I was surprised to learn that the annual average precipitation in North Texas is 41.01” and it’s fairly evenly distributed throughout the year. The driest month of the year is August with 2.16” and the wettest month of the year is May with 5.68”. When we look strictly at the numbers, 41” is a little more than ¾” of rainfall a week, which is sufficient to sustain our landscapes. What the numbers don’t reveal is that on occasion the 5” is the result of two rain events (at times on consecutive days), and the 2” rain may be when temperatures can exceed 100 degrees for days (or weeks) on end.
This means that to be good custodians of our water resources, and manage our water bills, we need to do a little sleuthing. I’m going to give you a few tips that will help you water more efficiently.
I know that some of you though, just want to set your controller and forget about it, and I promise I don’t judge. But if you’re going to take this approach, I would encourage you to invest in a Smart Controller that uses evapotranspiration sensors to determine when and how long the system should run. Add another layer of protection by installing a Rain and Freeze Sensor to prevent the system from operating while it’s raining or during freezing conditions.
Here are my tips:
Tip #1: Water Only When Needed
Unless water restrictions allow watering only on certain days, turn off your automatic sprinkler system and check the weather and the soil every 3-4 days before turning it on. It may seem obvious, but how many times have we watered, only to have it rain soon after?
Weather has an impact on how much water plants need. Cool temperatures, high humidity, shade and no wind will reduce the need for irrigation, whereas hot temperatures, low humidity, relentless sun and blustery wind will increase the need for irrigation.
Your finger is the best tool for checking soil moisture. Bury your index finger in the soil up to the second knuckle; you’ll be able to feel if the soil is damp and cool, or dry and hot. If you want to save your manicure, consider purchasing a soil moisture meter. They are inexpensive and inserting the probe in the soil will take the guesswork out of when to water your plants.
Tip #2: The Time of Day Matters
When plants show signs of water stress it's time to water them no matter the time of day - waiting too long may be too late. But keep in mind that most plants will wilt in the heat of the afternoon, especially when planted in full sun. Plants that are wilted or have curling leaves in the morning are in need water. Signs of water stress in turf is a dull gray-green color and the blades don’t bounce back after walking on them.
Research has shown that the optimal time for watering the garden is early morning when temperatures and winds are lower, resulting in less evaporation. Watering in the morning gives plants a supply of water to make it through the heat of the day. Surprising new research shows that container plants grow best if watered in the afternoon. Try to avoid watering in the evening as wet foliage can encourage pathogens to grow.
Tip #3: Slow, Deep, Infrequent Watering is Best
Plants with deep root systems are healthier. Encourage roots to grow deep with slow and infrequent but deep watering. The general recommendation is to apply 1” of water per week for turf, shrubs and most perennials. Annual plants generally need more fertilizer and water, so hand water these areas if additional moisture is needed.
Tip #4: Maintain Your Irrigation System
Conduct a yearly audit or your irrigation system to check for breaks, leaks and underperforming components. An audit will also check to make sure the coverage is adequate and overspray is reduced. Information on irrigation system audits can be found at https://wateruniversity.tamu.edu/media/1176/drought_proofing_your_landscape_final.pdf
When conducting an audit, use catch cans to measure how long it takes for each zone to apply 1” of water.
Tip #5: Soak and Cycle
Some zones apply water faster than the ground can absorb it, especially in sloped areas. Use the Soak and Cycle feature on your controller to divide the amount of time into two or three short cycles, allowing 30 minutes between the cycles.
Tip #6: Water Efficiently
Drip systems or soaker hoses are ideal for conserving water because they place water where the plants need it (the roots) so there is very less evaporation, and plant diseases can be avoided by keeping water off the leaves.
Even if your irrigation system is in good shape, you might want to consider changing out the sprinkler heads with low volume heads. They produce larger droplets of water, reducing evaporation and overspray. Sprinkler heads can also be replaced with drip systems in some zones.
Place plants with similar water needs together. Once established trees and large shrubs, have very different needs than turf or seasonal color, and some plants are just thirsty. Placing these plants on the same zones allows you to deliver the amount of water to accommodate the needs of the plants in the zones – and makes it easy to hand water areas that need a little more pampering.
Tip #7: Add Organic Matter to the Soil
Adding organic matter loosens tight clay soils, improves drainage, and feeds the microbial elements in the soil which make nutrients available to plants. But organic matter also absorbs many times its weight in water, which is then made available to the plants. One of the easiest ways to build organic matter in the soil is to add a finished, plant based compost, but other options include worm castings, lawn clippings and shredded leaves.
Tip #8: Mulch, Mulch, Mulch
Mulch is one of the best and easiest strategies for holding moisture in the soil. Without a protective mulch layer, up to 70% of water can evaporate from the soil.
There are so many benefits to mulch: it breaks down and feeds the beneficial microbes in the soil, reduces the spread of soil borne diseases, reduces weeds, moderates soil temperature, keeps soil from crusting, keeps plants cleaner, and gives a finished look to the garden.
Organic mulch slowly decomposes into humus, which earthworms work deeply into the soil. Keep in mind that mulch breaks down faster in extreme heat, so you may need to reapply once or twice a year to maintain the recommended 3-4” layer. Choose a coarse textured, hardwood mulch to allow water and rain to percolate into the soil.
Tip #9: Collect Water
Rainwater harvesting is collecting the run-off from a roof or other surface to store it for later use. The water is collected in a storage vessel where it can be used to hand water plants. Rainwater can significantly reduce reliance on city water and helps with storm water management, but it’s also better for plants because it is low in pH, minerals and salts, and contains no chlorine.
Rain gardens are created in low lying areas on a property, by digging basins that are filled with soil amended with compost. The garden is then planted with water loving plants and the soil is covered by a thick layer of mulch. Rainwater is directed to the rain garden by way of pipes attached to a downspout, or by berms, gullies and dry rock creeks.
This will sound extreme to some, but these are some of the creative ways people collect water: 1. Save the water used to boil vegetables and pasta; it’s full of nutrients and when cool is appreciated by plants. 2. Place a bucket in the shower while the water is heating up and use it to give container plants a drink. 3. Rather than tossing away the old water when cleaning the fish tank, save it; this nitrogen and phosphorous rich water is free fertilizer.
Tip #10: Cultural Practices in the Garden Affect Water Use
We sometimes forget that routine garden maintenance can affect the growth of plants and therefore their need for water. Here are a few:
Reduce the use of fertilizer as it stimulates plant growth and increases the need for water.
Reduce the frequency of pruning as it promotes new growth that results in higher water use.
Control weeds that steal water from desirable plants.
When replacing plants, plant small sizes as they take less water to get established. Follow a watering schedule for the first thirty days so that water is gradually tapered off.
Remove failing or undesirable plants; they aren’t worth the water.
Tip #11: Reduce Turf
There are many benefits to turf. It provides a great place for children and pets to play, softens noise, reduces air pollution, and allows rain water to recharge groundwater rather than running off. But large areas of turf require a great deal of water and fertilizer to look it’s best. If you must have a large expense of turf, here are some tips to help reduce water needs:
Incorporate 3” of organic matter before planting seeds or laying sod. This will allow the roots to grow deeper and more easily draw water and nutrients from the soil.
Turf that has a lot of thatch (the building up or organic matter between the soil and the blades of grass) needs more water to survive. To prevent thatch, water infrequently but deeply, fertilize only in the spring and fall, and mow more often. Every three or four years, have the lawn aerated and sweep compost into the empty spaces.
Mow turf at the correct height. As temperatures increase in the summer, raise the mower blade. Taller grass promotes a deeper root system, grows slower, and shades the ground, thus reducing moisture evaporation from the soil.
Use a mulching mower to leave grass clippings on the lawn. This recycles plant nutrients and organic matter. Keep the mower blades sharp to make cleaner cuts that cause less water loss.
Tip #12: Choose Native Plants
Native plants are naturally adapted to our soil and climate. They are heat tolerant, drought tolerant, have lower water requirements, fewer pests and diseases, and require less fertilizer. Native plants are beautiful and can be found in a wide variety of colors, textures, sizes and shapes. Their beauty can be found in the form of flowers, foliage and berries.
For more information about native plants, look for my upcoming article on TAOLB website www.theartoflivingbeautifully.net. If you miss it, next month it will be posted on this blog.
Water is a precious resource and with the continued construction and increased population we are experiencing, water may become more costly and scarce. Evaluate your watering habits to avoid wasting water.