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Water-Wise Gardening Tips

Catherine is a proponent for responsible stewardship of our natural resources and covers topics of plant life and sustainable living.

Run-off water can be harvested in attractive rain barrels.

Run-off water can be harvested in attractive rain barrels.

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.
waterwise-gardening-tips

Turf Grass

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.

Garden Beds

  • 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.
This garden uses feathery ornamental grass, lantana, Russian sage, and statice.

This garden uses feathery ornamental grass, lantana, Russian sage, and statice.

Landscape Ideas

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

Muhlenbergia capillaris "Lenca"- pink muhly grass

Muhlenbergia capillaris "Lenca"- pink muhly grass

Container Gardens

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.

Raised Beds

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

Comments

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on February 08, 2020:

I hope you were able to get some helpful tips for your own garden. Thank you for your thoughtful comments!

:) Cat

franchesca-hp on February 07, 2020:

This is a great and informative article. :)

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on January 01, 2019:

My wife manages a gardening center, so we live a gardener's dream. :) Happy New Year to you!

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on August 21, 2018:

Thank you, Ethel. Sometimes situations force us to change our habits, and we actually benefit. Water-wise gardening lowers bills and makes maintenance so much easier. Rethinking the landscape design is also a way to update a home's curb appeal:)

Ethel Smith from Kingston-Upon-Hull on August 21, 2018:

Here we have just had our longest extended period of Summer heat since 1976. It was a reminder to be water efficient. Once the weather broke recently we have experienced some rainfall but probably not enough.

Thanks for an informative hub. It is useful for gardeners, will help keep gardens looking pretty but still protect precious water supplies

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on November 19, 2016:

Good morning, Bill! My husband & I are preparing for a complete overhaul of the front yard. The lawn has been brown for nearly a year since the annual rye over-seeding died back in spring. It takes a lot of effort to kill bermuda grass, and the roofers who just finished the new roof further trampled the beds. It's going to be hard work, but our vision keeps us motivated! Glad to hear that you are pleased with your efforts at conservation. I'd love to see what you've done in place of the old lawn. I think you've inspired a new question post.

Thanks for stopping by and being friendly:) I appreciate the kind comments.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on November 19, 2016:

See, this is what I'm talking about concerning no comments...I'm missing from this. LOL Anyway, great topic and tips. We are doing our part. We got rid of our lawn, we have rain barrels, and we are fairly pleased with our efforts so far. Still more to do, but I encourage everyone who reads this to be Earth-conscious and do your part. Thanks, Cat!

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on October 05, 2016:

Thank you, RT! The silver lining in drought conditions and other tough times is finding that we can adopt better habits and learn to be resourceful. I'm glad that I introduced you to kangaroo paws:) I appreciate your nice comments. Take care!

RTalloni on October 03, 2016:

Great info on watering wisely, something that is a good thing even when drought conditions are gone. Thanks for including the kangaroo paws as I've never seen them before. :)

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on June 15, 2016:

Hi Audrey! It seems that El Nino didn't bring what was predicted, so I agree. I hope that all is well with you:)

Audrey Howitt from California on June 15, 2016:

We are going to need these tips in California again this year I am afraid!!

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on March 01, 2016:

Hello Flourish! Glad you enjoyed some of the ideas here. There really are more attractive options than most people realize. I appreciate your kind comments. Thank YOU!

FlourishAnyway from USA on February 10, 2016:

Great attractive alternatives. Thank you for the gardening advice.

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on January 18, 2016:

Thank you, Thelma!

Thelma Alberts from Germany and Philippines on January 18, 2016:

Thanks for sharing these tips for gardening. Soon I will be in my tropical garden again. Beautiful hub!

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on January 14, 2016:

Hello Audrey. I'm glad that you enjoyed reading this hub and appreciate the kind comments. Ornamental grasses really do have a beautiful way of back-lighting other plants as well as adding graceful movement to the garden. Thank you!

Audrey Howitt from California on January 14, 2016:

Beautiful hub cat--I love ornamental grasses--and in California we have had to really change our watering habits

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on January 11, 2016:

Thank you, John! I appreciate your thoughtful comments. Wishing you all good things for 2016- Cat:)

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on January 10, 2016:

A hub packed full of good advice Cat, and topped off with beautiful pics of plants. Good to see some favourite Aussie natives too. Happy New Year.

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on January 09, 2016:

Hi Genna! I'm glad that some of these tips will come in handy this spring. I hope you're enjoying your milder winter after all that snow last year:) Thanks for your kind comments.

All the best for 2016!

Cat:)

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on January 09, 2016:

As someone who loves to garden, I found this hub very informative. I think a common mistake is over-watering -- both indoors and out. You've given me some wonderful pointers to try out next spring. Thank you!

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on January 09, 2016:

Thank you, Frank! Best wishes to you too for a bright and healthy 2016:)

Frank Atanacio from Shelton on January 09, 2016:

thank you cat for these gardening and watering tips.. this article is useful and educational too bless you and Happy New Year