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Water-Wise Gardening Tips

Updated on September 27, 2017
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Catherine is a California certified nursery professional. Her interests are birds, insects, integrated pest management, & organic gardening.

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

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.

It has been shown that the best time to run lawn sprinklers is 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. It's sensible to avoid overhead watering in the evenings because the prolonged moisture on foliage is a main cause of common mildew and other fungal infections. The newer sprinkler heads sit closer to the ground and slowly rotate with an even stream of water making them 30% more water efficient. 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. 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. Resetting sprinkler timers seasonally and manually turning them off during rains will save both water and money. Better yet, consider a Smart WiFi timer which allows for adjustments when away from home.

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, and along with other good cultural practices like mulching with lawn clippings and mowing with a sharp blade, will help fend off insects and pathogens. Reducing fertilizer applications in summer will also lower the need for water. Slow release organic feedings improve soil structure and attract earthworms. Rapid growth requires more water and encourages insects. Consider the season. Cool season grasses like dwarf fescue and rye 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. 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.

Garden Beds

Weeping soaker-hoses, drip emitters, and bubblers are among the best irrigation devices for water-wise gardens. Some existing sprinkler heads can be easily converted. These used in conjunction with mulches will greatly reduce the need for water. Grouping plants with similar water needs together makes for more efficient water management. Selecting native plants when possible and giving new plantings the benefit of cooler seasons to get established will also help. 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. Annual bedding plants do best if started from seed, but those from 6-packs will thrive too if deeply watered during warmer months. I harvest the moisture run-off from my roof. Rain barrel systems are a win-win. Many double as planters and some qualify for rebates in drought-stricken states. Filling a bucket while waiting for shower water to get hot and using it to water container gardens is a good practice. I also use gray bath water for irrigation, and it surprises me how much fresh water I save!

Mulches 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.

It takes nitrogen to break down 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 practical ways to handle those favorites which do require more water. Bulbs, rhizomes, and tuberous plants like dahlia, daylily, 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, cordylines, and phormiums. Australian and South African specimens like kangaroo paw, grevillea, and leucodendron give gardens unique touches and that "WOW- factor." Hearty 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. Most bloom in fall or spring then go dormant when temperatures climb. During these periods of rest, water applications should be minimal at best. Late fall is the best time for planting. I recommend filling the hole with water and letting it drain before dropping in the root ball. I then fill with well-draining soil. California's indigenous selections rarely need amendments or fertilizer but will benefit from occasional deep watering until established.

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

Unique heat-tolerant plants that add that "WOW-factor"

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Anigozanthos -Kangaroo paws- beautiful Australian nativeGrevellia "molly"- spider flower- an Australian beauty
Anigozanthos -Kangaroo paws- beautiful Australian native
Anigozanthos -Kangaroo paws- beautiful Australian native
Grevellia "molly"- spider flower- an Australian beauty
Grevellia "molly"- spider flower- an Australian beauty

Container Gardens

Watering is much easier to control in containers, especially with the use of a moisture meter probe which takes 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 if needed too. 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 poor, or there are problems with inadequate penetration or excess water run-off, a raised bed may be the solution. Adapted from the French Intensive style of gardening from the 1800s, these easily accessible beds are filled with loose and friable soil. Plants can be spaced much more closely, so, when mature, they touch. This keep weeds out. Those that do manage to sprout can be easily removed. Raised beds require about 1/2 the water required for traditional gardens. I have a densely planted pollination bed for bees and butterflies. I especially recommend them for root crops and leafy greens.

Suggestions for Healthy Growth

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 also 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. When I plant from a 1 gallon or larger nursery container, I will dig the hole and fill it with water first. Once it has drained, I add my scoop of mycorrhizae to help with rooting and nutrient uptake, then drop in my plant and work in w/ amended back-fill. This tells me about my soil and also gives my plant a boost. 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.

© 2016 Catherine Tally

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    • cat on a soapbox profile image
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      Catherine Tally 11 months ago from Los Angeles

      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.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 11 months ago from Olympia, WA

      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!

    • cat on a soapbox profile image
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      Catherine Tally 12 months ago from Los Angeles

      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 profile image

      RTalloni 12 months ago from the short journey

      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. :)

    • cat on a soapbox profile image
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      Catherine Tally 16 months ago from Los Angeles

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

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 16 months ago from California

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

    • cat on a soapbox profile image
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      Catherine Tally 19 months ago from Los Angeles

      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 profile image

      FlourishAnyway 20 months ago from USA

      Great attractive alternatives. Thank you for the gardening advice.

    • cat on a soapbox profile image
      Author

      Catherine Tally 21 months ago from Los Angeles

      Thank you, Thelma!

    • Thelma Alberts profile image

      Thelma Alberts 21 months ago from Germany

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

    • cat on a soapbox profile image
      Author

      Catherine Tally 21 months ago from Los Angeles

      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!

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 21 months ago from California

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

    • cat on a soapbox profile image
      Author

      Catherine Tally 21 months ago from Los Angeles

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

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 21 months ago from Queensland Australia

      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.

    • cat on a soapbox profile image
      Author

      Catherine Tally 21 months ago from Los Angeles

      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 profile image

      Genna East 21 months ago from Massachusetts, USA

      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!

    • cat on a soapbox profile image
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      Catherine Tally 21 months ago from Los Angeles

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

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 21 months ago from Shelton

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