Managing Water Use

In most gardens, rain coming off the roof can be a problem, damaging plants and overwhelming storm drains. But at Michael and Michele's, it's a resource. Austin gets 32 inches of rain in an average year—nearly as much as Seattle—but it comes in spurts between long, hot dry periods. As a result, most plants, other than true natives, need irrigation. That often means using municipal water.

To reduce that dependency, the couple installed a rainwater collection system with help from Innovative Water Solutions. Like the rain barrels that many homeowners use, their system collects gutter water. But while typical rain barrels hold 50 to 80 gallons, Michael and Michele's epoxy-coated, galvanized cistern, which sits aboveground, holds 1,200 gallons and feeds most of the irrigation. The capacity will depend on how full the tank is at the beginning of each storm, but it has the potential to collect nearly 30,000 gallons in a year.

Water is drawn through a floating filter 8 inches below the surface, rather than from the bottom of the tank where debris collects. The tank is also plumbed for city water so that the irrigation system will work when the tank is empty. And there is a pump to boost the water pressure up to the 40 psi needed.

To make every drop count, Michael and Michele are using drip irrigation, which delivers moisture to roots in just the quantity that each plant needs. Sprinklers still feed the lawn, but everything else now gets water through a combination of drip hose and 6-inch-tall emitters that are fed by underground tubing. The emitters deliver a precise amount of water to specific plants—1 gallon per hour for one, maybe 3 gallons for another. And an electronic control allows the couple to adjust the system to suit the weather.

Using Sustainable Hardscaping

Before subdivisions blanketed the land, rainwater fell on meadows and forests and gradually percolated into the soil. Some worked its way into streams, while the rest pooled in underground aquifers, which today supply the wells on which many communities depend. Sustainable landscapes attempt to preserve what's left of this natural water cycle by keeping impervious paving to a minimum. This allows more rainwater to soak into the soil, rather than draining off quickly.

Michael and Michele's old backyard included a concrete walkway. Now that's gone, replaced by pea gravel. The path is lined with blocks of limestone, which is quarried locally—a "green" plus because it cuts down on fuel needed for transportation. Kirkpatrick also recycled chunks of the old concrete, setting them as stepping stones down the middle of the path so Michele can take kitchen scraps to the compost area in her bare feet.

In the side yards, paths are "paved" with pine straw collected from woods near Austin—the same material used to mulch the plant beds. Up against the limestone and juxtaposed with the locally adapted plants, the straw adds to the natural appearance of this deceptively well-planned landscape. With as little maintenance as possible, this yard will function the way the landscape in Austin would without the presence of people—just the low—impact plan Michele and Michael were going for.
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