By Katie Marks, Networx
This might seem like a weird time to be talking about irrigation, but in many parts of the country, it's still dry, and there's never a bad time to talk about getting ready for the next gardening season. Watering your garden the smart way will save you a lot of water (and money on the water bill), help out the environment, and ensure that your garden is as gorgeous and healthy as it can be. Since some of that planning involves not just how and when you irrigate but what you plant, this little primer should help you make smart choices this winter and spring.
Many gardeners overwater, which leads to massive waste across the country every year as well as problems like runoff and plant disease. Watering isn't just a matter of indiscriminately spraying with a hose, but rather one of thinking about how much water plants need, and when.
1. Watch the clock
The best time to water is early in the morning. Why? Because you'll lose the least amount of water to evaporation, which can set in as early as 10am in especially warm climates. If you absolutely must water later because your plants are gasping for it, make sure to water slowly and deeply around their roots to keep as much water going where it needs to as possible. You can also water in the late afternoon and early evening to prevent evaporative loss, but be aware that going to bed with damp roots, as it were, can lead to mold and mildew problems.
2. Run deep
Instead of doing a superficial spray every few days, do a deep watering, and do it less frequently. While it might seem counterintuitive because you're using more water at each watering, you're using less in the short term by not watering as much. Even better, you're encouraging the development of strong, healthy plants by forcing them to put out longer and more aggressive root networks to find water. Furthermore, you can cut down on your weed problem, because many weeds rely on an easily-accessed layer of surface water, something they don't find if you're doing deep infrequent irrigation.
3. Ditch that lawn
Lawns eat up tremendous amounts of water. If you haven't already, consider lawn alternatives, such as spreading walkable groundcovers, that won't require as much water, or as much maintenance. If you want that lush green look, you can have it -- but it doesn't have to be sod. Lawn-free landscaping will also free up all that time you would have spent mowing, dethatching, fertilizing, and otherwise caring for labor-intensive grass.
4. Mulch it
Mulch is great stuff. It protects the roots of plants from the elements, and more than that, it helps plants retain water. Make sure to keep mulch layered well around your plants (mulch in fall is especially important because it protects tender roots from freezing!) so that when you water, the cool area around the roots will trap the water so the plant has time to absorb it. Mulch also keeps weeds down, and can keep a garden looking more tidy.
5. Like with like
Different plants have different water needs. Group your plantings so you can use your resources most efficiently. Try using low water landscaping in areas like sunny hills, where more water would be needed to sustain most plants. Think low-water landscaping is dull? Check out these amazing 50 water-wise plants from Sunset. If you have plants with high water demands, plant them in a cool area of low ground to help them retain water. Avoid mixing plants, as some may not appreciate the greater or lesser amounts of water needed to support their cousins.
6. No more sprinklers
Sprinklers are very inefficient, with high water loss due to evaporation and a tendency to overwater some areas while underwatering others. Talk to your landscaper about installing a real irrigation system with programmable timers so you can direct water where you want it, when you want it. Drip irrigation can offer a highly efficient option, but low-profile spray irrigation is another choice too. For container plants, like those in urban gardens, you might want to consider self-watering options.
7. Soil conditioning
Healthy soil retains water better (and nourishes plants). Work compost, mosses, and other soil conditioning components into the ground when you're planting new landscaping features, overhauling beds, and working in the garden. If you don't make your own compost, hit up a garden supply store or the municipal waste facility: many cities sell compost now!
8. Stop runoff in its tracks
You shouldn't be experiencing runoff if you water smart, but sometimes it's inevitable on a sloped lot. You need a terrace or retaining wall to stop the water, and you can integrate it into the garden as a design feature, rather than an obvious water reclamation measure. For example, consider using a retaining wall to create a sweeping bed of plants that need higher amounts of water; every time you water higher up on the slope, the water will trickle down to support their needs.
Extra credit: rainwater capture. Discuss your options with your plumber and take advantage of all that rain! If you reclaim rainwater, you can use it for irrigation, keeping your garden healthy and happy.