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Drought affecting landscaping strategy

A landscaping revolution called xeriscape promises to change the face of Florida as the state's booming population outgrows a shrinking water supply. The technique requires increased use of native and drought-resistant plants coupled with common-sense watering, mulching and soil preparation to decrease outdoor water use up to 80 percent.

Advocates say it not only saves water, but requires less work to maintain and can cut the cost of keeping a yard beautiful.

Xeriscape has gained impetus from a two-year drought that has much of Florida carefully rationing water. That inconvenience could turn permanent unless residents change their attitude toward yards and gardens, which now receive about half of the state's water consumption.

"We think of Florida as lushy-gushy, but this is not a tropical area _ we have long dry periods," says Kurt Harclerode, who works on the program for the South Florida Water Management District. "We have to rethink our ideas of a landscape, and I think xeriscape is going to be the norm in a few years."

The term xeriscape was coined in 1981 by Denver water authorities searching for ways to deal with chronic shortages. It has grown in popularity in California and the arid Southwest, and is beginning to catch on in Florida, especially in water-short Naples and Fort Myers, says Harclerode. The St. Johns district in northeast Florida is also beginning its own program.

District polls here show that 30 percent of water customers are familiar with the term xeriscape, and that number is growing.

The most exotic _ but not necessarily the most important _ aspect of xeriscaping is the use of native or drought-resistant plants long ignored by landscapers in favor of grasses, trees and flowers from outside Florida.

There is no reason, advocates say, that purple-flowered orchid trees, 40-foot yellow-and-green golden shower trees and slash pine, among countless others, cannot replace thirstier varieties.

Plants like the lavender-blossomed lantana, the bright yellow beach sunflower and red firecracker plant _ which is salt tolerant and flowers year-round _ are available for water-stingy ground cover.

Kerry Godwin, a landscape architect, employed xeriscaping from scratch in the Bonita Bay development, and says it makes business sense, as well as conservation sense.

"It saves money, both on installation and long-term maintenance, and it also saves money by cutting down on water use," Godwin says.

While plants and trees can help, the biggest single water use is the lawn. In xeriscaping, the principle is to reduce the amount of turf grass to the minimum, and shape it so that sprinkler systems do not waste water.

Home owners who try xeriscaping say they like it. Basil Coule, a West Palm Beach accountant with a home along the Intracoastal Waterway, began using the xeriscape principle a dozen years ago _ even before it had a formal name. He has eliminated unnecessary grassy areas, and uses mulch on all his ground cover, saving water, weeding and worry.

"Xeriscape frees you from being hostage to changes in the weather patterns," Coule says. "You can roll with the punches."

For people who need and want grass, an alternative to that in use across much of Florida is in the final experimental stages of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences laboratory in Fort Lauderdale.

For almost two years _ coinciding with one of the state's worst droughts _ a variety of grass known as FX10 has grown without any artificial watering at all, and it's thriving, says Phil Busey, head of the research project.

But yard-owners waiting for FX10 or who cannot afford to re-landscape can take advantage of xeriscaping as well.

"There's an unwillingness by many who believe you have to make a dramatic change to xeriscape," says Tommy Iaello, chairman of the landscape division of the Florida Nursery Growers Association. "That's a fallacy. Water-saving maintenance principles can be used in any landscape."

Much of the water used on grass is wasted, he says. Midday watering _ now banned because of the shortage _ is particularly senseless.

"Probably 60 percent of this water won't even reach the root system," Iaello says. Watering two hours before dawn every three or four days works far better than the shorter, more frequent pattern many residents use.

Allowing clippings to lie where they fall, and not cutting the grass too short, are other methods to decrease stress on grass, and thus save water.

Besides timing lawn-watering more carefully, mulching ground cover areas is an easy way to lock water into the soil and keep weeds out _ saving both maintenance and money.

So far xeriscaping around the country is voluntary. California even provides an incentive, says Harclerode, a "cash-for-grass" program to persuade land owners to decrease the amount of turf. But eventually, xeriscape is likely to become the law of the land, especially in Florida.

"We have continued growth and we have a limited supply of good water," he says. "We are not going to be able to afford to throw that water on our lawns."

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