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5 ways to combat summer water bills

By J. Scott Wilson, Staff writer
Published On: Apr 10 2012 02:08:41 PM CDT
Updated On: Jun 11 2013 09:47:36 AM CDT
Green grass lawn with blue sky

iStock / szefei

So here we are at that glorious time of year when a mid-afternoon stroll outside can leave one confused, wondering how the house and yard got transported to the surface of Mercury without waking the dogs.

It's hot, folks. It's really hot. When we're lucky enough to get an afternoon rain shower, it has the effect of throwing water on the hot rocks in a sauna.

All this heat poses quite a problem if you have any sort of plant life outside. Unless you want to be "that house" where the predominant color is brown from July through September, you've got to get some water on the ground. But with the electric meter already throwing off sparks, you can't afford to have the water meter spinning at mach 4, too.

So let's look at five ways you can keep your outside greenery intact while keeping yourself out of the poorhouse during the summer months.

First up, do your water bills have you over a barrel?

rain barrel, gardening

No. 5: Rain barrels

Rain barrels, once the province of hippie types who made all their own clothes and looked down their noses at Ben and Jerry for not being sufficiently ecologically conscious, have hit the mainstream, and for good reason.

Instead of letting the water that cascades off your roof during rainstorms spill out your downspouts and drain away, install rain barrels and save that rainy goodness for use later. Be sure to elevate the barrels with cinder blocks or other sturdy items so you can make use of the spigots at the base.

Rain barrels come in varying sizes, and I advise getting the largest ones you've got room for. Sure, you'll have to haul the water yourself with a watering can, but think of it as getting in some extra exercise.

If you're feeling extra-thrifty, you can even tote that rain water indoors to give your house plants a taste of the outside world.

Speaking of plants, using your noggin when you choose them is another way to save ...

Zinnia flowers in garden

No. 4: Use native plants

One of the biggest problems facing farmers and professional gardeners today is the invasion of non-native plants. You're not going to save the planet by picking native plants for your garden, but you will save yourself a piece of change.

Check with your county extension office or your local independent nursery to find flowers and shrubs that are naturally occurring in your area. They may not be as showy as a bougainvillea or as striking as a bird of paradise, but they also won't wither and die the minute your local summer turns on the furnace.

A hybrid tea rose or four is fine, but the more native plants you use the happier your water bill will be. Your local farmer's market is a great place to find a great variety, and you can be fairly sure the plants were grown close to home.

Before you put the plants in the ground, though, do yourself a big favor ...

soaker house in vegetable garden

No. 3: Use soaker hoses

Soaker hoses are one of the most underused water-saving tools in the garden arsenal. They're lengths of hose designed to let water seep through their material evenly, making for a slow, even watering along their entire length.

The best way to use them is to install them when you build your flowerbed, or when you've pulled out your old plants in preparation for replanting. Run the hose in a loop around the perimeter a few inches below the surface. Buy good-quality hose, as ideally it will stay in the garden for years.

Each hose should have the rate of water dispersion listed on the packaging, but the best way to judge is to use a moisture meter, available for a few bucks at any hardware store or home improvement store.

Be sure and set a timer to remind yourself you've got the hose running, or you could end up creating quicksand in your herb garden.

Soaker hoses are great, but don't stop there. Use them along with our next tip ...

wood mulch chips

No. 2: Mix in mulch

Mulch and soaker hoses are the peanut butter and jelly of gardening. They complement each other perfectly and make a whole greater than the sum of the parts.

Not only does mulch help keep moisture in the soil, it helps control the soil temperature to protect delicate feeder roots from roasting on especially toasty days. As an extra bonus, as it breaks down it enriches the soil just like compost. When I take my dahlia bulbs out of their bed for splitting every two years, I till in the old mulch before replanting.

Hardwood mulches are the best, although pine needles are the choice of many landscapers because of their cheaper price and attractiveness. You can also get "permanent" mulch made from things like shredded used tires. It's excellent, but best used in places where you have no plans to swap out plantings frequently.

Last but by no means least, let's talk about your biggest water-user, your yard ...

grass lawn closeup

No. 1: Choose the right grass

Sure, you want the lush, vibrant, aggressively green grass you see at the golf course and conference center. I want a unicorn. We both need to come to terms with reality.

That grass you envy is a water-sucking monster that requires near-daily soaking to keep its luster.

Unless you plan on selling a kidney to pay your water bill, you need to go with a grass that is more drought-tolerant such as Zoysia, centipede or other hybrids. There are even Kentucky bluegrass hybrids now that will stand dry weather better than their more lush cousins.

Will you have a lawn that will stop traffic? Maybe not.

But if you're that obsessed with your grass, you probably need a hobby anyway. Whittle some nice yard statuary to salve your ego.