Taking on Drought ... One Water-Wise Plant at a Time

Extension Master Gardeners, Wichita 2013When Larry Hoetmer was looking for trees and grasses that required less water to plant along Wichita's streets and other city-owned property, he consulted Bob Neier, Sedgwick County horticulture agent (pictured at right).

Neier provided a list of plants tested by K-State Research and Extension and shown to hold up in the sometimes harsh Kansas climate.

Hoetmer, principal planner/landscape architect based in Wichita's Department of Parks and Recreation, worked closely with both Neier and Jason Griffin, director of K-State's John C. Pair Horticulture Center in Haysville.

"The city of Wichita has made a concerted effort to upgrade and revise its landscape design policy so it reflected a response to recent drought issues. We were revising our landscape projects to be more water wise," Hoetmer said.

Given the extra challenges of planting along city right-of-ways, such as salt, strong winds, heat reflecting off pavement, and sometimes precious little moisture, Hoetmer and his team refined the list even further.

Outreach to individuals and civic organizations

Water Wise Way to Irrigate Trees

Kansas communities are no strangers to drought, and agents like Neier are working to help Kansans better prepare for periods of low precipitation. Part of that preparation is building awareness and educating the public about ways to conserve water.

"Most of our programming in 2013 emphasized saving water through horticulture practices since we were entering the third year of drought," he said. "About half of all residential water use is on lawns and gardens during the summer months. By adopting xeriscape (low water landscape design and maintenance) principles, we can significantly reduce water applications and still have attractive landscapes."

Neier said many people know K-State has wheat and corn research plots, but may not know that the K-State Research Extension, Sedgwick County office has used water-wise landscaping for 20 years, including rain barrels for supplemental watering, drip irrigation and mulch.

The city of Wichita now offers rebates on rain barrels, Neier said, adding that it's a win-win for the city — rain barrels help consumers save money on water bills, and the city will save money on finding new water supplies.

He and fellow agent Rebecca McMahon produce a monthly e-newsletter on various horticulture topics. They also give presentations to organizations such as Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, commercial property owners, and neighborhood associations on conserving water and incorporating xeriscape principles into landscapes.

Neier and McMahon also guide the Sedgwick County Extension Master Gardener program that trains volunteers to teach citizens about research-based horticulture practices, including water conservation, yard waste, and pest management.

Neier said that although the drought was eased by mid-July rains in Sedgwick County, many individuals and horticultural businesses in the community are mindful that every season could bring a recurrence.

"We see continued interest in drought-tolerant plantings even though as of mid-August, we had already received our full annual rainfall amount," he added.

Teaching college students, working with industry

College Students Adjusting Irrigation SystemCathie Lavis, associate professor of landscape management, shares her passion about the proper design and use of irrigation systems as a way to conserve water in landscapes with K-State students (pictured at left), Extension Master Gardeners, landscape contractors, and others.

The majority of people who have in-ground irrigation systems overwater," she said, adding that most property owners don't know how much water is being applied during an irrigation event. She suggests steps as simple as setting empty tuna cans out at various locations during an irrigation cycle to determine how much water each area is getting and this will help determine a runtime schedule.

Many people also are intimidated by their irrigation system's controller, so they pay a contractor to turn the system on and off, she said. That often means they apply the same amount of water in August that they did in April.

"An irrigation system needs to be properly designed, installed, and maintained using components that have been designed to help conserve water," she added. "Although these components may be more expensive initially, in the long run, they'll pay for themselves. Many homeowners aren't aware of the many aspects of an in-ground system, so they often go with the cheapest contractor. You often get what you pay for, and if it's in-ground you don't know what is going underground."

To help property owners, Lavis wrote a K-State Research and Extension fact sheet on how to hire a reputable contractor to install irrigation systems. She also received two national awards in 2013 – the American Horticultural Society Teaching Award and the 2013 Excellence in Education Award from the Irrigation Foundation.

In the future, Lavis would like to see a certification process for landscape irrigation.


Xeriscaping in Kansas

K-State Research and Extension addressed the low-water gardening technique (xeriscaping) and a new approach to groundwater management in western Kansas on KTWU Public Television's Sunflower Journey's Water Woes, which aired Oct. 17, 2013.


(From Kansas Healthy Yards)