Originally created 07/09/02

Landscaping method on rise in dry areas



ROSWELL, Ga. - When Glynn Groszman moved onto a shady side street in Roswell, just north of Atlanta, 14 years ago, his front and back yards were covered with grass from one end to the other.

But try as he might, he couldn't keep his lawn growing in the shady areas without using copious amounts of water, a practice that made the environmental activist uncomfortable.

"After a while, I was knocking my head saying, 'Why am I trying to grow this where it doesn't want to grow?"' said Mr. Groszman, the water-issues leader for the local chapter of the Sierra Club.

Gradually, he started covering the shady areas with pine straw, creating a border around the perimeter of his quarter-acre back yard and islands around the trees.

"I kept shrinking the grass," he said. "Eventually, the islands and borders merged. Now, I have islands of grass."

What Mr. Groszman is practicing is a form of "xeri-scaping," a term coined during a water-conservation landscaping initiative launched by the Denver Water Department in 1981. It's an approach to landscaping that saves water by taking into account what grows best in a given area.

"You plant suited to your climate," said Mary Ann Dickinson, the executive director of the California Urban Water Conservation Council. "Local plants don't require extra irrigation because they're native to the area to begin with."

Xeriscaping isn't widespread in suburban Atlanta, an affluent expanse of manicured lawns with built-in sprinkler systems. Water conservation wasn't an issue before the region was hit by the current drought, now into its fifth year, and by rapid population growth that has begun to put stress on water supplies.

But it's the law of the land in some parts of the country. Albuquerque, N.M., has required xeriscaping in all new development since 1995. Owners of new homes are allowed to cover no more than 20 percent of their property with "high-water" turf.

Jean Witherspoon, the city's water conservation officer, said her department has published a guide and two videos instructing owners of residential and commercial properties in xeriscaping techniques.

"At first, it was mostly cactus and gravel," she said. "It's getting much more creative as landscape architects have gotten into it."

For older homes, Albuquerque offers rebates to water customers who install xeri-scaping.

A 10-year-old Florida law requires the state's water-management districts to develop similar incentives to encourage xeriscaping and to oversee public-education efforts.

Katherine Pordeli, the water conservation program manager for the St. Johns River Water Management District in Florida, said the 20-hour noncredit classes offered by the district at local community colleges often are filled to capacity. Free half-day workshops provided by local water utilities also are proving popular, she said.

Ms. Pordeli said mandatory outdoor watering restrictions in the drought-stricken state have been a driving force behind the strong public interest in xeriscaping.

"So much of this is in the newspapers," she said. "It's making people think in this direction."

As for Mr. Groszman, he has replaced much of his grass with shrubs and trees that don't require much watering.

"I don't have to water the lawn at all," he said. "With all the drought we've had, I haven't had it go brown on me once."