Like most gardening issues, how to water, and how much, has many prescriptions. Here are a few of them, compliments of our three water-wise gardeners and some local experts:
¢ Soaker hoses or drip-irrigation systems are way more efficient than sprinklers. But if you must use sprinklers, avoid those with a misty spray. You want big drops that won't evaporate.
¢ Get a rain gauge to figure out how much water the sprinkler is tossing or how much rain has fallen. (You want about an inch a week.) You can buy a fancy pluviometer with digital features and an ice-warning system, or you can do what Becky Szkotak, of Rutgers Cooperative Extension in Camden, N.J., suggests: "Get a small Tupperware container."
¢ Try not to let your sprinkler water the sidewalk, street or house, and don't hose down your sidewalk, driveway or patio either. Use a broom to clean up.
¢ If you water by hand, do it deeply and less often. It beats a cursory spritz every day. And do this in the morning; Szkotak likes 6 to 8 a.m. Night watering promotes fungus.
¢ Use fertilizers sparingly. They bulk up your plants, then make them thirsty.
¢ Look for drought-tolerant plants, such as salvias, purple coneflower and rudbeckia.
¢ Use compost and mulch for healthy soil that retains moisture.
¢ Keep weeding. Weeds are big drinkers.
¢ Install a rain barrel, with dunks inside and mesh on top to discourage mosquitoes.
¢ Consider converting some of your water-hogging lawn to a garden. For the remaining lawn, plant a drought-tolerant zoysia grass or tall fescue. And mow high, three to four inches. This shades the roots and holds moisture better. "Everyone wants that golf-course look without paying the golf-course fee," says Rutgers' Nick Polanin. (Yes, he's a golfer.)
¢ Choose porous materials like gravel for pathways, so water seeps into the ground instead of skimming off.
¢ Fix hose leaks. A garden hose can put out more than six gallons of water a minute.
¢ And make some tough calls. Try not to water unless it's extremely dry, and then skip established plants and lawns. Most will probably make it to the next downpour.
¢ Anyone who has ever stood out there, hose in hand, counting the seconds till quitting time, might be surprised by this: Experts say overwatering is a bigger problem than underwatering.
¢ They also say that at this time of year, when up to 80 percent of household water consumption takes place outside, we waste as much as half of it.