Around this time each year, people begin spring gardening, and in this fourth year of drought, more are landscaping with water conservation in mind.
Some are making small steps by choosing more drought-tolerant plants such as native grasses or succulents for decoration, while others are doing complete overhauls – tearing out lawns in favor of rocks, pavers or bark and a few low-maintenance plants.
Landscapers and nurseries have in turn adapted to their customers’ needs.
At Morris Nursery in Riverbank, the sale of coastal redwood trees have dropped dramatically. Manager Dave Provost has instead been recommending trees such as ginkgo biloba or Chinese pistache. “It’s the No. 1 shade tree in our area and doesn’t require a lot of water,” he said.
“We are seeing more people aware that they need to do something, and we consult with them on how far they want to go, and some of them want to go with very little water,” Provost said. “We started carrying more and more stuff that requires less water like the desert-type plants. There are also shrubs that require much less water like the manzanita and California lilac. You can have a lush green landscape with lots of flowers and still cut back on water.”
Modesto resident Debi Glover started doing her part about two years ago by capping the sprinklers she used to water the potted plants in a dirt area off her porch.
Then she put a large bucket in her shower to catch the water while she waited for it to warm up and used that to water her plants. A few weeks ago, she and her son started installing red cement pavers over the dirt to add color to that portion of the yard and cut down on weeds.
“It all kind of kept snowballing, but certainly with the more dire condition with the drought, it made everything I was doing continue to make sense,” Glover said.
Her next project will be to rip out a portion of of the lawn in the front yard and add a retaining wall.
Lawns indeed are the biggest water-suck in a yard, so one local landscaper about 18 months ago started offering free lawn removal to customers willing to convert to more drought-tolerant vegetation.
“If they want to do something good, then we will do our bit, too, and pay toward it,” said Paul Helem, general manager of Modesto Landscapes.
He said about a dozen people have taken him up on the offer, but still the majority of his customers, about 70 percent, aren’t landscaping with water conservation in mind.
“There are a good chunk of people who literally don’t care,” Helem said. “They laugh at you when you suggest taking out their lawn. A lot of people are aware of the drought, but they still choose to go with a heavily watered plant.”
For those customers, Helem suggests smart-technology sprinkler systems that adjust watering based on weather information received via a satellite system.
Simply learning to use sprinkler timers on older systems can reduce unnecessary watering, Provost said.
“Most people overwater,” he said. “I still see people whose sprinklers are on every day. Depending on your soil, you only need to water maybe twice a week max right now.”
Provost said mowing grass taller also helps lock in moisture by shading the soil. For every eighth of an inch, there is a 10 percent savings in water, he said.
He said many of his customers are hesitant about doing major overhauls on their yards because there is no clear drought policy for residential homes. He said if a policy is made that dictates a percentage water reduction, it would be unfair to the people who already made that effort.
“It’s difficult because we can’t really advise them because there is no policy from the state government and municipalities at this point,” he said.
In response to a question to readers on The Modesto Bee’s Facebook page regarding landscaping choices, Modesto resident Robert Barfus said, “Right now, I am in wait-and-see mode but thinking about the actions I will take if we have a need to get by with little water.”
Cities do have rules that bar afternoon watering and wasteful practices such as letting water run down a gutter.
Nurseries and landscapers will have to continue to adapt to their customers wants and needs.
“We can’t stay the same either, and it’s not easy because we still have a certain percentage of people who want their landscape the same and then other people who really want to change it,” Provost said. “There’s no one fix-all for everybody. We try to help people on an individual basis make their yard beautiful for what they want.”