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Originally published Saturday, August 11, 2012 at 6:01 AM

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Smart garden watering tips

The Gardener Within: Water-wise tips from master gardener and author Joe Lamp'l.

Scripps Howard News Service

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Of all the challenges we gardeners face, drought is the one most out of our control. At sometime in your gardening life, no matter where you live, drought likely will affect you too. For many, that time is now.

It's a helpless feeling: no rain in sight, soaring temperatures and plants and lawn are struggling to survive. And you have been restricted or even banned from any outdoor watering. So what's a gardener to do?

First things first. Understand that in times of such scarcity, sacrifices will be required. Prioritize the plants in your landscape or lawn based on what's most important, and work back from there. The most easily replaceable parts of my landscape and garden will either have to go without or get served last.

Fortunately, you can buy some time by making the most of what water you have.

Warm-up water: One of the best sources of water for keeping plants alive comes from inside the house. I call it warm-up water. It's all that water that otherwise would go down the drain as you wait for hot water in your kitchen sink or in your bathtub. For every one minute of warm-up time, two-gallons or more of water perfectly suitable for any plant could be collected by simply placing a bucket under the spigot. I know many people who kept their entire garden alive through such trying times using this method alone. It adds up quickly.

Gray water: This is water redirected for use in the garden from a washing machine, dishwasher, sink or tub. It can be perfectly suitable for irrigating your plants and beds. But before you undertake this approach, check with your local ordinances. Depending on where you live, it may not be legal to divert this type of water for irrigation. Another consideration is that gray water can contain harmful disease pathogens (from a kitchen sink or garbage disposal) and/or harsh detergents or chemicals (as from a washing machine or dishwasher). Good sources of gray water come from dehumidifiers and air-conditioning condensation drains.

If you want to consider this option for your garden, do your homework. Plenty of online references will serve you well.

Rainwater harvesting: Get a rain barrel, or even a cistern capable of collecting and storing up to thousands of gallons. Again, check with local laws about rainwater harvesting. Not all states view it the same way and there may be restrictions on what you can do, especially in the southwestern United States.

Mulch: During a drought, it's important to conserve any moisture that is in the ground. Evaporation will draw out water near the soil surface faster than ever. Yet, a generous layer of mulch (approximately two to three inches deep) will serve as insulation, allowing more moisture to stay in the soil and be used by plant roots.

Any mulch will help, but I prefer the type that improves the soil as it breaks down. For me, that means only natural sources such as shredded bark, wood, leaves, grass or straw, etc. I also like knowing it's free of unacceptable chemicals, such as arsenic from pressure-treated wood. To find sources of contaminant-free mulch, consult the Mulch and Soil Council's website. (Full disclosure: I'm its spokesman.)

Planning ahead: Although you may already be in the midst of drought, you can develop several habits to ensure that the next time you're faced with such trying conditions, your plants and lawn are more suited for the challenge. First, select plants and grasses that are native or adapted to your area. They're far more likely to endure the heat and drought. Second, when you do water, do so deeply yet infrequently. This trains roots to grow deeper as they seek water sources farther in the soil.

Joe Lamp'l, host of "Growing a Greener World" on PBS, is a master gardener and author. For more information visit www.joegardener.com.

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