Blue Ridge Naturalist: Save the Moisture!

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by Marlene Condon

For most of the past decade, we’ve been receiving less rain than usual. This could represent a new weather reality for our area; such shifting weather patterns have been predicted by global climate change science. Only time will tell, of course, but no matter what kind of weather we’re having, it’s always prudent for folks to save the moisture that we get.

It may seem counterintuitive, but the best way to accomplish this is by proper landscaping rather than by building huge dams that take a toll on the environment. What you do with your property affects the amount of fresh water stored within the ground for you, your neighbors, wildlife, and all of the plants out there.

First and foremost, anyone with a lawn needs to figure out just how much lawn is required for children to play upon or for adults to entertain guests. Any amount in excess of what you truly will make use of is a waste of a natural resource (land) in addition to a drain on freshwater supplies—and I’m not just referring to the watering of lawns. I’m also referring to the inability of a lawn to hold onto water long enough so the ground can absorb it.

Because lawns are mowed frequently, the soil becomes compacted and as impermeable as brick. This occurs because of the weight of a lawn mower moving over the same ground again and again, year after year. Rainwater, instead of soaking into the ground, then puddles and is completely vulnerable to both runoff and evaporation.

Additionally, most yards are mowed so short and so often that the blades of grass virtually never shade the ground to prevent evaporation. The grass then tries to go dormant, diverting what little moisture is available to its roots and allowing its top growth to go dry. This strategy is its only hope for surviving the dearth of moisture brought about by improper mowing. It’s paradoxical that homeowners striving to maintain green grass during the summer create—in very short order—a brown lawn instead.

Usually people then start watering the lawn, caught up in an endless wasteful cycle that will be perpetuated until they recognize on their own the error of their ways—or until they are forced to deal with the situation more wisely because of a water shortage.

A lack of water can occur whether you get water from a well or from municipal supplies. Recharging (refilling) your well or a reservoir requires precipitation in addition to sufficiently high groundwater levels, a quantity that has been decreasing (based upon my observations of local streams over the past quarter of a century in the area where I reside).

You would be better off to limit the amount of lawn by growing a variety of other kinds of plants instead. If you live in an area where you can allow most of your yard to “go wild” and grow tall with wildflowers and wild grasses, these plants would keep the soil shaded to help conserve moisture. (Plants use far less for their growth than the un evaporates from exposed soil.) Additionally, a natural area will provide habitat for numerous species of critters that will move in to rehabilitate the ground for even better water retention.

For example, millipedes and wood lice are prime recyclers of plant debris and ants perform the same function with dead animals. Earthworms incorporate the nutrients made available by the millipedes, wood lice, and ants into the soil to fertilize growing plants. When the plants die, slugs and snails recycle the plant growth above the ground while grubs recycle the dead roots below so that new plants can move into the newly available space.

When the grubs and earthworms become overpopulated, a mole (yes, one mole—these animals maintain large territories) will move through the soil to bring the numbers of ground-dwelling critters back down to sustainable levels. As it moves along, making raised tunnels, it aerates the soil for the benefit of plant roots which require air, just as animals do.

The area is transformed from a dysfunctional, essentially barren landscape to one alive with a huge variety of critters, from the not so pretty to the beautiful (butterflies and birds of many hues and patterns).

If you don’t like the idea of “wild” areas, but you don’t really have time or the inclination to plant numerous flower beds that are more orderly, then consider putting in shrubs and trees. These woody plants do not require the huge amount of maintenance that lawn and flower gardens require.

However, areas allowed to go wild will support much more wildlife than forest-type areas or overly manicured flower beds. Instead of viewing field-type habitat as esthetically unpleasing, you should see it as the life-support system that it truly is—not only for wildlife but for humans.

And should you live in an area where natural landscaping is prohibited by covenants or even just by neighbor disapproval, work to educate your fellow citizens. They need ground water just as much as you do, even if it comes from a reservoir.

Knowledge is power—the power to survive (at least for a while) with less precipitation.