Water-Wise Gardening Tips

Run-off water can be harvested in attractive rain barrels.
Run-off water can be harvested in attractive rain barrels. | Source

Perhaps it is global-warming or it's just nature's cyclic fluctuation in rainfall; regardless, there is no denying that many parts of the world are struggling with serious water shortages. Here in my state, residents are being asked to cut their usage by 25%, and landscape irrigation is allowed only twice a week. Heavy rain and snow pack will help, but it will take successive years of it to replenish the depleted groundwater that has sustained us through years of drought.

Californians have grown used to the sweeping lawns and lush flower beds that came West with migration and have stayed in fashion ever since even though our climate is better suited for our native plants or at least Mediterranean ones. When driving through any residential neighborhood, you might notice that nearly every home has a sizable patch of green in its front yard. We have managed for nearly a century to sustain these thirsty landscapes until now. Does this mean that verdant yards must be replaced with rocks, mulch or chaparral? Thankfully, NO!


Toadstools sprout from decaying wood when moisture conditions are right. They are harmless to gardens, but toxic if consumed.
Toadstools sprout from decaying wood when moisture conditions are right. They are harmless to gardens, but toxic if consumed. | Source

Consider adjustments to your watering routines:

It may surprise you to learn that more plants die from too much water than not enough. Over watering encourages bacterial disease and the proliferation of fungi which naturally live in the soil. This is why we see toadstools and slime molds after rains and why powdery mildew, rust, and black spot show up after dewy mornings and during humid summers. We can't control rainfall, but we can make a difference by changing water timers and adjusting our irrigation delivery.

It has been shown that the best time to run lawn sprinklers is between 6 am and 8 am. In hot and dry areas, 4 am to 6 am is also fine.This is off-peak time, and the cooler air minimizes evaporation yet the sun will soon be up to dry grass blades and leaves. It's sensible to avoid overhead watering in the evenings because the prolonged moisture on foliage is a main cause of common mildew and other fungal infections. The newer sprinkler heads sit closer to the ground and slowly rotate with an even stream of water making them 30% more water efficient. Even during the hottest months, lawns benefit from less frequent deep watering than from numerous surface waterings. 15-20 min. twice a week is more productive than 5 -10 min. 4 times a week. If water begins to run onto concrete areas, turn off the sprinklers until the water soaks in, then run again a little later. This cycle-watering is good practice for poor drainage and compacted areas affected by drought. Resetting sprinkler timers seasonally and manually turning them off during rains will save both water and money. Better yet, consider a Smart WiFi timer which allows for adjustments when away from home.





Turf Grass

Brown patches on lawns are hard to diagnose, even for a nursery professional. What we think of as dry areas are often fungal infections, and watering to fix them actually makes them worse. If the patch continues to grow outward, it is usually disease related. A thirsty lawn area will take on a wilted, bluish tint in heat and can be spot watered as needed. Deep watering promotes healthy roots, and along with other good cultural practices like mulching with lawn clippings and mowing with a sharp blade, will help fend off insects and pathogens. Reducing fertilizer applications in summer will also lower the need for water. Slow release organic feedings improve soil structure and attract earthworms. Rapid growth requires more water and encourages insects. Consider the season. Cool season grasses like dwarf fescue and rye will slow during hot summers. Apply fertilizer in fall. Warm season varieties like Bermuda and St. Augustine begin to go brown as temperatures drop. Give them feedings in spring. Water more when growth peaks. Reduce irrigation when it slows. With a few exceptions, brown lawns indicate dormancy. Most will recover with good seasonal rainfall.




Garden Beds:

Weeping soaker-hoses, drip emitters, and bubblers are among the best irrigation devices for water-wise gardens. Some existing sprinkler heads can be easily converted. These used in conjunction with mulches will greatly reduce the need for water. Grouping plants with similar water needs together makes for more efficient water management. Selecting native plants when possible and giving new plantings the benefit of cooler seasons to get established will also help. In the West, fall is the best season to add shrubs, natives, and hearty perennials. Elsewhere, spring is best. Well-rooted plants can better withstand the stresses of summer heat. Annual bedding plants do best if started from seed, but those from 6-packs will thrive too if deeply watered during warmer months. I harvest the moisture run-off from my roof. Rain barrel systems are a win-win. Many double as planters and some qualify for rebates in drought-stricken states. I fill a bucket while waiting for shower water to get hot and use it to water my container gardens. I also use gray bath water for irrigation, and it surprises me how much fresh water I save!

Mulches keep evaporation to a minimum and cool roots. Place them 4-6" away from plant centers.They can be made from cardboard sheets and layers of uncolored newspaper. Other options are straw (not hay), wood chips, coco fiber or coco shells (not recommended for dogs), leaves, and compost.

note: The breakdown of carbon in mulches can deprive soil of nitrogen, so fertilize as needed.

This garden uses Mexican feather grass, lantana, Russian sage, and statice.
This garden uses Mexican feather grass, lantana, Russian sage, and statice.
an attractive combination of blues, pinks, and lavenders are achieved here with Meadow sage, pink Jupiter's Beard, Lavender cotton, and Russian sage.
an attractive combination of blues, pinks, and lavenders are achieved here with Meadow sage, pink Jupiter's Beard, Lavender cotton, and Russian sage.
Blue fescue  grass works beautifully among rocks for visual impact.
Blue fescue grass works beautifully among rocks for visual impact.

Landscaping Ideas:

There are so many viable alternatives to thirsty plants and practical ways to handle those favorites which do require more water. Bulbs, rhizomes, and tuberous plants like dahlia, daylily, bearded iris, and agapanthus are nice additions to water-wise gardens as are most woody shrubs and trees. Agave and succulents add beautiful diversity along with flowy ornamental grasses, cordylines, and phormiums. Australian and South African specimens like kangaroo paw, grevillea, and leucodendron give gardens unique touches and that "WOW- factor." Hearty salvia, Jerusalem sage, penstemon, and yarrow are water-smart cottage favorites. Citrus, pomegranate, lavender, and rosemary are just a few among the many Mediterranean specimens suited for drier climates. Consider reducing turf areas with meandering walkways or dry creeks. Expanding flower beds and accenting them with well-placed rocks and attractive ground cover adds lushness without high water need. Birdbaths and garden benches break up visual monotony while adding function. Interspersed container gardens and empty pottery tumbles add even more visual interest and flexibility with ease of movement. Unleash your creativity!

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Rain barrels make sense for collecting the run-off from your roof.

California Native Plants

Native plants are equipped to handle hot, dry summer climates. Most bloom in fall or spring then go dormant when temperatures climb. During these periods of rest, water applications should be minimal at best. Late fall is the best time for planting. I recommend filling the hole with water and letting it drain before dropping in the root ball. I then fill with well-draining soil. California's indigenous selections rarely need amendments or fertilizer but will benefit from occasional deep watering until established.

Ornamental grasses add a flowy look and combine with other shrubs like pittosporum, nandina, and kangaroo paws.

Muhlenbergia capillaris "Lenca"- pink muhly grass
Muhlenbergia capillaris "Lenca"- pink muhly grass

Unique heat-tolerant plants that add that "WOW-factor"

Anigozanthos -Kangaroo paws- beautiful Australian native
Anigozanthos -Kangaroo paws- beautiful Australian native
Grevellia "molly"- spider flower- an Australian beauty
Grevellia "molly"- spider flower- an Australian beauty
Broken pottery can be creatively recycled as planters for water-wise succulents.
Broken pottery can be creatively recycled as planters for water-wise succulents.
This stunning container garden features water-wise  favorites like "berry smoothie" coral bells, cordyline "electric pink", and painted echeveria. The Mexican feather grass in the background sets it off with a light-catching halo.
This stunning container garden features water-wise favorites like "berry smoothie" coral bells, cordyline "electric pink", and painted echeveria. The Mexican feather grass in the background sets it off with a light-catching halo. | Source

Using Pottery As Art:

Beautiful pots often seem overpriced; however, when we think of them as hand-crafted pieces of art, the investment is more reasonable. Don't hesitate to use them as garden enhancements. Whether empty or not, they can be utilized for visual impact. If a pot should shatter, save the pieces to incorporate in concrete stepping stones for your garden path or a decorative mosaic. Vintage dishes from second-hand stores and those damaged in the kitchen can be attractively reused among favorite plants and flowers. Consider making a beautiful recycled bottle tree as a garden focal point.

Suggestions for Healthy Growth:

Plants can suffer from root-rot but still perish from dehydration. How? Frequent shallow watering will affect surface roots and weaken them, yet the deeper roots can be bone dry. When in doubt about moisture levels, probe the soil to a depth of 4". If it is dry, water accordingly. Moisture meters are also available on line and in garden centers. In larger areas, a spade works great to to check water penetration. Clay soil will hold water longer than sandy soil which drains quickly. When I plant from a 1 gallon or larger nursery container, I will dig the hole and fill it with water first. Once it has drained, I add my scoop of mycorrhizae to help with rooting and nutrient uptake, then drop in my plant and work in w/ amended back-fill. This tells me about my soil and also gives my plant a boost. Consider too when your plant is actively growing. Water needs will fluctuate with seasonal growth cycles. This is true for both houseplants and outdoor specimens.Water-wise doesn't sacrifice beauty, it just makes us rethink our practices and the elements of our gorgeous garden palettes so we can work with nature and not against it.

© 2016 Catherine Tally

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Comments 18 comments

Frank Atanacio profile image

Frank Atanacio 11 months ago from Shelton

thank you cat for these gardening and watering tips.. this article is useful and educational too bless you and Happy New Year


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cat on a soapbox 11 months ago from Los Angeles Author

Thank you, Frank! Best wishes to you too for a bright and healthy 2016:)


Genna East profile image

Genna East 10 months ago from Massachusetts, USA

As someone who loves to garden, I found this hub very informative. I think a common mistake is over-watering -- both indoors and out. You've given me some wonderful pointers to try out next spring. Thank you!


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cat on a soapbox 10 months ago from Los Angeles Author

Hi Genna! I'm glad that some of these tips will come in handy this spring. I hope you're enjoying your milder winter after all that snow last year:) Thanks for your kind comments.

All the best for 2016!

Cat:)


Jodah profile image

Jodah 10 months ago from Queensland Australia

A hub packed full of good advice Cat, and topped off with beautiful pics of plants. Good to see some favourite Aussie natives too. Happy New Year.


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cat on a soapbox 10 months ago from Los Angeles Author

Thank you, John! I appreciate your thoughtful comments. Wishing you all good things for 2016- Cat:)


AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 10 months ago from California

Beautiful hub cat--I love ornamental grasses--and in California we have had to really change our watering habits


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cat on a soapbox 10 months ago from Los Angeles Author

Hello Audrey. I'm glad that you enjoyed reading this hub and appreciate the kind comments. Ornamental grasses really do have a beautiful way of back-lighting other plants as well as adding graceful movement to the garden. Thank you!


Thelma Alberts profile image

Thelma Alberts 10 months ago from Germany

Thanks for sharing these tips for gardening. Soon I will be in my tropical garden again. Beautiful hub!


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cat on a soapbox 10 months ago from Los Angeles Author

Thank you, Thelma!


FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 9 months ago from USA

Great attractive alternatives. Thank you for the gardening advice.


cat on a soapbox profile image

cat on a soapbox 9 months ago from Los Angeles Author

Hello Flourish! Glad you enjoyed some of the ideas here. There really are more attractive options than most people realize. I appreciate your kind comments. Thank YOU!


AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 5 months ago from California

We are going to need these tips in California again this year I am afraid!!


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cat on a soapbox 5 months ago from Los Angeles Author

Hi Audrey! It seems that El Nino didn't bring what was predicted, so I agree. I hope that all is well with you:)


RTalloni profile image

RTalloni 2 months ago from the short journey

Great info on watering wisely, something that is a good thing even when drought conditions are gone. Thanks for including the kangaroo paws as I've never seen them before. :)


cat on a soapbox profile image

cat on a soapbox 8 weeks ago from Los Angeles Author

Thank you, RT! The silver lining in drought conditions and other tough times is finding that we can adopt better habits and learn to be resourceful. I'm glad that I introduced you to kangaroo paws:) I appreciate your nice comments. Take care!


billybuc profile image

billybuc 2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

See, this is what I'm talking about concerning no comments...I'm missing from this. LOL Anyway, great topic and tips. We are doing our part. We got rid of our lawn, we have rain barrels, and we are fairly pleased with our efforts so far. Still more to do, but I encourage everyone who reads this to be Earth-conscious and do your part. Thanks, Cat!


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cat on a soapbox 2 weeks ago from Los Angeles Author

Good morning, Bill! My husband & I are preparing for a complete overhaul of the front yard. The lawn has been brown for nearly a year since the annual rye over-seeding died back in spring. It takes a lot of effort to kill bermuda grass, and the roofers who just finished the new roof further trampled the beds. It's going to be hard work, but our vision keeps us motivated! Glad to hear that you are pleased with your efforts at conservation. I'd love to see what you've done in place of the old lawn. I think you've inspired a new question post.

Thanks for stopping by and being friendly:) I appreciate the kind comments.

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    cat on a soapbox profile image

    Catherine Tally (cat on a soapbox)291 Followers
    55 Articles

    Catherine is a California Certified Nursery Professional. Her interests are birds,insects, integrated pest management, & organic gardening.



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