Add these tips to your never-ending list, "How to Reduce Outdoor Water Use". These suggestions come from the California Landscape Contractors Association (CLCA), who are having a watershed year (pun intended) in assisting homeowners who are undergoing water meter sticker shock. This advice can also help your landscape survive a drought, especially if outdoor watering gets further restrictions. I've kicked in a few parenthetical thoughts of my own, as well. Naturally.
Water Trees First. If trees are lost, it increases the surrounding temperature making everything hotter. They are also expensive to replace. Many surrounding plants depend on them, because trees offer shade and protection for some lawns and other plants that may not survive the hot sun without them. In addition, they are often homes, shelter and/or food to birds and animals, which could possibly die if they perish. (Healthy trees make your home worth more, and sell faster. A survey of Realtors showed that 56% felt that the presence of healthy shade trees contribute to a large extent to a home's "sell-ability"; 60% indicated that they greatly add to the curb appeal, or first impression of a home; and 62% maintained that their presence has a strong impact on a potential buyer's impression of a block neighborhood.)
Some Ways to Maximize Water and Help Protect Your Trees
… Drill several 4" wide holes about 24"-30" deep around the base of the tree being careful not to damage large roots. Fill the holes with compost, which will allow the water to reach the roots of the tree. (I wouldn't do this at the base of the tree; feeder roots are closer to the outer canopy of existing trees)
… Another option is to put your garden hose on a timed, low drip and get the water down deep. You can also install a temporary drip system tied into a hose bib or use a soaker hose on the surface to slowly water the base of the tree. (again, the tree's feeder roots radiate out throughout the entire understory of the tree, and beyond. Position that drip or soaker hose in a concentric circle, winding further and further out as the tree grows.)
What Can I Do Now to Prepare for the Drought?
… Mulch heavily all flower and soil beds. Mulch helps keep water in the soil. Do not use rocks/gravel because they add heat to the soil and moisture evaporates faster. (Amen.)
… Mow grass (Fescue, Rye, Kentucky Blue Grass) higher, 3"-3.5" to promote deeper root growth and hold more moisture (I keep my mower on the highest blade setting year round for our fescue lawn).
… Aerate the lawn and fill the holes with compost so the water can infiltrate deeper. (This is best done in the Fall).
… If you intend to prune, do so before April or don't prune. Pruning stimulates growth, which needs more water. Existing growth will also provide additional shade to the soil, helping to retain moisture. (Pruning time depends on the existing plant's needs. For deciduous trees, fall and winter are OK times)
… Do not use high nitrogen fertilizers during a drought. They encourage growth but the plants will need more water. (there are lots of reasons not to use high nitrogen fertilizer. Large amounts of N encourage weak, green growth...a buffet for bad bugs such as aphids and whiteflies).
… Fix or replace any broken sprinklers and repair leaks. (which is why I encourage people to water their lawn early in the morning, not in the middle of the night. If you see a problem, you are more apt to fix the problem).
… Keep your lawn as healthy as possible. A healthy lawn will survive better. Many lawns can go very dry and still come back. (how about reducing the size of your lawn and replacing it with plants that require less water, yet are still beautiful. Want a list? Go here.)
… Attach a water efficient spray nozzle to your hose and use it to mist your lawn to build up humidity for a few minutes at the end of the day. (Huh? I guess the CLCA didn't get the message that you are supposed to water only early in the day. And, the University of California Guide to Healthy Lawns advises against that practice, saying, "Do not water during the evening or pre-midnight hours because thatch and blades are susceptible to diseases if they are wet during cool nights").
… Check with your local water agency for possible rebates on low water usage irrigation products. (Good luck on that. Let me know what you find out. Good news in Roseville: that city found some money and is restarting its "Cash For Grass" program)
How to Maximize Landscape Watering During A Drought
… Start watering earlier and finish before 9:00 am. (yep. or 10 a.m., if you are a party animal.)
… Set your spray irrigation timer to run half the normal time and run a second cycle at least half an hour later. This will dramatically reduce runoff. Clay and other soils will only absorb so much water and anything beyond that point is wasted water. Average time should be 5 minutes or less per cycle on a level site. (Be your own best timer. Turn on your sprinklers. When water starts running off the landscape, turn your sprinklers off. That's how long they should run during one cycle.)
… Consider a smart controller, which monitors the weather and adjusts watering accordingly.
(As long as you're an electrical genius, fully employed, not furloughed or in debt to your eyeballs, you might be able to afford and install one of these systems. The good news: they will be coming down in price and will be easier to install and maintain. In time.)
… Soil may look dry, but may still have plenty of moisture. If a 6" screwdriver goes easily into the soil then wait to water. (Or, better yet, use a moisture meter).
What if I Can Only Water One or Two Days a Week?
… Program your sprinkler time for multiple start times with run cycles about 5 minutes each. Repeat the cycles 3-4 times at least 30 minutes apart. If runoff occurs reduce minutes per cycle. (Those are ballpark figures. If you don't own a ballpark, then do the timing yourself, as explained above. For clay soils, you'll want to separate those start times by a couple of hours, not 30 minutes).
… Mow lawns higher and less frequently. Do not take off more than 25% when mowing. (use a mulching mower, too!)
How Can I Maximize My Landscape Water Savings?
… Check regularly for leaks and then fix them immediately.
… Incorporate existing water saving technology into your irrigation system. New sprinkler heads and smart controllers maximize water savings. (Check out these nifty new lower-water use sprinkler heads from Hunter).
… If you have a water meter, learn to read your meter. It will help you determine if you have a leak.
… Turn on each sprinkler zone and see how much time it takes to start generating runoff for each zone. Round sprinkler time down to the nearest minute and set that time as your maximum run time for each station. Program your controller for multiple run cycles. (Now, why didn't they just say this earlier?)
… Runoff means wasted water. No runoff means the water is being absorbed by the soil. (Or, the sprinklers are clogged)
How Can I Prepare for a Drier Future?
… Make sure your irrigation system is efficient, pressure regulated and consistently up to date with the latest water saving technology (CLCA sez: "Spend Money!" If you repair what you have, and perhaps swap out your really old, inefficient impulse and sprayer sprinkler heads for ones that are more efficient, you'll save water and have a healthier landscape)
… Study your landscape and the local community. Examine the long-term survivability of your current landscape and consider incorporating climate appropriate plants. (Going to shop for plants at a big box store? Take a copy of the Sunset Western Garden Book with you to make sure the plant is right for your area. Big box stores tend to ship the same plants throughout the state. And very few plants will thrive in every area of California. Shop for plants at your local nursery instead.)
… If your area is at risk for fire, consider adding native fire retardant plants and learn how to protect your property. (And since they won't tell you how, I will. And. Las Palitas Nursery even went to the trouble of lighting a whole bunch of plants to see how long they would burn.)
… Study your environment, the animals that exist within the landscape and your long term needs to help you make good ecological choices. (anybody want my skunk and possum population?)