Won’t somebody please think of the plants?! : Water efficiency in landscaping

Example of water efficient landscaping in Tulsa. https://oklahomalandscape.wordpress.com/tag/drought-resistant-plants/

If you came here thinking that I would talk about a situation where we as people have conveniently overlooked our friendly neighborhood flora and are now paying for it, well you would be right. Now this isn’t quite a world-ending issue where tomorrow all modern farming as we know it is going down the tubes, but it does affect any good-willed gardener or home owner. So what am I talking about you may ask? I am talking about linking climate and water resources to landscaping in urban environments in Oklahoma.

So why is this even an issue worth talking about? Well, many people believe that urban environments are less susceptible to climate stress, like temperature and drought, because of their access to water. Although it is true that these plants have access to more water, does it actually exempt urban environments from these climate stresses? Dr. Heather McCarthy at the University of Oklahoma looked at the Enhanced Vegetation Indexes, which simply put is how green an area is, of urban areas in Oklahoma City using Landsat to test this hypothesis.

After collecting many years of data, Dr. McCarthy found that in Oklahoma City, climate stress proved greater than expected despite an increase access to water. In her study she also found that many people make landscaping decisions based on aesthetics with little thought to water use. Makes sense right? Why would I fill my yard with plants that need very little water but that are ugly? What if I told you there are many options of plants that are not only water efficient, but also pretty and native to your area? You probably think it’s too good to be true, that I am some kind of plant wizard or something. I assure you however, there is no sorcery involved, mostly just thoughtful planting.

While looking for plants to fill your garden or yard with you should look for a well-adapted species to your area that you find attractive. Luckily for you the EPA has a webpage full of helpful advice on what to plant in your state at: https://www.epa.gov/watersense/what-plant. For Oklahoma, where Dr. McCarthy’s study was performed, I found another helpful article. It has about 82 pages of native Oklahoma species and their various preferences and needs. Use of native species, such as the sugar hackberry, have the benefits of being already well suited for the region’s climate stresses. These plants don’t necessarily need to be native to your state either. According to the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture at Oklahoma State University, the Firecracker flower (Figure 1) is a native plant to India that grows well in Oklahoma.

Figure 1. Firecracker Flower, a drought-tolerant species. https://www.flickr.com/photos/adaduitokla/6115218718

Keep in mind that when picking plants that are not native to your region that some of these plants can be considered invasive. An invasive species is considered a non-native species that does or is likely to cause environmental or economic harm (Cal-IPC, 2012). Planting non-native species can hurt the local environment, but steps can be taken to mitigate this chance by doing research into plants that are not native to the area before planting. Now that you have spent a couple of minutes, or a couple of hours, looking for your favorite plants you begin to think again ‘Why should I do all this when I could plant whatever I want?’ So let me tell you why.

For one, when you pick plants that are well adapted to your local region your garden or lawn will perform better throughout the year. Less maintenance, such as less water, means more time and more money for yourself. Saving money is always a bonus, but the real bonus is saving water. Although we take it for granted, water is a resource that is greatly limited while also being completely essential to life. If people don’t make changes to their water use then we could see more places suffer as states like California have.

In 2015, California passed legislation in an attempt to reduce water usage by a whopping 25%, and with a growing population of 40 million this will become an increasingly difficult situation (Dimick, 2015). Some people may think that what water they don’t use won’t make that big of a difference, and on the individual scale this is true. But if a block, park, town, or city make more water efficiency based landscaping decisions this can make a big impact. For instance, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the average family uses more than 300 gallons of water each day. The EPA goes on to say that about 30% (90 gallons) of this is used for outdoor purposes. With about 144,000 families in OKC, if you reduced the outdoor use of water by 5% (4.5 gallons) for each family it would be about 648,000 gallons.

All in all, what you should take away from this is that plants are not exempt from climate stresses just because they happen to be in a city or yard. This means that people need to make more conscious decisions of what they plant to save not only money but also valuable water resources. If we continue to ignore this aspect of landscaping and urban plant life we could see a more widespread threat to water resources similar to California. It is possible to have a beautiful landscape in your yards and parks, while also being water conscious. So the next time you think about your garden “Wont somebody please think of the plants!?”

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