Tips & Techniques
WATERWISE TIPS & TECHNIQUES
By Lyn Gannon, Sonoma County Master Gardener
The biggest challenge facing us as local gardeners this summer is Is it possible to both reduce water consumption and maintaining healthy gardens? Definitely! The trick is to pay attention to our plants, their environment and our watering habits so that water is effectively applied where it is most needed. Here are some ideas to help accomplish that goal.
TIPS & TECHNIQUES
Timing is everything. – Watering during cool temperatures allows your plants to absorb water through their roots, with minimal water lost to evaporation through their leaves.
- The ideal time to water regularly is in the early morning.
- Watering at night- especially overhead - is less advantageous because it tends to encourage fungal infections.
- Water plants only at mid-day if they are water stressed, since evaporation increases with warmer temperatures.
Distribution matters. – Shorter watering times, with a break in between those times, can be more advantageous than a long, single soaking. The goal is to have water readily available in your plant’s root zone. Too much water runs off the ground’s surface, or passes below your plants’ root zone. By having multiple watering times, and waiting a few hours in between, your plants’ roots have time to absorb the water in the soil before more is added. This technique is even more important for impervious soils and steep slopes.
Prioritize your needs – Decide which plants are most important and spend your water resources there. Your trees, shrubs and “big ticket” items are likely to be your biggest investments. Rely on perennials more than annuals for summer color. Unlike annuals which require re-planting every season, perennials return year after year. Therefore, they have better developed root systems which can withstand dryer conditions.
Familiarize yourself with the signs of drought stress - Both over and under watering can cause leaves to turn yellow. How frustrating! But a quick observation can help. Check your soil. If it’s soggy, chances are you’re over watering. If your soil is dry and hard, your plant needs more water. Burnt leaves as well as premature leaf drop are other signs of insufficient water.
Re-cycle water whenever possible. If you have a pond with a filter that needs cleaning periodically, re-use the water rather than let it run down a drain. When your pond needs cleaning, use a vacuum that re-circulates your pond water.
Avoid using high nitrogen fertilizers - Nitrogen encourages rapid growth, something you want to avoid if you are not going to provide lots of water to support that growth. Fertilizers with higher “P” and “K” numbers tend to strengthen plants, and can be more useful.
Don’t be fooled by “mid day wilt”. Plants with large leaves (i.e. squash plants), often wilt as temperatures rise – that’s how they deal with the heat. If your soil is damp, save your water.
Cut your losses and move on. – Once a leaf has turned brown or yellow, it will not become green again, no matter how much water you apply. Cutting off dying leaves will help you determine if your plant is rebounding, or still suffering from water problems.
Make shade your ally. Plants in the shade require less water than those in the blazing sun. Try planting deciduous trees that provide summer shade, or prune shrubs in the shape of small trees to provide more shade in your yard. Underneath, place “understory” plants that thrive in dry (as opposed to moist) shade.
Mulch your garden. An insulating layer of mulch will reduce the amount of water lost to evaporation. Mulch will also lessen the impact of summer heat by moderating the soil temperature. As a bonus, it will improve the texture of your soil and keep weeds down.
Use the right plant in the right place. Buy plants that fit your conditions. If you already have plants on hand, find out what conditions they need to thrive, not just survive. Plant them in a spot that matches those conditions. Whenever possible, choose plants that can tolerate drier conditions.
Take advantage of your terrain. Water travels below the surface. As a result, mounds dry out more quickly and low spots will stay moist longer. If you have a slope, place plants that can tolerate drier conditions near the top, and put plants with higher moisture needs at the bottom.
Plants’ water needs shift with the seasons.
- Have you noticed that shade patterns change over the course of the season? The sun is highest in the sky in mid-June. Plants sitting directly under a tree will be shaded then. But by September, when California temperatures are still high, the sun will have shifted to the South and be lower in the horizon. The same plants which were shaded in June, can be exposed to direct sun and sizzling temperatures in September! Try placing plants with higher water needs slightly to the north of trees, where they stand a better chance of being shaded all summer.
- Both the length of sunlight hours and solar radiation change with the seasons. With our longest days in June, we have more hours with higher temperatures in early summer than we do in the fall. Plus, solar radiation, which peaks in July, can increase evaporation more than high temperatures. As a results, plants require less water later in the summer, than they do during early summer.
- Lastly, most garden plants are usually winding down their growth cycle by the fall, so their water needs are lower than in the spring when their growth rates match those of teenage boys.
Plant in the fall - Planting in the fall and early spring is ideal. Your plants need less water during cool weather and intermittent rains. Secondly, giving your plants an early start allows them time to become more established and have more developed root systems by summer.
Use more CA natives and learn to appreciate our climate! Many of us associate summer with the lush greenery seen on the East Coast. But matching that look translates to fighting the weather here. Many native plants are “garden worthy” and can provide attractive greenery in the summer with less water. An added plus - natives provide a support system for California wildlife, a feature that enhances all of our gardens.
Replace all, or part of your lawn with a patio, pond or a drought-tolerant ground cover. Water features will attract more wildlife than any other aspect of your garden. A lawn won’t! A well-designed pond will evaporate less water than a lawn uses, reduce chemical usage and provide more varied interest. There are also many kinds of turf grass. If you decide to keep a portion of your lawn, use a grass that can thrive with the least amount of water.
Plant more of your successes and eliminate your failures. Move, or give away, plants which have proven unsuitable. And plant more of the ones that have done well. You’ll have a better looking garden with less maintenance.