The last two posts were on the topic of water. As we move into the hottest part of the year, this post continues that theme, kicking off a five-part series on how to effectively water plants.
“What should you water plants with?” may seem like a silly question. With water, of course! But not all water is the same.
Typically, we water our plants by connecting a hose or sprinkler system to a spigot and drawing from municipal water supplies. This water has chemicals added to it, including chlorine to kill germs and fluoride to promote dental health. Whether these chemicals are actually good for people is still a topic of debate, but it is generally agreed they are not good for plants.
Plants do better with chemical-free rainwater, which also happens to be less expensive than municipal water. All we need to do is catch and store the rain as it arrives. A single rain barrel, connected to a downspout, can collect many gallons of water in a single rainfall.
Over the next few weeks, That Blog will cover other aspects of how to water plants, and then look at plants that may not need to be watered at all.
A watershed is a geographical area in which all the water – from rainfall, snowmelt, garden hoses, or anything else – finds its way to a particular river, creek, or lake.
Everyone lives in a watershed. If you live in Madison, you might be in the watershed of Lake Mendota, Pheasant Branch Creek, or the Upper Sugar River.
Those water bodies, of course, drain into other water bodies. Watersheds are nested inside bigger watersheds. All the watersheds in and around Madison ultimately flow into the Mississippi River, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
What this means is that what we put into our water in Madison affects a lot of people who live downstream from us.
Many residents of Madison don’t know that the storm drains along our roads connect directly to our lakes and rivers. The water is not filtered or cleaned along the way. So, if we want to keep our local waterways – and the Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico – clean and safe, we need to be careful about what’s flowing down our streets and driveways.
One reason that Madison sends streetsweepers around is to clean up the leaves, dirt, and other gunk that would otherwise wash down the storm drains. But doing this task with streetsweepers costs taxpayers moneys and consumes fossil fuels. If homeowners swept their curb lines manually – especially before rainstorms – we could keep our rivers and lakes clean in a way that is quieter, cheaper, and more environmentally-friendly.
In plumbing terms, there are three kinds of water. White water is the water that comes in through your faucet and is safe for drinking. Black water is the water that goes out through your toilet, and isn’t safe for anything. And grey water is the water that goes down your drains after being used to wash your dishes, your clothes, or yourself. While you shouldn’t drink it, it’s still good for many other purposes.
For example, some buildings route the greywater that goes down the bathroom sink into the toilet tank. Then, the toilet can be flushed with water that was already used for washing hands, instead of with clean, drinkable water.
Similarly, water that’s been cycled through the dishwasher or washing machine can be used to water plants. Some people have plumbed their houses to drain this water into a rain garden or similar system. The water then gets filtered by the plants, instead of being filtered by a municipal system on the taxpayer’s dime.
Greywater systems are a great way to use resources more efficiently, conserving water and saving money. Unfortunately, they are not legal in many cities, because health departments worry that the slightly-dirty water could transmit disease if drained into yards instead of into pipes.
These fears are largely unfounded. If a greywater system is set up properly, and care is taken to not put toxic soaps or other harmful substances into the system, then recycling greywater is safe for people and the environment.
As water shortages become more severe, greywater systems are likely to become legal in more places. Citizens can ask their elected officials to not delay legalizing this simple way of using resources more wisely.
Rain occurs when water vapor in the air condenses and falls back to earth.
But how does that water vapor get in the air in the first place? Half of it gets there by evaporating directly from bodies of water, like lakes and rivers.
The other half is put there by trees. This is because trees act like giant upside-down funnels. First, they absorb water from the soil with their roots. This water is then transported up through the tree to its leaves. From there, the water evaporates out of the leaves and into the air, as part of the process of photosynthesis.
This means that areas with lots of trees have more water vapor in the air than areas with few trees. When there’s more water vapor, rain is more likely to occur. Thus, trees affect precipitation patterns as well as temperatures.
Amazingly, this explains why rainforests are so rainy!
In the Eastern states, including Wisconsin, approximately 30% of household water usage goes to keeping lawns alive. Using water systems, or landscaping with plants that require less supplemental water, can greatly reduce the monthly utility bill.
In Western states, where up to 60% of household water usage is spent on lawns, water systems are often not legal. However, the desert states are home to a wonderful variety of drought-tolerant native plants. Landscaping with these species conserves water, reduces monthly expenses, and restores a unique sense of place.
Landscaping choices can affect heating and cooling bills too. A mature shade tree can significantly reduce summertime temperatures in a neighboring building, while letting sunshine in to warm the building in colder months. A row of trees or bushes can block winds that pull heat out of a home in winter.
In summer, even smaller plants that don’t provide shade can cool a home through their processes of exchanging water with the air. A yard full of healthy plants is like a green air conditioner!
Finally, a natural yard can often be cared for with minimal use of motorized equipment, which saves gas and electricity. Letting nature work for us can improve our comfort and quality of life, while keeping money in our pockets.
Water systems are methods for guiding the movement of water across a landscape.
In addition to soil type and pH, a spot’s site conditions are also described by how much water is present. The scale ranges from wet to dry, with moderate dampness often referred to as “mesic”.
Plants prefer different levels of moisture, and even a small yard can offer a variety of situations. Putting a plant in the right spot will help it to thrive without supplemental watering.
Changing the moisture conditions on a property can be as easy as moving a downspout. Pointing a downspout onto the driveway sends all the water collected from the roof out to the street, from where it goes directly to the lakes, along with any pollutants it picked up along the way. Aiming the downspout into a rain garden or other planting bed will keep plants happy, as well as safely filtering and storing pollutants.
A downspout can also be used to fill a rain barrel. A rain barrel is simply a container that stores water. The water can be used later to help plants through a dry spell. Along with being less expensive than municipal water, stored rain is also better for plants, which don’t like the chemicals commonly added to tap water.
A more advanced type of water system is a swale, a type of shallow channel that moves water across a landscape. This can be used to absorb water that flows down a hill, to spread out water that collects in a low spot, or to otherwise redistribute rain as it falls on a yard.
Water systems can add dynamic movement to a landscape, as well as allowing the property owner to maximize use of a valuable resource. As we will see in the next post, our yards can provide for us, rather than demanding constant expensive inputs. This is just one way in which natural yards bring wealth into our lives.
A rain garden is a planting designed to catch and absorb water, rather than letting it run off.
Rain gardens are typically sited in a naturally low or wet spot – the place where water collects during a heavy rain. They are constructed by digging a shallow pit, then adding plants that enjoy a moist location. A relatively small one can be built in a day, and requires little maintenance after that. Instead of having a mud puddle or a stream running to the storm drain, the homeowner can enjoy a profusion of flowers, along with the birds and butterflies the plants will attract.
Stormwater is filtered as it is gradually absorbed into a rain garden, instead of going directly to the lakes with any pollutants it may pick up along the way. While a rain garden holds standing water, it does not attract mosquitoes, which need at least ten days of standing water to complete their life cycles. A rain garden usually empties much faster than this, and in one that doesn’t, the problem can be easily remedied with the addition of an overflow drain pipe.
Madison encourages homeowners to establish rain gardens. The city’s website includes instructions and sample designs.
If you are lucky enough to live in Verona, the city’s rain garden rebate program will give you up to $150 to help cover the cost of plants.