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Drought spurs sales of water-stingy plants

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Ali DeVoid, garden center manager at Central Valley Builders Supply in St. Helena, said many of her customers these days have but one question: “Where are your drought tolerant plants?”

With the county and state facing its worst drought in decades and prospects for rain this winter uncertain, local garden center managers are reporting an uptick in inquiries and sales of water-conserving plants and materials.

“There is definitely increased interest in learning more about how to garden in drought,” said DeVoid. Customers want to switch out water-hungry plants. Others have lawns they want to reduce or re-landscape altogether.

Central Valley, which has garden centers in St. Helena and Napa, has adjusted accordingly, said DeVoid. “In the beginning of the year we made our drought tolerant plant section more prominent and larger.” Apparently, it worked.

“We definitely see a high turnover in our drought tolerant section,” said the manager, along with increased sales of irrigation supplies, mulch and organic fertilizer.

Jake Mikolajcik of Mid City Nursery in American Canyon said many of his customers also want to buy water-wise plants, but “aren’t sure what they are looking for.”

Often the answer is found in the buyer’s own yard.

“They may have plants that are already drought tolerant but that they are overwatering,” Mikolajcik said. “If you have a plant that is 5 to 6 years old, it probably doesn’t need water daily or every other day,” he noted. He suggested cutting back the water slowly and monitoring how the plants react. Also, water deeply but less frequently.

Even a regular lawn doesn’t have to be a water hog. “You can get away with watering two or three times a week instead of five to seven days a week,” Mikolajcik said. The lawn may have a little brown on it and not be in prime condition, but it will survive, he said.

And even if a customer does buy a drought tolerant plant, it still needs some water to get it established, Mikolajcik said. “You can’t just think ‘I don’t need to water it.’ The plant will fail.”

Michael Meredith, a sales person at DJ’s Growing Place on Big Ranch Road, said that he’s talked to a number of people who are replacing lawns because of the drought. Meredith said some are taking advantage of the city’s “Cash for Grass” program, where customers are paid $1 per square foot to replace their thirsty lawns with water-efficient landscaping.

The nursery, which grows much of its stock on site, offers a selection of California native and drought tolerant plants.

Shoppers these days “are coming in better informed than in the past. They have some ideas from research or the Internet” about water-wise plant selections. He estimated a 20 to 25 percent increase in such inquiries.

Meredith said that the curb appeal of drought tolerant plants has come a long way.

“In previous drought years, people pooh-poohed drought tolerant because they didn’t think it would look that good,” or the selection wasn’t as diverse.

“Now there’s a lot of drought tolerant plants that have flowers for good length of time and are more appealing” to look at, he said.

Even with the push toward water-wise plants and ground coverings, there are still some customers that want sod, said Mikolajcik. However, many are covering smaller areas, he noted.

“People aren’t doing huge jobs,” he said, and “lawn per square foot is still the cheapest way to cover an area. If watered properly it doesn’t have to be a big drain.

At Central Valley Builders Supply, “sales of sod are down 20 percent year to date, compared to last year to date,” said DeVoid. But some customers still ask for it. “Some don’t know what else to do.”


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Business Editor

Jennifer Huffman is the business editor and a general assignment reporter for the Napa Valley Register. I cover a wide variety of topics for the newspaper. I've been with the Register since 2005.

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