Be Water Wise (and money wise) at the same time!

Be Water Wise (and money wise) at the same time!

By Jackie Peel, Texas Master Gardener

Probably the most-asked question I get in the nursery is “how much water does this plant need?” There’s no exact answer. Plants need water applied to the root zone when the moisture content of the soil is lower than the moisture content inside the plant. If you remember your high school biology class, water moves by means of osmosis from higher density to lower. This means if the soil is drier than the plant’s roots, the plant will lose water out to the soil and the plant will show signs of wilting.
If you’ve lived in our area for awhile, you know that we go quickly from “drought to drowning” when it comes to our rainfall. It doesn’t always rain when we need it to, so if we want to grow plants that are native to wetter parts of the world we have to supplement with irrigation. That gets expensive in a hurry. Remember, every time you turn on the faucet, you are paying for every drop of water that comes out. Don’t waste it!
Take a moment to look at your last water bill. In general, most households use at least 25% of their water for landscaping (but it can be much more than that in some cases). If your water bill is $100, at least $25 of that can be reduced every month by saving water in your landscape. You can increase that savings by installing one or more rain barrels that captures water every time it rains.
Just as good design dictates that we don’t mix stripes and plaids, we also want to follow good design in our gardens. This means knowing which plants need a lot of water, and which plants can live with just natural rainfall. By clustering plants (“or zoning”) with similar water needs, we can make the most effective use of water in our landscapes. Sprinkler heads can be adjusted to dispense less water in xeric zones, and this can significantly reduce your total water use.
Pop quiz: True or false: all plants have a place in a water-wise landscape (see end of article for answer).
There’s no need to use tap (potable) water on our landscapes. It’s better to use plants that can live with only natural rainfall and in times of drought to supplement with rainfall capture in rain barrels for later use. Rainwater is better for plants ( it’s pH neutral, it doesn’t contain added chemicals), and it’s FREE!
There are seven water wise principles I want you to commit to memory, and pledge to use every day in your home landscape.
1. MULCH: cover bare soil with mulch. Organic mulches save water and retard weed growth. Mulch will “disappear” after about 6 months, and that’s a good thing. As it decomposes it releases nutrients into the soil. A good schedule to follow is to mulch around Memorial Day and again around Thanksgiving. Apply a 2 to 3 inch thick layer in all of your planting beds, on paths, and any bare soil. We have many kinds of mulches to choose from, and they all help you save water.

2. LAWN: reduce your lawn areas by enlarging your planting beds and adding hardscape areas (paths, patios, water features, etc.). Use a mulching mower and leave grass clippings on the lawn. As the clippings decompose, they release nutrients. Mow on a five day schedule between Memorial Day to Labor Day. Raise your mower’s cutting height by one notch per month; longer grass blades shade the soil and reduce evaporation.

3. PLANT SELECTION: use native and well=adapted plants. Cluster plants with similar watering needs together; highest need near house (includes lawn), “transition” zone farther out, and a “xeric” area around the perimeter of your landscape. Xeric plants require only the amount of water we get from natural rainfall after they are established, and there are many beautiful plants to choose from. Come into the nursery and ask us to introduce you to them!

4. IRRIGATION: keep your irrigation system in working order at all times, and install a “smart sensor” if your system doesn’t have one. Keep your system set to “manual” mode, so you control when it runs. Each time we get at least one-half inch of rain, you don’t need to water for at least 3 days! Convert rotors and spray heads to drip irrigation. Have an audit done on your system at least every three years to be sure you’re not wasting water through leaks or damaged heads. Do you know how long it takes each zone to apply the needed amount of water? An audit will give you the information you need to make the most of your water dollars, and many cities offer free audits to their residents. We can help you find answers for your irrigation issues.

5. PESTICIDE USE: always apply the least toxic pesticide, and only as a last resort. Ninety percent of insects are beneficial or neutral. Make sure you know what you want to kill before you spray, insects and diseases are very host-specific and will usually only affect one kind of plant. Most pests can be controlled with strong jet of water to dislodge them, or spraying with soapy water. Please ask us to help you identify plant damage BEFORE you pick up that pesticide bottle!

6. FERTILIZER: reduce your fertilizer use. Build up soil fertility with compost and encourage earthworms to enrich the soil for you. Healthy plants don’t need fertilizers. Applying fertilizers too frequently and/or too heavily can put plants in stress which leads to pest and disease issues. We can help you build your soil fertility the natural way.

7. WEEDS: keep weeds pulled as soon as you see them Weeds grow fast and generate extensive root systems that can really hog your water. Don’t waste water on what you don’t want to grow! Mulches are your best defense against weeds, and hand-pulling is the non-chemical “organic” way to control weeds.

By adopting these water conserving techniques in your home landscape, you will not only be saving water but MONEY, too! Help your neighbors and HOAs by sharing this information with them.

Quiz answer: TRUE! All plants can be used in a water wise landscape, just use fewer of the plants that need the most water. Look for areas in your yard where you may have standing water after a heavy rain. This area can be turned into a “rain garden” (more info to come in a future article).

For more information, check out www.aggie-horticulture@tamu.edu/earthkind/

You can also track the drought with this link:
http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/DM_state.htm?TX,S

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