Friday, September 16, 2011

Lifesaving Gray Water

It happens every time we have water rationing: Homeowners appear on the local news, bewailing the fact that their shrubs are dying in the drought. Every time that happens, I can't help shaking my head. Because in most cases, that didn't have to happen.

We've developed into a use-it-and-throw-it-away society. And that goes for the water that comes out of our taps. Right now, for those in the Southern Plains who are locked into exceptional drought conditions, letting precious water simply pour down the drain is a luxury that can be ill afforded.

                                      National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration/
                                                               Department of Commerce

Each day, we let enough tap water slip through our hands (often literally) to keep at least some of our landscape plants alive during dry spells. Shrubs and new transplants—both trees and shrubs—in particular can subsist on regular doses of gray water alone.

Two years ago, I tested that. In one calendar year, I placed a bucket in the kitchen sink to collect water. (If you use "green" dish soap, you can use rinse water and dip water from the wash sink.) I also dipped water from baths and showers. From a two-person household that is notoriously stingy with natural resources anyway, I was able to contribute more than 4,000 gallons of water to my landscape plants.

But during serious dry spells, you need a strategy to get the most out of this "extra" water resource.

• Concentrate on watering shrubs and new transplants. (Mature trees and large hedges require far more water than you can provide with buckets of gray water.)

• Pour each bucketful of water in one place, rather than splashing it around. (You want the water to soak into the soil as deeply as possible to reach feeder roots.) Then pour the next bucketful next to that until you've worked all the way around the plant.

• Concentrate on soaking the ground out to the drip line beneath each plant, beginning a foot from the trunk.

• Water all the way around each plant before moving on to the next. (Obviously, you'll need to prioritize, watering the most valuable and the neediest plants first.)

One caveat: If you're thinking of hooking up your washing machine so it can water your trees, be aware that this isn't allowed in most municipalities. Check with your community's code-enforcement office. If you are permitted to pipe gray water directly, be sure not to empty hot water into the landscape; use only "green" detergents; and preferably empty laundry water into a vat or barrel where it can be diluted with clean water before final release into the landscape. And...and...monitor moisture levels closely, being careful not to drown plants.

For more on life-saving gray water, check out:

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