Flush in a time of drought: Even when water is plentiful, it’s important to control and protect it

Planting water-loving, native plants—something the University of Virginia has done at The Dell—is a good way to capture and control stormwater or deal with low, poorly drained areas. Photo: Jack Looney Planting water-loving, native plants—something the University of Virginia has done at The Dell—is a good way to capture and control stormwater or deal with low, poorly drained areas. Photo: Jack Looney

Central Virginia is paradise compared to the parched, burning lands of California, Texas, Nevada, and Oklahoma. Here on the verdant side of the great river, our groundwater is replenished and streams run high, but everybody has to worry about water in the 21st century.

The click-click-click of irrigation heads keeping time for twilit suburban idylls takes on an ominous tone. In municipalities across the east, bureaucrats are figuring out how much to charge for stormwater run-off (the dreaded “rain tax”) on top of basic monthly water fees, and in the tinder-dry west it’s long been against local regulations to waste water on lawns.

Still the Beaver Cleaver neighborhood lives on inside our heads. Some say the love of open grassland dates to Neanderthal days when early man needed a clear view of predators. We still need a clear view of them, but it’s not so simple anymore. The primordial need for wide horizons grew into a poisonous dream of green after modern chemical companies marketed endless lawns of suburbia to sell the magic pellets that wash into the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico.

What’s wrong with charging for polluting and wasting common resources? Why not put an economic cost to water before we waste it like they did out west, diverting rivers (pump the James, anyone?) and draining aquifers to accommodate mindless development? That neon green looks pretty sick from the air when you’re dumping water by the ton on wildfires or bleeding fertilizer from golf courses and lawns into our degraded watersheds and dying fisheries.

Our focus in these flush times (though older residents remember how quickly drought can come) should be to control our water, protect it from pollutants, and not let it run off our property, eroding soil and sluicing chemicals, pesticides, oil spills, and pet wastes into the watershed. Habitat gardens for butterflies and birds and native plants that don’t require excessive fertilizer and water are the future. Acres of turf and automatic irrigation systems are emblems of ecological ignorance and indifference.

Automated systems are seldom calibrated properly and often put down too much water in the wrong place. Most do not use an over-ride to account for rainfall. Overhead irrigation encourages foliar disease and rot, and a misaligned sprinkler washing asphalt for a couple of hours is a shame. Underground soaker hoses lose less water through evaporation as long as leaks are tended, but why plant something that needs extra water after the first season of establishment?

Knowledgeable hand-watering with a hose or can is a lost art worth re-discovering. You’re actually out in the open air interacting with each plant while watering its particular rootball, pulling mulch away from the base of the trunk or crown, plucking an occasional weed and listening to the birds or your book on tape. Nod to the neighbors. It’s a good thing.

If you need to capture and control stormwater or have low, poorly drained spots, consider water-loving plants. The Dell at the University is a fine example of how to absorb stormwater with native plants. New signage explains the daylighting of Meadow Creek and the re-creation of ecological plantings along the renewed waterway. Another successful local rain garden is at the bottom of the parking lot behind the old County Office Building on McIntire Road which displays a lovely palette of meadow plants that can buffer and absorb quite a bit of hard-surface run-off.

Stroll around these innovative landscapes through the seasons and see how you can translate them into your home grounds. Try to choose planting over paving when you can and use permeable materials like dry-laid brick and stone or pavers instead of impervious surfaces like asphalt or concrete that shed water.

It’s the luck of the draw which side of the Mississippi we’re on, but whether it’s a royal flush or an iffy inside straight, water’s the name of the game.

Water-loving plants

Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus)—small native tree
for moist shade

Hydrangea—all species are deer-candy, thrive in rich,
moist soil

Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia
struthiopteris)—3-5′ sword-
like fronds boldly fill wet
spots; deer-resistant native

River Birch (Betula nigra)—
large multi-stemmed native
tree for dappled shade; can tolerate dry soil

Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)—buttery fall color, fragrant white summer flowers

Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum)—deer-resistant
native sops up water

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)—plant milkweed of
all kinds to help the Monarch butterflies

Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica)—colonize wet spots

Posted In:     Abode,Magazines


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