In Austin, Texas, as well as a growing number of other cities, it pays to save water. And we aren't talking about turning off the spigot; we mean actually preserving the water that falls from the sky. Austin's city government set up a program to reimburse residents up to $500 for installing large-capacity rainwater harvest systems. A rainwater harvest system sounds complicated, but it's just a technical term for catching and reusing rainwater. Instead of running the pipes from your roof gutters to the ground, you direct them into a rain barrel. In Austin, where the average rainfall is 32 inches (81 centimeters), a 2,500-square foot (232-square meter) roof can collect 45,000 gallons (170,343 liters) of water potentially in one year [source: Austin Energy Green Building Program]. Rainier areas can collect even more from smaller roofs.
Depending on your location, your rain barrels might not get much love from Mother Nature during the warmer months. With a number of states, including parts of Georgia, Texas and California, experiencing significant drought, your parched lawn and garden may need supplemental irrigation.
Whether you're spraying city water or rainwater, the time of day you turn on the hose makes a significant impact on efficiency. If you water during the high heat of the day, up to 30 percent of everything that exits the spout will evaporate before it feeds the plant [source: Lamp'l]. Resist the urge to water when you look outside at lunchtime and see your petunias drooping sadly. Some plants wilt temporarily when the sun beats down, then stand erect once it eases off. That said, you should water only early in the morning or late in the afternoon to maximize the amount of water that reaches the soil. Also, avoid dousing the flowers and foliage. It does little good since the water evaporates prior to getting to the root system. Instead, hold the spout close to the ground.
If your garden needs more sustained water, drip irrigation systems are the least wasteful. Long, thin tubing runs on the ground along the rows of plants. Water rushes through the piping and drips out of holes situated at the individual plants. That method targets where the water goes more than overhead sprinkler systems and lessens evaporation. The irrigation pipes can also easily hook up to rain barrels.
Beware of overzealous watering, however. Giving your plants a gulp, rather than a drink, of water can hurt them more than no water at all [source: University of Massachusetts Extension]. Too much water chokes the roots and starves the plant. When you don't know how much is enough, stop and allow the water to soak into the soil for a few minutes. Poke your finger in the dirt, and if it still feels dry, keep going. Otherwise, remember that when properly applied, a little water goes a long way toward a beautiful landscape.
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