Water-Wise Gardening Tips
We are in a period of global warming, and there is no denying that many parts of the world are struggling with serious water shortages. Here in my state, residents are being asked to cut their usage by 25%, and landscape irrigation is allowed only twice a week. Heavy rain and snow pack will help, but it will take successive years of it to replenish the depleted groundwater that has sustained us through years of drought.
Californians have grown used to the sweeping lawns and lush flower beds that came West with migration and have stayed in fashion ever since even though our climate is better suited for our native plants or at least Mediterranean ones. When driving through any residential neighborhood, you might notice that nearly every home has a sizable patch of green in its front yard. We have managed for nearly a century to sustain these thirsty landscapes until now. Does this mean that verdant yards must be replaced with rocks, mulch or chaparral? Thankfully, no!
Consider Adjustments to Your Watering Routine
It may surprise you to learn that more plants die from too much water than not enough. Over watering encourages bacterial disease and the proliferation of fungi which naturally live in the soil. This is why we see toadstools and slime molds after rains and why powdery mildew, rust, and black spot show up after dewy mornings and during humid summers. We can't control rainfall, but we can make a difference by changing water timers and adjusting our irrigation delivery.
- Run lawn sprinklers between 4 am and 8 am. This is off-peak time, and the cooler air minimizes evaporation yet the sun will soon be up to dry grass blades and leaves.
- Use efficient sprinklers. The newer sprinkler heads sit closer to the ground and slowly rotate with an even stream of water making them 30% more water efficient. Less water is wasted through evaporation.
- Water longer but less frequently. Even during the hottest months, lawns benefit from less frequent deep watering than from numerous surface waterings. 15-20 min. twice a week is more productive than 5 -10 min. 4 times a week.
- Practice Cycle watering. If water begins to run onto concrete areas, turn off the sprinklers until the water soaks in, then run again a little later. This cycle-watering is good practice for poor drainage and compacted areas affected by drought. Less water is lost through run-off.
- Reset your sprinkler timers. Timers should be adjusted seasonally and manually turned off during rains. This will save both water and money. Better yet, consider a Smart WiFi timer which allows for adjustments when away from home.
Brown patches on lawns are hard to diagnose, even for a nursery professional. What we think of as dry areas are often fungal infections, and watering to fix them actually makes them worse. If the patch continues to grow outward, it is usually disease related. A thirsty lawn area will take on a wilted, bluish tint in heat and can be spot watered as needed.
- Deep watering promotes healthy roots.
- Mulch with lawn clippings.
- Keep your lawn mower blade sharp and the grass a little longer in summer months.
- Reduce fertilizer applications in summer. This will lower the need for water.
Slow release organic feedings improve soil structure and attract earthworms. Rapid growth requires more water and encourages insects. Water more when growth peaks. Reduce irrigation when it slows. With a few exceptions, brown lawns indicate dormancy. Most will recover with good seasonal rainfall.
- Cool season grasses like rye and Marathon dwarf fescue will slow during hot summers. Apply fertilizer in fall.
- Warm season varieties like Bermuda and St. Augustine begin to go brown as temperatures drop. Give them feedings in spring.
- Group plants with similar water needs together.
- Give new plantings the benefit of cooler seasons to get established. In the West, fall is the best season to add shrubs, natives, and hearty perennials. Elsewhere, spring is best. Well-rooted plants can better withstand the stresses of summer heat.
- Rain barrel systems are a win-win. Many double as planters and some qualify for rebates in drought-stricken states.
- Consider gray water for filling water cans. You'll be surprised at how much water you can save.
- Use soaker hoses, drip emitters, and bubblers in your garden beds. Existing sprinkler heads can be easily converted.
- Apply mulches. They keep evaporation to a minimum, encourage earthworms, and cool roots. Place them 4-6" away from plant centers.They can be made from cardboard sheets and layers of uncolored newspaper. Other options are straw, wood chips, coir fiber, leaves, and compost.
Tip:It takes more nitrogen to break down the carbon in chunky mulches, so supplemental fertilizer may be needed.
There are so many viable alternatives to thirsty plants and better ways to handle those that you can't give up.
- Bulbs, rhizomes, and tuberous plants like dahlia, Dayliles, bearded iris, and Agapanthus are nice additions to water-wise gardens as are most woody shrubs and trees.
- Agave and succulents add beautiful diversity along with flowy ornamental grasses, and New Zealand Flax.
- Australian and South African specimens like kangaroo paw, grevillea, and Leucodendron give gardens unique touches and that "WOW- factor."
- Heat-loving salvia, Jerusalem sage, penstemon, and yarrow are water-smart cottage favorites.
- Citrus, pomegranate, lavender, and rosemary are just a few among the many Mediterranean specimens suited for drier climates.
Consider reducing turf areas with meandering walkways or dry creeks. Expanding flower beds and accenting them with well-placed rocks and attractive ground cover adds lushness without high water need.
Birdbaths and garden benches break up visual monotony while adding function. Interspersed container gardens and empty pottery tumbles add even more visual interest and flexibility with ease of movement. Unleash your creativity!
California Native Plants
Native plants are equipped to handle hot, dry summer climates. They are great choices and benefit our native fauna. Many can get quite large when mature, so make selections carefully for smaller yards.There are selections for both sun and shade. Most bloom in fall or spring then go dormant when temperatures climb. During these periods of rest, water applications should be minimal at best. Although they can be planted any time of the year, late fall is the best. This gives them a cool season to get established in time for spring bloom.
How To Plant California Natives
- Choose well draining soil and dig a hole the same depth as the root ball and twice as wide.
- Fill the hole with water and let it drain before dropping in the root ball.
- Fill with the remaining back soil and make sure to tamp down well to eliminate air pockets.
- Create a basin around the plant and fill with water for slow percolation.
- Native plants rarely need amendments or fertilizer but will need water until fully established, usually after they get through a hot summer.
- The basin around the plants should be left in place until the plant is well rooted. Usually 6 months to a 1 year.
- Mulch will keep roots cool but should be spread out at least 4"-6" from the plant's center.
- Set Irrigation timers at interval settings rather than for specific days. The goal is to widen the interval until watering is just once per week. Hot summers and windy days will require more irrigation. Irrigation should be minimal at best during winter and at times of rain.
Ornamental Grasses Add a Flowy Look and Combine with Other Shrubs like Pittosporum, Nandina, and Kangaroo Paws
Unique Heat-Tolerant Plants That Add That "Wow-Factor"Click thumbnail to view full-size
Watering is much easier to control in containers. Use of a moisture meter probe To take away the guesswork. Beautiful plant combinations can be creatively arranged using the "thriller, filler, and spiller" guideline. As long as the choices have the same water and light needs, you can really have some fun!
Pots can be easily moved as sun exposure and temperatures change.There are so many styles and materials from which to choose. Just make sure there are adequate drainage holes. Should a ceramic pot shatter, save the pieces to incorporate in concrete as mosaic stepping stones for your garden path.
When soil is too hard for digging or there root obstacles, a raised bed may be the solution. Adapted from the French Intensive style of vegetable gardening in the 1800s, these easily accessible beds are filled with loose and friable soil. Plants can be spaced much more closely so they touch when mature. This keep weeds out. Those that do manage to sprout can be easily removed. Raised beds are also great for pollination and cut flower gardens. They should be sized for easy access so there is no soil compaction.
Tips for Healthy Growth While Saving Water
Plants can suffer from root-rot but still perish from dehydration. How? Frequent shallow watering will affect surface roots and weaken them, yet the deeper roots can be bone dry. When in doubt about moisture levels, probe the soil to a depth of 4". If it is dry, water accordingly. Moisture meters are available on line and in garden centers. In larger areas, a spade works great to to check water penetration. Clay soil will hold water longer than sandy soil which drains quickly.
Consider too when your plant is actively growing. Water needs will fluctuate with seasonal growth cycles. This is true for both houseplants and outdoor specimens. Water-wise doesn't sacrifice beauty, it just makes us rethink our practices and the elements of our gorgeous garden palettes so we can work with nature and not against it.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2016 Catherine Tally