Gardeners, businesses prepare for extended drought, water restrictions

Even though it’s the dead of winter, the drought and the specter of water restrictions have injected a sense of urgency into the way garden-related businesses and gardeners are approaching the coming spring.

Cranmer Grass Farm will increase the number of acres it plants in drought-tolerant Bermuda sod from 14 acres to 66 acres this year. It’s still only a fraction of the 600 acres it has in fescue sod, but it’s an acknowledgment of the increasing demand for a lawn that doesn’t take as much water, company president Josh Cranmer said.

At Hillside Nursery, John Firsching is not sure that the small “whips” that are planted in the spring to grow into trees will be able to go into the fields this year.

“It’s so dry out there; you need moisture in the ground for them to take hold,” Firsching said. And wells are drying up, too, making it more difficult to supplement what nature provides, he said. “It makes it critical to plan.”

The City Council will start to discuss watering restrictions in late February, but it could be months before anything is decided, said Ben Nelson, strategic services manager for the city’s Public Works & Utilities department.

The uncertainty makes it hard for gardeners and nurseries to plan, because if the council waits until May or June to impose restrictions, “then most people will have things planted, but you’re up in the air right now,” Cathy Brady of Brady Nursery said. “We don’t know what to expect. We hope and pray for rain every night, then you look at Cheney Lake.”

The reservoir, which supplies much of Wichita’s water, is down by more than 40 percent.

Cranmer said that if water restrictions are put in place, “that’s going to really kill our business ... because fescue’s the main grass.” In addition, because the economy has been bad, houses are not being built, so the demand for grass has been down from that, too, he said.

Garden centers and places with large garden displays such as Botanica ordered their plants last fall for this spring, before talk of water restrictions. Brady Nursery had already slightly increased its offerings of drought-tolerant plants last year, and there will be a bigger increase this year, Cathy Brady said.

“Then you hope they sell. They look a little different; there’s a little more of a gray foliage on some of them.”

Rita Arnold, owner with her husband, George, of Arnold’s Greenhouse in LeRoy, said that they would be helping customers make wise choices on plants that can take dry conditions. “That is a way we are focusing. ... George is emphasizing native plants.”

Extension agent Bob Neier said people need to start planning long-term for the worst. After two years of drought, “no one should be caught off-guard by it,” he said.

Even before talk of water restrictions, the Extension Service had decided to base its seminar series at the Outdoor Living & Landscape Show, held at Century II the first weekend of March, on lowering water use, Neier said. A spring gardening workshop on Feb. 9 at the Extension Center will also include seminars on saving water in the garden.

While there was a chance of rain in the forecast this weekend, “there’s nothing signaling any drought breakage” in the long-range forecast, Scott Smith of the National Weather Service in Wichita said. And above-normal temperatures are forecast in the Climate Prediction Center outlook covering February, March and April, he said.

To put things in perspective, Kay Drennen, environmental specialist in water resources for the city of Wichita, said that the drought now is not much different from the one that Wichita was experiencing when she was hired 20 years ago. It lasted six years.

“There’s always rain in the middle of a drought, there’s just not enough,” Drennen said. “You work with what Mother Nature gives you. ... I think the biggest thing is we’ve made water so easy to use that we unconsciously waste it. It’s so easy to turn it on and off. In a drought maybe we don’t need to use as much water.”

There are many things that can be done to reduce water usage in the yard, those in the industry said, and frustration has been rising over people who water every day or when their neighbor does, not when their grass or other plants need it.

“The people that work for me, my family, we don’t run our sprinklers the way the public does,” said Brady, who still follows her mother’s practice of saving dishwater to pour on her plants.

“People who have $700 water bills: What are you doing?”

The fescue lawn, the most popular grass in these parts because it stays green longer than other grasses and doesn’t rampage into the flower beds, is considered a big culprit when it comes to water usage. Drennen thinks that the lawn may be the thing that takes less priority if the drought continues and water use is restricted.

“Lawns are easy to fix,” she said. “Even if they die, when the rains come back, you can reseed and everything. The things you don’t want to lose are your trees and your shrubs.”

Firsching of Hillside Nursery said he thinks the sooner people get the message about the drought and any watering restrictions, the sooner they will try to save their trees. “If they want to save their trees they’ll need to start watering those right away,” Firsching said.

Wichita has lost many large trees already and is in danger of losing more where they haven’t been watered. The city of Wichita removed an estimated 6,000 trees last year, and reforestation money is being used to try to keep trees alive rather than planting new ones, parks and recreation director Doug Kupper said.

“Trees are priorities because the more shade you have you’re going to have a little bit less moisture need for the rest of the lawn and everything else,” Firsching said.

Cranmer and Neier said that fescue needn’t die even in a drought if people water it properly, starting this spring.

“A lot of people way overwater in the spring,” Cranmer said, “and then in the summer you have no choice,” because the roots have stayed shallow for not having had to grow downward looking for water.

Neier said that the lawn should be given a good watering in the spring when it needs it and then not again until it needs it again, which could take a few weeks. Fertilizing also increases the demand for water, he said, so that can be cut back, and slow-release fertilizer should be used. Dropping grass clippings also helps, as does raising the mowing height, he said.

Mulching with organic mulch – not rock – will help other plants retain moisture, Brady said.

Neier said that he wanted to emphasize that Wichita can still be pretty with less water.

“We don’t have to look like a desert. We can look like a prairie, and a prairie is not a desert. You see beautiful pictures of Kansas of the Flint Hills and other areas where they’re not watered.”

Using ornamental grasses in landscapes to replace shrub borders, for example, “is Kansas,” he said. “That is our look and it’s very attractive and it’s ... in high-end use all over to reduce water nationally.”

Pat Fowler, who does the landscaping for the Garvey Center downtown, is placing her orders for plants now for the spring and said she was going with all drought-tolerant ones.

“It might not be as gorgeous as last year,” she said, “but you’ve got to do the best you can do.”

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