Road rage: A motorist’s uncontrolled anger usually provoked by the behavior of another driver. The affliction is officially recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. “Water rage”, however, is not yet listed. But if it were, I’d probably be the poster child.

Recently, Biff the Wonder Spaniel and I were on dawn patrol when lo and behold, I spotted a sinuous finger of water rushing down the gutter, leaves riding the surge like a white-water kayak run. As cooling as that image might seem on a warm summer morning, I could feel my body temperature ratchet up and my pulse quicken. Images of an 8-ply, non-kink, heavy-duty, all-weather garden hose noose danced in my head—a textbook symptom of water rage.

The sight of wasted water gets my blood boiling.

The motel three blocks up the street was at it again, watering the four-foot wide strip of turf between the curb and gutter. 1950s-vintage sprinklers sprayed halfway into the street. To top it off, the gardener was hosing down the driveway, thumb pressed over the opening, stubbornly coaxing a few soggy leaves toward the gutter.

What a waste.

I became a water conservation zealot in 1977 while working in a retail garden center. The West was experiencing its driest single year on record, water rationing was in full swing and dead lawns were the norm. It occurred to me then that all the azaleas, camellias and ferns we typically sold had no business growing in our semi-arid climate where average rainfall was 18”. I became a water-wise plant expert nearly overnight.

Thirty-plus years later, I’m still spreading the word through my classes, writing and television show. And thirty years later, many people still don’t get it.

In my last Fine Gardening blog (When The Well Runs Dry), I set the stage for why water conservation needs to be on everyone’s mind, whether you live in a historically arid gardening zone or not. It has to do with the uncertainty of climate change.

Take Action

There are many ways to promote water conservation. Perhaps the most effective is to become involved with local policy-making. Show up at the often sparsely attended board meetings of your local water agency and let your voice be heard. Tell them that the policies they make have long reaching effects on your community, the local economy and your property value. Warning: This path is not for the meek. The laws and historic rights that surround water are complex and often unfathomable--they can make your head spin around and explode like a Warner Brothers cartoon character.

Note: I’m directing these first few tips at those who need to irrigate their lawns. If you live in a climate where rain is plentiful and falls just when you need it, you can go pour yourself a frosty glass of something, but don’t go away.

Lawns

palm springs
Palm Springs, where summer temperatures reach 120 deg. Imagine the water bill in this desert community.
I have a reputation as a lawn hater, but really, I’m not a zero tolerance kinda guy. Lawns are the most appropriate "floor" for outdoor recreation. I mean, really, try kicking a soccer ball across an expanse of junipers. It ain’t gonna happen.

I do, however, have a problem with using turf grass as a strictly ornamental ground cover. In a typical Mediterranean climate like mine, a 1000 square foot (20’ x 50’) lawn uses more than 60,000 gallons of water in a year. Dumping that much precious, potable water on a boring swath of uniformly green grass borders on ridiculously wasteful.

Tip #1: Downsize

If you do need some grass in your landscape, consider downsizing. How much grass does it really take for the kids to burn off a little energy or to throw a saliva-soaked tennis ball for Fido? Picture a “lap lawn”—sort of like a lap pool. Narrow your existing lawn on two sides and substitute low-water using plants along the edges and you’re on your way. If you can resize that 1000 s.f. lawn to 15’ by 30’ you will cut your water use by more than forty-five percent. Pretty painless.

Tip #2: Substitute

Consider swapping out your thirsty fescue or bluegrass turf for a less demanding species. Here in California’s coastal areas, more and more people are achieving great success with native sedges like Carex praegracilis and C. subfusca, or super-drought tolerant grasses like UC Verde buffalo grass. These alternative turf varieties use about half the water of traditional grasses and can be mowed or left “fluffy.”

The lawn at the Santa Barbara Botanic garden is a blend of buffalo grass and native sedges. This turf typically uses 50% of typical lawn irrigation.
For lawn alternatives in other parts of the country, read Susan Harris’s posts at Sustainable Gardening Blog. Her explanation of lawn alternatives is a must-read and includes delightful pics of her own backyard conversion.

Tip #3: Replace

If you don’t need a lawn for recreation, consider replacing it completely. That’s right, no grass at all!

[I’ll wait while you splash your face with cold water. La, la, la…my, oh my, lovely day we’re having. What about those Mets? Hmmm, what shall I do with all that rhubarb the neighbor gave me…]

You're back? Good, take a deep breath and let's move on.

What could be more rewarding and water-conserving than a quiet “reading room” with a luxurious chaise lounge, a colorful and fragrant butterfly garden and a hummingbird feeder to keep the local wildlife quenched?

Grow Food

With the cost of food rising and people’s increasing desire to know where their food comes from, more and more families are putting their land to a higher use. Modern day victory gardens are sprouting faster than radish seeds. Orchards are popping up everywhere and kids are actually eating fresh fruit again!

Growing food doesn’t always translate to big water savings, since we have to irrigate most crops. I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to pour a few thousand gallons of water into the dirt, I’d sure like to get back more than a place to breath in the fumes from a smelly lawn mower.

Getting Started

skinny parkway
Parkway strip at the motel. There is no way to efficiently water narrow strips
without overspraying to the sidewalk and street.

When a sage philosopher said, “The longest journey starts with a single step” I don’t think they were talking about conserving water, but it fits. Whether you are motivated by the altruistic desire to help the environment or the pragmatism of reducing your water bill, take this first little step: Perform a water audit.

Check with your water agency and see if they provide a free check-up. Someone will come to your home (duh, you can’t exactly bring your landscape to them) look for leaks, help you adjust your sprinklers and controller, or just give you tips on the best management practices for your particular situation.

sloped lawn
Inefficient to water, impossible to mow and just plain ugly.
If you don’t have a free service available, check with your local irrigation supply store and see if there are local landscape contractors who provide system reviews. The payback for the service will come quickly as your water bill drops.

And if all else fails, I did a quick internet search and came up with a few thousand hits for do-it-yourselfer water audit instructions and kits.

Next up: Slick new technologies, gizmos and gadgets to help you manage your water use.
As for the water-wasting motel, I’ve sent them a politely written plea to consider a few changes to their irrigation system and technology. Although the common dictum of “any publicity is good publicity” is appealing, I’m not interested in being featured in the next edition of the Manual of Mental Disorders.

PS: If you’d like to see a zany, madcap music video about the joys of lawnicide, click over to YouTube for my little project with Owen Dell, co-host of Garden Wise Guys TV. I’m the guy in the flamingo-colored jacket.

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