WaterSmart Landscaping

For most of the 10 years I’ve lived in Gwinnett County, the Atlanta Metro Area has suffered some degree of drought conditions, belying the stereotyped “rainy night in Georgia”.  Two years ago we were under the severest watering restrictions ever seen in the region.  Homeowners were forced to turn off their automatic irrigation systems, and were limited to 20 minutes of hand watering during specific hours on assigned days of the week. Lawns turned brown, lawn maintenance companies laid off employees, and the iconic Pikes’ Family Nurseries filed for bankruptcy.  During that time there was no shortage of “Volunteer Opportunities” for a Master Gardener willing to give presentations on rain barrel instillation, or on other WaterSmart Landscaping techniques.

All of that changed when an 8-day rain-event, between September 14 and September 22, 2009, brought record rainfall to the area.  Official gauging stations showed that portions of Gwinnett County received 11 to 16 inches of rainfall, while individual homeowners in Lilburn reported capturing as much as 22 inches in unofficial backyard rain gauges.  Lilburn was hardest hit in the early hours of September 21st, when the Yellow River overflowed its banks, rising 25 feet or more in some stretches.   Homes were flooded, roads underwater, bridges damaged, and schools closed. Many commuters found it impossible to leave their neighborhoods due to street closures.

Even though there is evidence of some erosion of mulch and soil, this landscape handled the Flood of 2009 beautifully.

Flooding was not restricted to areas close to the Yellow River.  Properties well above the river’s floodplain were inundated when every type of drainage was overwhelmed by the extreme volume of water that needed somewhere to go. Downspouts and gutters over flowed, forcing water under doors and into the normally dry ground-floors and basements of homes, churches, schools and businesses.  Virtually every low-lying spot was full of water, ditches overflowed with muddy torrents, and streets turned into rivers.  Street gutters, drop inlets, and drainage culverts were overwhelmed causing rivers of water to flow through homes located nowhere near the drainage systems.  After the final event, even flat landscapes showed evidence that sand, leaves and debris had flowed across it in previously unnoticeable channels.  Since then, I’ve received few requests for presentations on WaterSmart Landscaping.

WaterSmart Landscaping is the Southeast’s wetter version of Xeriscaping, which has become popular in arid regions of the USA.  To those familiar with the concept, Xeriscaping conjures up visions of yards landscaped with gravels of different hues, accented with cacti, agave and Joshua trees (none of which flourish in our region of the country).  WaterSmart Landscaping takes the basic premise of Xeriscaping – maximizing our landscape options while using less water- and adapts it to the realities of the American Southeast.

Interest in WaterSmart Landscaping blossomed in the wake of our recent years of prolonged drought.  But the concepts are not limited to drought.  In fact the concepts are quite compatible with an abundance of rain as well.

Until water scarcity became an issue of common concern, rainwater was routinely thought of as the enemy of homeowners.  Every effort was made to get rid of it.  Rainwater was routinely piped away from homes; captured by French-drains and gutter systems, funneled off the property through buried corrugated black-plastic pipe, and dumped directly onto streets or into drainages.  Rain for the nourishment of our lawns and trees was unreliable, while municipal water appeared to be in unlimited supply; and it was cheap.  So, some of us installed fancy underground irrigation systems and set the timer to water twice a day.

Then drought became the norm, so we switched our collective thinking to embrace water conservation.  Some of us put in low-flow shower heads and toilets, flushed less often, or washed clothes and dishes only when we had a full load.  Some hardy souls hauled used bathwater outside by the bucketful in order to keep their favorite shrubs alive.  We adopted some of the Xeriscape techniques; changing our landscape practices to minimize turf and embrace drought tolerant plants.  Instead of getting rid of rainwater, we designed ways to capture, store and use every drop of it on our landscapes.  But now, after such a severe flooding event, we may be suffering a sort of communal mental whip-lash. We don’t know if we should return to viewing rainwater as our friend, or hold it at bay like an enemy.

Rain will come in its own due time, and there is nothing we can do to control that.  All we can do is control how we respond to an unreliable resource. Because of the region’s growth and the realities of a limited water supply, conservation of municipal water has become ingrained in our daily lives and in our collective thinking. For the foreseeable future water-use-planning is bound to include the realities of both drought and flooding, as well as the brave new world of inter-state water wars.

It is high-time to repackage the image of WaterSmart Landscaping to include the complete range of rain conditions we experience in Metro Atlanta.  In actuality, the concepts of WaterSmart have always been compatible with too much rain, when drainage is taken into consideration.  So drought or abundant rainfall, we can have our cake and eat it too.

Foundation drainage incorporated into backyard landscape design.

To get started on your WaterSmart Landscape, take a walk around your yard and observe the ground.  Try to identify where water flows.  To do this look for shallow drainage channels, sometimes marked by small eroded paths, other times marked by fine sand of lighter color than the surrounding ground.  Perhaps you can see where grass clippings or leaf litter has been bunched together and pushed aside by moving water. For fun, become an amateur scientist.  The next time it rains go outside to see if your observations are correct.  Put on your raincoat or take an umbrella, wear shoes you don’t mind getting wet, or go barefooted.  Observe where the water flows.  If you don’t see it moving, walk though standing water and note how deep it is on your foot. By following the deeper water you will be following the drainage.  You might be amazed at how much water moves across your yard in any substantial rainfall, even one of short duration.

Now, with this information, reconsider your present landscape.  Ideally, rainwater should be carried to where it will be of the most benefit to your landscape.  At the same time, it should be directed away from your foundation.  With this in mind you can make logical decisions on where to located flower beds or tree islands.  You can also make new plans for redirecting water flow.  This can be to bring water to a dry area, reduce water flow to a moist area, reduce erosion, or provide for deep watering of drought-stressed trees.  You might want to consider incorporating some form of rainwater storage system to your landscape.  This can include something as simple as rain barrels, or as fancy as an underground storage tank.  There is also the new fashion of including a Rain Garden into your landscape.  All of these water storage schemes can be designed to divert water away from the home or building when it is over abundant.

So now that spring is in the air, take your favorite child (of any age) for a walk in the rain and begin your plans for a WaterSmart Landscape.