Water conservation in the landscape has become a hot topic over the past several years. Even so, most homeowners are more familiar with methods and techniques of reducing water use inside the home, such as using low-flush toilets, low-flow showerheads and water-saving washing machines and dishwashers. Beyond saving water, a properly designed, well-maintained, water-efficient landscape is an asset to any neighborhood and increases benefits to the homeowner. Just as inside the home, there are many practices and techniques you can implement in your landscape to conserve water and save money on your water bill.
Landscapes account for 20 to 50 percent of the 95,000 gallons of water consumed by the average U.S. household each year. Many of us struggle to achieve a balance between conserving water and enjoying the many benefits that a beautiful landscape provides. For some, a water-efficient landscape conjures visions of a yard filled with rocks, sand and cacti, but in reality water efficient landscapes do not need to look like a desert. Following are several steps you can take to increase your water efficiency and help your plants survive future droughts and water restrictions.
Design your landscape with your site and soil in mind and include a variety of plants. Choose plants suited for your climate that are tolerant of a wide range of weather conditions. Balance areas of turf and landscape plantings for practical water use and management. Group plants with similar watering requirements together. Remember that even drought tolerant plant species need water during the establishment period. It is more efficient and healthier for plant material if you water less frequently but for longer periods of time. Install drip irrigation or soaker hoses in landscape beds. If you are hand watering planted material, apply water directly at soil level with the hose at a low water flow rate. Use fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides at proper rates and follow directions to ensure they do not pollute the water supply.
Learning how to water is quite a balancing act. Too much or too little and your plants will not thrive. The most critical factor in determining water use is weather, which includes temperature, humidity, wind, sunlight, and precipitation. Most of the absorption of water and nutrients occurs in the upper half of the root system, therefore, water should be applied directly to the soil surface or to the root zone. Water is wasted if it is applied to plant leaves and tops since much of it will evaporate before it reaches the ground.
If possible, schedule your irrigation system to run in the early morning. Avoid watering mid-day to eliminate excessive evaporation. An irrigation audit should be done every year to check your irrigation equipment. At least once a season, manually turn the system on and observe it running to check for problems. Check drip systems to ensure emitters are working and clean out filters as needed. Over time, drip emitter locations may need to be shifted to the outer edge of the plant root balls as your plants grow. Adjust spray sprinklers to prevent overspray and runoff onto roads, sidewalks and driveways.
Since growth occurs at optimum rates in a normally watered plant, some stress may reduce growth which is not critical for many plants reaching their mature size. Your goal may be to simply keep plants alive, but not thriving. However, on a young, newly planted tree or in situations where you want a fuller landscape, greater watering will support greater growth.
Management practices in the fall and spring determine the drought tolerance of the lawn in the summer. To reduce the need for irrigation, your lawn management program should maximize root volume and depth in preparation for summer drought. By the time summer arrives, you can do little to help a lawn except mow and irrigate properly. Avoid the temptation to irrigate in spring just to get grass growing. Allow it to naturally green up. In the spring, allow the soil to dry slightly and the grass to wilt some to encourage a deeper and more-hardy root system to develop. Such a root system will be necessary to reduce the need for summer irrigation and to survive drought conditions.
To learn more about conserving water in your landscape, visit extension.org/landscape_water_conservation. If you have questions about gardening, visit ces.ncsu.edu where you can submit questions via the ‘Ask an Expert’ link, or contact your local Cooperative Extension center: If you live in Pender County, call 910-259-1238; in New Hanover County, call 910-798-7660; in Brunswick County call 910-253-2610.
Susan Brown is the horticulture agent with the New Hanover County Cooperative Extension of NC State University, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences.