[Editor’s note: Noozhawk has embarked on a series exploring South Coast water issues. Click here for the first installment. Click here for the second installment. Click here for the third installment.]
The South Coast is one of the world’s most beautiful locales so it’s little wonder that residents take such pride in their landscaping. The area’s frequent flirtations with drought, however, mean that keeping the scenery sustainable is as important as its appearance.
When Kitson Landscape Management takes on a client’s landscaping, the company does everything in its power to avoid the bane of water conservation: expansive lawns.
“We try to figure out why they really want a lawn,” said project manager Dave Fudurich. “Is it just green carpeting? Because there are other options for that.”
Kitson has a variety of alternative “green carpeting” that is more water-wise than lawn, including ground-covering plants such as Bearberry cotoneaster. When kept short, it has the same appearance as grass but requires much less water and results in less overall runoff.
The aesthetic of replacing huge lawns with variegated landscaping is another reason Kiston says people are now steering away from traditional American-dream-green front yards.
“Santa Barbara wants more unique and colorful yards with more textures,” said Kitson president Sarah Kitson.
Even if they include the same plants, not all yards are alike. There are important variations such as soil composition, plant positioning and direct sunlight.
Analyzing soil composition doesn’t have to include checking pH or sending samples in to a lab. It can be as simple as checking the consistency and color, which tells quite a bit about what the area needs.
“Lots of people overcompensate by irrigating when they really need to fertilize,” said Fudurich, who uses a metal soil sampler to get a good reading.
There are three basic types of soil — clayey soil, loamy soil and sandy soil. Most homes in Santa Barbara have clayey soil, which presents a risk of becoming compact and heavy. This is most easily remedied by layering protective organic material to create more biologically active soil.
If the soil smells bad or has a blue-green tinge, it usually lacks oxygen and is being over-irrigated, essentially drowning the plants. If it has a yellow tinge, it most likely needs nitrogen, which can be found in organic material such as fertilizer or compost.
Fertilizing is about making sure plants get the organic material they need. As with irrigation, however, there can be too much of a good thing. Extensive fertilizer causes contamination in runoff and will harmfully inundate the plants.
Kitson works with both organic and synthetic fertilizers. Fudurich explained that there are three systems of fertilizing, with the emphasis on making sure the plants are able to efficiently absorb the nutrients.
“Organic is applied slowly to plants, synthetic needs to either be a slow-release type or it needs to be applied frequently in small doses,” he said.
Click here for a helpful resource for fertilizing.
Essential to any water-wise vegetation is the process of mulching, or spreading a protective layer of organic material over the soil. The layer prevents evaporation and creates a biologically active environment where the soil can maintain moisture.
“Mulching creates pathways in soil for water and air to get into the root area,” said Kitson. This is because mulch decomposes into the most basic, essential organic material to create a healthy dark top layer of soil, referred to as humus.
Mulching reduces the hardpan top layer of soil that blocks water and air, allowing the plant to absorb them through the spongy humus layer.
Different ways of mulching include composting, shredded leaves, chopped grass or even wood chips. If mulched two or three times per year, a layer of humus will develop.
Kitson creates its own mulch by recycling the green waste it accumulates on the job, which also reduces the transportation of getting the green waste to a disposal site.
When setting up an irrigation system controller, which Kitson highly recommends, place similar-need plants in the same area. This will allow for separate zones that can be watered according to separate needs.
There are two basic ways of irrigating — drip and spray. With drip irrigation, a slow leak is applied directly to the root zone from a valve on a hose. With spray irrigation, water is fanned out from a central nozzle, such as on a sprinkler.
Without separate zones, effectively using drip and spray irrigation simultaneously is impossible.
“If you have a sprinkler system and a drip system that are going on at the same time, you will end up spray irrigating for far too long, because the drip lasts a long time and spray should be shorter,” Kitson explained.
For any plants other than lawn, drip irrigation is the way to go. Its slow, constant system allows the plant to get the water only where it needs it. With spray irrigation, much of the water is unnecessarily evaporated or ends up as runoff.
Drip irrigation is also cheaper to repair, with a broken valve costing a couple cents vs. a broken sprinkler head that is nearly $20, Fudurich said.
For spray irrigation, remember to use a low-precipitation system, which operates similarly to a light rain. Less water overall is applied to the lawn, which in turn allows the plants to absorb more and reduces runoff. An example of a low-precipitation system is a rotating sprinkler head instead of a fanning one.
Noozhawk intern Mollie Helmuth can be reached at email@example.com.