Lawns: Good Watering Practices

"Many US cities and some states, even in the Northeast, report that 50% of residential water use goes to lawns and landscapes," says Amy Vickers, author, Handbook of Water Use and Conservation (WaterPlow Press),  "Over 75% of the river drainage basins assessed in Massachusetts are classified as 'flow stressed,' meaning they suffer from low flows and other types of hydrologic impairments, e.g., water withdrawals that exceed replenishment. The increasing prevalence of automatic irrigation systems and private irrigation wells is one of the main culprits behind these freshwater flow losses."

There are many possible steps individuals can take to reduce their water use while maintaining a beautiful yard.  Most of these are very simple and can make a big difference in preventing wasteful watering. These techniques often have additional benefits to the health of your plants.

  • When watering, do so only in the morning to reduce evaporative losses and to prevent fungal growth
  • Set automatic sprinklers, if any, to run only once per week to encourage deep roots and discourage weed germination and fungus.
  • Turn off automatic sprinklers and only water when lawn and plants need it. This would depend on weather conditions, plant types, soil condition and regional water conservation requirements (such as watering bans).
  • Water only new grass and plants, wean young plants off watering, and allow mature grass and plants to go dormant during dry spells
  • Reduce the area of your lawn by planting perennial gardens, meadows or woodlands
  • Choose drought tolerant species when planting
  • Add compost and organic matter to soil to improve water retention
  • Cover bare soil with mulch or compost or plantings to reduce evaporation
  • Collect water in rain barrels for outside watering use during dry spells

As we begin to think in environmentally-friendly ways, a good rule of thumb is “water only when needed.” An established organic lawn has an extensive root system, enabling it to find food and water even when it is dry. Such an enhanced root system will enable the lawn to survive many a dry spell.  During plant establishment, provide water as needed for the first season. Then wean the plants off water as soon as possible. A new lawn should be “syringe watered” with many light waterings until the new lawn is mowed several times. Then withhold water. The same goes for other types of plants. Water frequently to get the plant established, then water only during extended dry periods or drought.

How will you know if the plant has enough water, especially during a drought? Set up a rain gauge to measure rainfall, then plan to supplement with additional watering only as necessary. A empty tuna can tucked in an out-of-view spot makes a good homemade rain gauge to collect the one inch of water per week that is the maximum amount needed. One inch of overhead watering (from Mother Nature or you) will effectively soak six inches down to the root zone of your lawn and plantings. You can easily check to see if the top six inches of soil is moist by using a long, narrow trowel. Avoid frequent shallow watering that does not penetrate to this six-inch depth, as this practice encourages surface root development, Japanese beetle grub infestation, fungus and root rot.

During periods of drought, a soaker hose system can be a lifesaver for beds and borders. It will deliver water directly to the root zone where plants need it the most. Systems can be connected to timers to help those who travel.

With automatic overhead irrigation systems, be sure to install a sensor that will turn on the system only during dry periods. Never let your system run every day, rain or shine, as it will waste a tremendous amount of water. Water only in the early morning, as necessary, so that moisture can quickly dry on plant leaves. Avoid watering in the middle of the day, when evaporation loss is greatest and much water is wasted. Overhead watering should also be avoided in the evening, when cooler night temperatures inhibit drying, often leading to fungal diseases.

Mulching at the proper depth conserves moisture and is a control aid for disease, insect damage and weeds. Mulch the entire perennial, vegetable or herb bed with one to two inches of shredded leaves, grass clippings, pine needles, buckwheat or cocoa hulls. Wood chips, shredded leaves or finely-ground bark mulches are an ideal mulch at a two to four inch depth around trees and shrubs. However, do not allow the mulch to touch the bark.

Finally, if you really want to save water, plant drought-tolerant species that don't need watering. Many perennials and herbs with silver leaves fall into this category. As an added bonus, their soft color complements both bright, bold colors and the quieter hues.

By Priscilla Williams, Michael Nadeau and Sarah Little

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