George Weigel is a Pennsylvania Certified Horticulturist, garden writer for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, and owner of the website.

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50 Ways to Leave Your Water
by George Weigel    

Learn this new tune and change the way you water your garden. With apologies to musician Paul Simon, there must be 50 ways to leave your water. Just slip out the back, door; make a new plan, man; you don’t need to drag hose, Boz, just listen to me.

Gardeners in the parched Southwest are used to the fact-of-life struggle of growing a decent landscape with limited water. If climatologists are right, gardeners in traditionally wetter parts of the country should get familiar with what Texans, Coloradans and New Mexicans already know.

Even in “normal” years, spotty dry spells can happen anywhere, leaving gardeners to spend more summer quality time with their hose than their spouse. So with apologies to musician Paul Simon, here are 50 ways to leave your water:

In the Landscape

1. Break up clay soil before planting. Incorporate 1 or 2 inches of compost or fine gravel into the loosened top 10 to 12 inches of existing soil. Ambler Arboretum of Temple University Director Jenny Rose Carey recommends chicken grit.

2. Improve the water-holding ability of sandy soil by amending it with compost or chopped leaves.

3. When planting new trees and shrubs, make a mulch basin around the perimeter to direct water to the roots.

4. Plant more trees and ground covers. Trees cool and shade the soil. Low underplantings of tough species can eventually reduce watering to near zero. Examples: Russian cypress (Microbiota decussata), spreading yew (Taxus baccata ‘Repandens’), periwinkle (Vinca minor), creeping St. Johnswort (Hypericum calycinum) and American pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens) and Japanese pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis).

5. Consider “hydrozoning” — grouping plants by their water needs. By clustering plants with high-water needs, you can water only them and not drought-tolerant neighbors that really don’t need it.

6. Better yet, use more drought-tolerant plants. Examples: juniper (Juniperus spp.), native grasses, Spiraea spp., lilac (Syringa spp.), Sedum spp., Penstemon spp., coneflower (Echinacea spp.), catmint (Nepeta spp.), daylily (Hemerocallis spp.), Coreopsis spp., Liatris spp. and Euphorbia spp.

7. Add windbreak plantings along the west and southwest borders of your garden. Dense plants there can block hot summer winds that dry out smaller plants faster.

Mulch slows moisture loss due to evaporation loss.

8. Mulch all bare soil: one or 2 inches around flowers is enough; 2 or 3 inches over tree and shrub beds is good. Bark mulch, wood chips, coarse gravel, pine needles or leaves mixed with bark or wood chips are good choices.

9. Control weeds. They compete with your plants for moisture.

10. Consider terracing and planting on slopes.

11. Watch your plants for early signs of water stress, such as leaves curling down, loss of color, wilting and browning around the leaf edges. Give stressed plants and high-cost new plantings watering priority.

12. Go light with the fertilizer, especially during dry conditions. Most fertilizers add salt to the soil in addition to nutrients. Use only what’s needed. Salty soil can reduce a plant’s water uptake.

13. Use recycled water from the dehumidifier, air conditioner, cooking and the sink to water pots. Use only clean recycled water (no human contact, no pollutants and no cleaners) on anything edible.

14. Slow water loss from moss baskets by lining the inside with plastic before adding soil. Line only the sides, not the bottom, so excess water can drain.

15. Add water-absorbing polymer crystals to container mixes.

On the Lawn

16. Skip watering the lawn in summer. Healthy grass can easily survive four to  six weeks even after it goes brown and dormant during a summer dry spell.

17. If your lawn is brown for more than six weeks, give it ¼ inch of water — enough to keep the crowns alive but not enough to bring it out of protective dormancy.

Mow grass to 3 or even 4 inches tall.

18. Mow tall. Blades cut at 3 to 4 inches better shade and cool the soil.

19. Aerate compacted lawns in fall. The loosened soil encourages deeper rooting.

20. Top-dress the lawn in fall with a 1/4 inch of compost, and limit pesticide use. Both encourage earthworm and biological activity that aids root growth and drought resistance.

21. Reduce the size of the lawn by replacing some of it with native grasses and wildflowers or more trees and drought-tough ground covers.

22. Think twice before replacing lawn with stones on top of landscape fabric. This can lead to less absorption of rain water (and more runoff). Heat-absorbing rock on the west and south sides of a house can increase temperatures.

23. When seeding a new lawn, consider turf-type tall fescue, a species that’s both traffic and drought tolerant. Kentucky bluegrass is also reasonably drought resistant.

Block-planted vegetables shade more soil than ones planted in single rows.

In the Vegetable Garden

24. Encourage quick and deep rooting by annually improving the soil with 1 or 2 inches of compost. The end of the season is an ideal time.

25. Don’t overdo it with manure or manure-based products, which can be high in salt. Use no more than 1 inch per year at the end of the season.

26. Mulch the veggie garden in summer. Chopped leaves, straw, dried untreated grass clippings and bark mulch are good choices.

27. Plant in blocks instead of rows. Leaves shade more of the soil that way. Block planting also gives higher yield. 

28. Adjust watering by plant needs. In general, more water is needed when seeds are germinating, shortly after young plants emerge or are transplanted, and when plants are flowering and producing fruits.

Water Aids

29. Add a rain barrel — or two or three. Captured air-temperature rain water is an excellent hose substitute.

30. Redirect downspouts and add perforated drain pipes to disperse water onto your lawn and gardens.

31. Consider a drip-irrigation system (also called “micro-watering”). Place under mulch and run only when the soil needs it; these plastic tubular networks that drip water from emitters can reduce water use by up to 50 percent versus hose watering.

32. If you have an automatic irrigation system, make sure that it’s running efficiently and that it’s not running when not necessary. Can you scale it back?

33. Check all sprinkler heads. You’re not shooting water against fences or watering the sidewalk, are you?

34. Check sprinkler output by setting out rain gauges to prevent overwatering. Empty tuna cans work great.

35. Watch those sprinklers on a slope. Too much water at once will just become wasteful runoff.

36. Fix leaky hoses and fittings.

37. Turn off the water supply when you’re not watering.

38. Consider tree bags or basins that water gradually around new trees and shrubs. They deliver water without runoff and also “tell you” when they are empty.

Drip irrigation systems can cut watering by 50 percent.

Make sure you’re not wasting water by sprinkling water on concrete.

Smarter Watering

39. Water only when needed! Let the dampness of your soil be your guide, not the calendar. Your index finger stuck a couple of inches into the soil is an excellent soil-moisture gauge.

40. Don’t base your watering decisions on weather forecasts or regional reports. Go with what actually happens in your yard.

41. Adjust watering based on current conditions. Water demand goes up in hot, sunny and windy weather. It goes down when it’s cooler, cloudier and still.

42. Water deeply to moisten the soil to the bottom of the plants’ roots. Frequent, shallow watering doesn’t encourage deep rooting.

43. Water slowly. If water is running off, you’re applying it too fast. Think trickle, not gush.

44. Wet and re-wet. It’s common for mulches to crust over and repel water once their surface dries. Wet gradually until the surface tension allows the water to soak in.

45. Cultivate crusty mulch once or twice during the season so rain soaks in faster.

46. Water early in the morning. Evaporation is lower than during midday, and the leaves will dry quickly to minimize disease.

47. The second best time to water is early evening. Evaporation loss is also lower and leaves will have a chance to dry before dark.

48. The worst times to water: middle of the day (highest evaporation loss), windy days (also higher loss) and after dark (encourages leaf disease).

49. Spot-water in zones. Better to do a thorough job in each zone than to try to get the whole yard watered quickly in a single shot.

50. Not all parts of the yard have equal water needs. North and northeast exposures, for example, are typically cooler and need less water.

From State-by-State Gardening July/August 2013. Photos by George Weigel.


Posted: 10/23/13   RSS | Print


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