Fill gardens, lawns with drought-tolerant plants to conserve water

Friday, June 6, 2008 at 2:59am
Brown Tennessee River rock is a popular alternative to traditional mulch around trees and shrubs and can give an effect resembling a Japanese rock garden. Courtesy of Quigley Landscaping

Homeowners concerned about a return of last summer’s extreme drought and shocked by gasoline prices that are turning mowing the grass into a major expense are finding alternatives to the traditional lawn.

In place of grasses that have to be continually watered and mowed, they are landscaping with hardy, drought-tolerant plants that are native to Middle Tennessee. Some are planting herbs that are just as attractive on the dinner table as they are in the garden, said Dalton Quigley, owner of Quigley Landscaping and Landscape Nashville.

“I would like people to have a xeriscape (pronounced like Xerox, the office machine company),” Quigley said. “It means they are using drought-tolerant plants that reduce their need for watering. We are a growing region. Water issues are very important.”

Some homeowners are incorporating decorative stone into their landscaping. Brown Tennessee River rock is a popular alternative to traditional mulch around trees and shrubs. The effect resembles a Japanese rock garden, he said.

“It has a very classy look and the cost is not that much. You have a landscape that conserves water, since the ground underneath the rock stays moist. And it’s permanent. You don’t have to mulch every year,” Quigley said.

For clients who want a more traditional lush green lawn, he recommends low-maintenance grasses such as thermal blue, a hybrid of blue grass and Bermuda that does not require constant watering. It also does not grow very high, so it does not have to be mowed every week.

“At $4 per gallon, even mowing the grass can be expensive,” Quigley said.

Landscaping with ornamental native plants further reduces water use and the expense of lawn maintenance, he said.

“In the Tennessee River basin, native plants are acclimated, knowing part of the season will be really wet, part will be really dry and part will be really hot,” Quigley said. “They create an attractive outdoor environment that is comfortable for people.”

Homeowners who have already invested in traditional grass lawns and landscaping features that require watering should not despair, said Don Ehm, owner of Thirsty Lawn irrigation service. He is busy installing water-conserving underground irrigation systems. Modern systems incorporate soil-moisture sensors that turn them on only when absolutely necessary and direct water to specific plants.

Customers save money as well as water, he said.

“It takes 12,000 gallons to put an inch of water on an acre,” Ehm said. “The initial cost of a system is peanuts compared to the cost of water over the years. Conserving water is on everyone’s mind.”

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