programming the control box and then assuming the control remains the same for the entire year.

"People should set their control boxes at least once a month," says Mark Pedicone, a founding member of the xeriscape movement in Southern California and a partner of Water and Landscape Consultants in Laguna Niguel.

"The water needs of lawns and plants change weekly, even daily, depending on weather and growth patterns, and it's a waste of water to apply more than is really needed or permit it to be lost to wind, evaporation or as run-off," he explains.

Pedicone installed an extensive irrigation system at his Anaheim home. He uses a spray system with six-inch pop-ups for his lawns, soaker hose for a planter bed with shrubs, and drip systems to his citrus and deciduous fruit trees and planters of California natives. All are zoned according to water needs and have individual timers linked to one control box. Pedicone also uses a water sensor for his lawns.

Very sophisticated, computer-generated moisture sensors are used by agriculture, commercial properties and some municipalities but aren't available to homeowners. Simple sensors are, however. They prevent water from being applied to a lawn or planter area that's already wet.

"The homeowner doesn't have to get high-tech to have an effective irrigation system," says Javier Cuellar of Orange, specification manager in Orange County for Rainbird Inc., one of the nation's largest manufacturers of irrigation equipment. "The irrigation system should be designed to distribute water evenly over the entire landscape and be able to deliver water efficiently to the landscape as it matures."

Whatever the system, experts say the secret of good water management is common sense.

"There are a number of effective and expensive products available that can save water," Pedicone said, "but it's still up to the homeowner who's managing the equipment to apply water properly."

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