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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 lawn watering is allowed only twice a week for 8 minutes. We hope for rain and snow pack, but it will still take successive years to replenish the depleted groundwater and reservoirs that have sustained us.

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 Mediterranean climate is better suited for the less thirsty plants of Australia and our own native 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 landscapes until now. Does this mean that verdant yards must be replaced with rocks, mulch or chaparral? Thankfully, no. We can still have attractive landscapes in our favorite styles while preserving our most precious resource. The one constant is efficient irrigation.

Make 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 adjusting our irrigation delivery. The goal is to get plants to grow deep roots that draw water and require less surface irrigation. Here are some tips:

  • Evaluate your soil type. Clay soil holds water while sandy ones drain quickly. Some soils are hydrophobic and don't allow water to penetrate at all. This can be corrected with a surfactant that breaks the surface tension. They are available at garden centers under names like EZ Wet and are made from natural saponins.
  • Use a moisture probe to see if watering is even necessary. You may only need to water a few small spots rather than a large area.
  • Run lawn sprinklers between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m. The cooler air minimizes evaporation yet the sun will soon be up to dry moisture from grass blades and leaves.
  • Use efficient irrigation. The newer lawn 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 and run-off.
  • Avoid putting drip and sprinklers on the same circuit.
  • Water deeply. Longer and less frequent irrigation allows the water to get to the root zone.
  • Practice cycle watering. If water begins to runoff target areas, turn off the sprinklers until the water soaks in, then run again a little later. This is recommended for poor drainage, slopes, and compacted areas affected by drought. Less water is lost through runoff.
  • Consider swales or French drains to redirect rainfall or excess run-off to needed areas.
  • Reset sprinkler controllers as seasons change. Timers should be manually turned off during rains. This will save both water and money. Better yet, get a Smart wifi timer which allows for adjustments when away from home.
  • Irrigation systems need to be checked annually and maintained regularly for proper water pressure, leaks, clogged heads, and alignment.

Turf Grass

Drought conditions are leading many of us remove our lawns and explore alternative landscapes. This is a sensible approach, but it does require a change in mind set.

For established turf areas with mature trees, it many be difficult to fully eliminate turf without damage to tree roots. All the more reason to have a better understanding of lawn care to make the right choices.

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. A moisture probe will tell you if the spot is dry. 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 water 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. Rapid growth requires more water and encourages insects. Opt for slow release organic products that improve soil structure and attract the earthworms that naturally aerate our lawns.
  • Cool season grasses like rye and Marathon dwarf fescue will slow during hot summers. Apply fertilizer in fall and water as needed when growth peaks. Bare spots should be annually reseeded during cool weather to keep the turf from getting clumpy and overtaken by weeds.
  • Warm season varieties like Bermuda and St. Augustine begin to go brown as temperatures drop. Give them feedings in spring. These grasses will also recover from brown spots when irrigation returns because they store nutrients in their stolons and rhizomes. These grasses typically need periodic dethatching and aeration for good water penetration.

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, and many California natives don't tolerate summer irrigation.
  • Use drip emitters or bubblers to individual plants and place them 6" out from the plant center.
  • Use soaker hoses in flower beds and around trees.
  • Rain barrel systems are a win-win. Many double as planters and some qualify for rebates in drought-stricken states.
  • Consider gray water use. Using reclaimed water is one of the most practical things we can do. You'll be surprised at how much water is saved by filling containers when waiting for hot water, redirecting laundry water, or converting to a full yard system. I use Oasis biocompatible laundry detergent to avoid salt burn.
  • Apply mulches. 3" or more keeps evaporation to a minimum, encourages earthworms, and cools roots. Place 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, gravel and compost. Shredded cedar or redwood stands up better to wind and blowers than chunky mulches and doesn't require as much nitrogen to break it down. Gravel is a better option in fire risk areas.
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 for any garden style.

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Read More From Dengarden

  • Bulbs, rhizomes, and tuberous plants work very well in water-wise gardens as do most woody shrubs and trees and vines.
  • Agave and succulents add beautiful diversity along with flowy ornamental grasses, and bladed New Zealand flax and cordylines.
  • Australian plants like bottle-brush, banksia, kangaroo paw, grevillea, and leucadendron give gardens unique textures and that "WOW- factor and are well-suited for contemporary gardens among others.
  • Heat-loving salvia, verbena, lantana, Jerusalem sage, penstemon, cosmos, black-eyed Susan, lion's tail, dianthus and yarrow are water-smart cottage favorites.
  • Citrus, pomegranate, olive, pineapple guava, lavender, arbutus, and rosemary are just a few among the many Mediterranean specimens suited for drier climates.
  • Bird of Paradise, canna lilies, bromeliads, palms, cycads, and plumeria are just a few among the water-wise tropical plant selections.

Consider reducing turf areas with planted islands, meandering walkways or dry creeks. Expanding flower beds and accenting them with well-placed rocks and lighting adds lushness without high water need. Ground covers serve as living mulches, add contrast and color, and provide shelter for small wildlife.

Birdbaths and garden seating break up visual monotony while adding function. Interspersed container gardens and empty pottery tumbles add even more visual interest and can be easily moved. Unleash your creativity!

California Native Plants

Native plants are equipped to handle our hot summer climates because they go dormant when it gets dry. Available for sun and shade, they are generally water-wise and benefit our native fauna. Most bloom in spring before temperatures climb or in fall when days cool; however, those suited for coastal or riparian woodlands may not do well inland. During the summer periods of rest, water applications should be minimal at best for established plants. Plant in late fall through early spring allowing time to get acclimated. Planting in fall actually shortens the establishment period.

It may take 1- 3 years for a plant to get fully established. Even if it is growing well above the soil, the roots are still developing. Supplemental water will need to be ample but infrequent during this period.

At the beginning, check soil moisture once a week and only water when the top 3"- 4" is completely dry. I use a 3-4 gallon bucket and water around the berm rather than overhead or at the trunk. Never let the root ball completely dry out. Smaller plants can dry out faster, so checking moisture to a 2" depth is a better rule of thumb. The need for supplemental water will eventually taper off to once or twice a month depending on soil type, temperature, and sun exposure. When using drip emitters, watering again should be efficient and infrequent. This means running the drip for an hour or more and checking saturation. Eventually the emitters should be moved further away from the crown.

Many natives can get quite large, so plan carefully for smaller gardens and also consider seasonal bloom placement. I always remember the adage, "the first year they sleep, the second year they creep, and the third year they leap."

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 placing in the root ball. This can be repeated if the soil is very dry.
  • 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 don't need special amendments but they do like mulch. Leaf mulch mimics nature and easily breaks down for nutrients. Gravel is also a good choice.
  • The basin around the plants should be left in place until the plant is well rooted. Usually one year.
  • Mulch will keep roots cool but should be spread out at least 6" from the plant's center.
  • Check plants weekly to start for new plantings. Set irrigation timers at interval settings rather than for specific days. The goal is to widen the interval until watering is optimal for the specific plant, soil, and conditions. Hot summers and windy days may require more irrigation but should be minimal at best for established plants.

Container Gardens

Watering is much easier to control in containers. Use 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 are other 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 minimal and easy to remove.

Raised beds are also great for pollination and cut flower gardens. They can be sized for easy access, built from wood or stacking stone, or purchased in metal.

During my years in the nursery, I saw many plants brought in with watering issues. It was not uncommon to see one that was both overwatered and dehydrated at the same time! A plant that receives too much shallow water can rot at the soil level but have a completely dry root ball. At other times, a container plant could feel dry on top but have fungus gnats and a saturated root ball from clogged or non-existent drainage holes.

Learning individual plant needs, using the right tools, and getting clarification for the "establishment period" of a newly planted favorite can take the guesswork out of gardening. By using these tips, enjoying a beautiful garden while saving water should be a whole lot easier.

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


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 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 Gondwana Land 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!


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

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