Water-saving tips for the home landscape

After an abundance of rainfall during this past winter and spring, the summer months have been quite dry. The dry conditions, combined with the excessive heat, have been stressful to landscape plants and turfgrass areas.

Currently, the water restrictions are minimal. However, if the dry spell continues, more restrictive water use rules may have to be implemented. Homeowners should use water conservation landscape practices.

Turfgrass areas usually receive the highest amount of supplemental watering in the landscape. Some turfgrasses, such as bermuda grass, require less water than others.

Also, consider converting lawn areas to beds of drought-tolerant trees, shrubs and groundcovers with the soil covered in mulch. Irrigate the grass when it begins showing signs of drought. It will start to turn a blue-grey color, the leaf blades will begin to wilt, and footprints are left on the turfgrass after walking on it. Frequent applications of small quantities of water encourage a shallow root system and reduce its tolerance to the drought. Water the turf thoroughly and deeply once or twice a week to promote deeper root growth.

Proper mowing involves removing no more than one-third of the grass blade at each mowing. During dry spells, raise the mowing height 25 to 50 percent. Let the grass clippings fall to the ground instead of collecting them in a bag. The grass clippings provide a source of natural mulch at the surface of the soil and also return nutrients back to the soil.

Woody ornamental trees and shrubs have more extensive and deeper growing root systems than turfgrass. They are able to absorb more water from deep within the soil even when the surface appears very dry. Once established, most woody ornamentals can tolerate long dry periods without supplemental water.

The ideal time of the year to plant them is during the fall or early winter months. Although the top parts of the plants grow very little during the colder weather, the roots continue growing. The plants have time to become established and are more tolerant to the hot, dry conditions of the coming summer.

Choose plant material that is more tolerant to adverse conditions and have lower maintenance needs. Select ones that are adaptable to the site they will be growing in.

In addition to water requirements, consider the plant’s need for sunlight, tolerance to cold and hot temperatures, fertilization and pruning requirements. For example, junipers require full sun and well-drained soil. If planted in shade or areas that stay wet, they will suffer and die. Whether the plant is a native, if it is adapted to the environment it will be growing in, it can withstand the drought and other adverse conditions.

Mulching around trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants aids in the retention of water and minimizes the evaporation of water from the soil. Mulches also reduce the crusting of the soil surface, allowing for deeper penetration of water into the root zones. They also help insulate the plant roots from temperature extremes.

The use of mulch reduces the weed population that competes with the plants for moisture and nutrients. Pine straw, pine bark mini-nuggets and shredded hardwood mulch or chips are the best types to use. Inorganic mulches like lava rock, gravel, and marble tend to absorb more heat from the sun and increase water loss. Apply no more than two to four inches of mulch since more could cause root and stem rot.

In spite of the heat and the dry conditions, the home landscape can survive with minimal loss of plant material. Use water conservation practices to conserve water even when there is an abundance of rainfall.

Timothy Daly is an Agricultural and Natural Resource Extension Agent with Gwinnett County. He can be contacted at 678-377-4010 or tdaly@uga.edu.