By David Ostdiek, UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center
Landscape water conservation is a major focus for University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Educator Jim Schild, at the Scotts Bluff County office of UNL's Panhandle Research and Extension Center.
Geography makes water conservation a priority in Nebraska's semi-arid Panhandle, which receives an average of 15 to 17 inches of precipitation yearly, about half that of Lincoln. So homeowners can potentially use a lot of water just to keep their surroundings green.
Lawns, gardens and other landscaping account for a significant portion of domestic water consumption in western Nebraska. Public water systems must have enough capacity to meet summer demand that is three to four times higher than winter water use, according to Schild.
Schild's program to educate about and promote landscape water conservation has several main focus areas:
First is reducing outside water use at the Panhandle Center. One way of doing this is planting buffalo grass to replace bluegrass. The native turf has been planted in three sites at the center so far, and Schild said he hopes to convert other areas.
He teamed with Extension turfgrass specialist Roch Gaussoin, head of UNL's Department of Agronomy and Horticulture to write or update a pair of Extension publications on buffalo grass (Establishing Buffalo grass Turf in Nebraska, G1946, and Management of Buffalo grass Turf in Nebraska, G1947 ). He also worked with the North Platte Natural Resources District at Scottsbluff and City of Gering to establish buffalo grass rebate programs and educate homeowners on caring for buffalo grass.
In sites around the Panhandle Center where turf isn't really needed, trees, shrubs and mulch beds or perennial beds have been planted. These can be watered with drip irrigation to reduce total water use. Center landscaping also features many native plants, such as mountain mahogany, skunk bush sumac, gambel oak, and rabbit brush.
Walking tours during the Panhandle Center's annual field day/open house event give the public a chance to see these landscape concepts in practice.
Grounds around the center are the site of the D.A. Murphy Panhandle Arboretum, and another public outreach tool is a brochure published by the Panhandle Center's Arboretum Committee. It describes plantings on the grounds and features a map for self-guided walking tours.
Another focus for Schild is conducting a turf trial at Gering Cemetery in cooperation with Gaussoin and graduate student Scott Dworak. The trial compares the response of 34 different varieties, blends and mixtures of turf grasses to deficit irrigation. Strips receive variable amounts of irrigation, ranging from none to 100 percent of evapo-transpiration (ET) requirements. Each strip is evaluated on color, stand density and recovery. This is the fourth year of the trial, conducted in conjunction with the City of Gering and its Parks and Cemetery Departments.
A third area where Schild concentrates his efforts is conducting public workshops on "Making Every Drop Count" around the home, teaming up with Annie Folck, City of Scottsbluff Storm Water Coordinator, and Amy Seiler, Nebraska Forest Service Community Forestry Specialist.
Schild's part of this effort is working with homeowners to help them conduct lawn irrigation water audits to determine where water inefficiencies exist. Seiler speaks about sustainable landscapes, mulching tree beds, using zone irrigation, and grouping plants in zones according to similar water needs. Folck talks about implementing rain gardens and utilizing rainwater runoff in the landscape instead of diverting it into the city's stormwater drains.
Schild also coordinates UNL Extension's Master Gardener Program in Scotts Bluff County. In recent years, conserving water in the landscape has been a focus of the series of educational programs presented to master gardener volunteers. The same theme is emphasized in a series of 30-second radio public service announcements (PSAs) that some of the Master Gardener volunteers write and record and which then are sent to radio stations throughout the Panhandle area.
Jim Schild in one of the buffalograss turf areas at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center
Jim Schild and Amy Seiler, Nebraska Forest Service Community Forestry Specialist, plant a viburnum as part of a trial on the grounds of the Panhandle Research and Extension Center