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Gardening: Water, Water Nowhere

You should thank me. Really. Because as soon as I decided to write about dealing with droughts, the rains came. And lo, the grasses swooned!

The thing about these mandatory water restrictions that raise suburban blood pressures is that the main worry is the lawn. What else is so demanding? What else is so noticeably unattractive when deprived? Unless you've got one of those indoor rainforests in your den like at the train station in Madrid, keeping the grass green is the biggest of your concerns.

So why keep a sprawling lawn at all? Is it some kind of throwback to our hunter-gatherer days, when we liked to emerge grunting from our huts and survey the tall grasses of the savanna? We're so far from nature you could probably fill a front yard with Cheetos and have the same kind of connection. No, it's probably just vanity, some way to fill up the space of the property, somewhere to pitch the dog/kids when they pee on/set fire to the rug.

But since you'll no doubt insist that there is no greater glory than an emerald field out to the curb, here are some things to consider about your precious grass:

1. Keep it cut short. When you mow, chop it down by one-third every time; it will encourage root growth.

2. Water less, about twice a week, which will make the roots grow longer and make the grass more self-reliant. Same thing that happens to kids who don't get enough love.

3. Don't water by hand. You're just not getting the deep penetration with that hose, and you're allowing for a lot of runoff, even if you do look dashing watering in those black socks.

4. There's nothing wrong with AstroTurf.

5. Rain barrels — they're not just for survivalists anymore. Hook one up to your downspout and watch the savings roll in. Please keep a lid on, though, to avoid establishing mosquito colonies. Check www.rainbarrelguide.com for ideas.

But have some faith out there. We don't need to be running out to sprinkle every day like canines over the landscape, especially not if we use drought-resistant grass like tall fescue or Kentucky bluegrass.

Lest you haven't noticed, we aren't exactly having hurricanes anymore, either. What does this mean? Exactly — we're becoming a desert. Why, just look at all the gila monsters getting caught up in residential plumbing these days. So let's start thinking like droughts may be the way of the future.

Henrico Cooperative Extension agent Lisa Sanderson compiled a list for us from "The Virginia Gardener Guide to Water-Wise Landscaping," a book of such arcane knowledge it's no longer in print.

It says, among other things, that for trees, you really get your money's worth planting European hornbeam, Turkish hazelnut, crabapple, southern magnolia and some of the oaks (the live oak is a particularly lovely but underused tree around here).

For shrubs, consider the red chokeberry, oakleaf hydrangea, dwarf yaupon holly and butterfly bush. Now, of the perennials, once they get established, moonshine yarrow, Dahlberg daisy, California poppy, globe amaranth, day lily and garden verbena are all really tough when it gets dry.

But what I really want to leave you with is a sense of, hmmm, discrimination when it comes to that rolling field of green. I don't want you to hate the lawn, certainly (what would you do in those meditative hours pushing the lawnmower around?), but consider the alternative groundcovers out there: bugleweed, barrenwort, St. John's wort, dwarf Japanese garden juniper, lily turf, gro-lo sumac, periwinkle and, my favorite, the popcorn of the plant kingdom, sedum.

They may come in handy should I ever forget how to conjure the rain. HS

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