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Pacific Northwest | September 5, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineSeptember 5, home
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A Public Service
With help, we're tuning in to turning off the water
The Saving Water Partnership has adopted the tag line "A Better Way to Beautiful" to illustrate that looking good and doing good are perfectly compatible.

If you've been kicking yourself for not installing an irrigation system before yet another dry summer, you can give it a rest. Turns out you've probably saved both water and money. Seattle Public Utilities has found that two-thirds of their peak high-summer water users (meaning gardeners) have automatic irrigation systems. "The systems are wasteful," says the utility's Nota Lucas, estimating that up to half of all water used by an irrigation system is wasted. People think they're being conscientious, until they're shocked by a monstrous water bill.

The utility's resource-conservation program is dedicated to helping gardeners learn more environmentally friendly and efficient practices. The Saving Water Partnership (formed by the utility and its purveyors) offers rebates to encourage customers to upgrade their irrigation systems. Lucas suggests existing systems can be improved with shut-off devices that measure and respond to rainfall or even state-of-the art controllers that can "read" the weather and adapt to changing patterns.

I met Lucas more than a decade ago, when droughty summers weren't even a blip on a Northwest gardener's radar screen and we were setting flip-flop sprinklers to keep the lawns green. But Lucas made sure that the Miller Horticultural Library had a collection of books on drought-tolerant gardening, providing funding so gardeners would have the information they needed to change with the weather. Which is just what the Saving Water Partnership is promoting today through its Natural Lawn and Garden Hotline, classes and publications.
Now In Bloom

Ocimum basilicum or sweet basil, ready for harvest in late summer, is a culinary herb in the mint family — vital in Italian tomato sauces and pesto, as well as in Thai cooking. Basil shouldn't be planted outside until the night temperature stays above 50 degrees. Pinch off its flower heads to promote leafy growth. 'Dark Opal' (above) has deep purple-red leaves and pink flowers and 'Cinnamon Basil' has spice-scented, purple-flushed leaves.

This year the utility's theme has been "A Better Way to Beautiful," the point being that there's no conflict between garden aesthetics and sound gardening practices. Gardeners can have both. Lucas thinks that looking ahead to droughty times by preparing the soil, adding compost, planting the right plants in the right places and mulching are the routes to a healthy, lovely garden. "We'd love people to follow a natural model, like in the forest where the leaves that drop feed the soil and form a mulch and rain is absorbed into the ground. We've unfortunately gotten so far away from that idea," Lucas says with a sigh.

While the cornerstone of the Water Saving Partnership's work is education, it doesn't hesitate to nudge us in the pocketbook to move landscaping ethics along. Partnering with retailers and nurseries, it offered discounts on soaker hoses and widely distributes free Natural Lawn and Garden guides. Lucas believes that through education and incentives, there's been a real awakening about the benefits of mulching mowers and the dangers of weed-and-feed products. "It's heart-warming to see how people have changed their minds about some of their gardening practices," she says, referring to a recent series of workshops the utility put on in Columbia City as part of the "Natural Neighborhoods" program.

This month, more than 30 stores and nurseries are offering compost at a discount as part of the utility's Northwest Natural Yard Days program. But what about compost tea and mulch? "We have questions about mulch, and we haven't taken a stand on compost tea," says the utility's Carl Woestwin, a landscape-team leader. For years, the partnership recommended mulching with free wood chips from tree services, but lately there have been too many complaints that chips shed water and build up into thick, impenetrable layers. "It doesn't appear to be the solution for everyone," says Woestwin, who has commissioned a search of the literature to figure out what's best to recommend on the hotline.

The hotline, at 206-633-0224, staffed through a contract with Seattle Tilth, offers ecologically sound answers to gardening questions, although you might have to wait a few months on mulch until the research is complete. Information on compost discounts and other incentive programs can be found at, where the Natural Lawn and Garden guides can be downloaded. The guides, which this fall will begin featuring lists of plants for specific and difficult situations, are also available at nurseries, or can be ordered through the hotline.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer. Her e-mail address is Barry Wong is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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