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Garden Help Desk: With careful watering, landscaping can remain healthy

By Usu Extension - | Jun 26, 2021
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A 3-inch layer of bark nuggets or a similar mulch will help trees and perennials avoid severe drought stress while being watered less often. You may see some wilting, but your trees and flowers will live to thrive another day.

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A good layer of mulch around trees is an important part of a successful drought tree care strategy. Cooler soil temperatures and slower evaporation from the soil will help trees and shrubs tolerate our difficult summer.

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It's important to check your sprinklers frequently to make sure water is going to your plants and not being wasted on sidewalks and driveways.

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Drip irrigation lets you give your plants the water they need without wasting water on areas where nothing is growing.

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With drip irrigation in place underneath a layer of compost used as mulch, these tomato plants are ready for less-frequent watering during the drought.

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Drip irrigation is the best option for vegetable gardens this year, but emitters should be secured under mulch, not on top.

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With very infrequent watering during the drought, lawns will look brown, but they'll be dormant, not dead.

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The angle of sprinklers is important. If water sprays too high, as demonstrated at left, there won't be even coverage and water can also be carried away by wind. If the angle is too low, such as at right, water won't reach as far as needed.

You’ve heard about the drought, right? The Intermountain West is in the middle of a long, difficult drought and we can’t continue to tell ourselves things will be better if we can just get a little rain. Landscape watering uses about 60% of our residential water supply. Making changes now to how we water our yards can make a real difference in how much water we’ll have this fall, next spring and beyond. Some Utah County cities have more robust water supplies than others and you may have different limitations and options than your relatives who live just 10 miles away. No matter where we get our landscape water though, we need to make some changes. Our watering goal now should be to keep our landscape plants alive, not to see them thrive.

Trees are the most valuable part of the landscape, are the most expensive to replace and the slowest to mature, so trees should be the watering priority in a drought. A deep soak once every two to three weeks or so will be needed. Shrubs are next in line; they aren’t the backbone of a landscape like trees are, but they still have a high value among our plants. Shrubs in mulched beds should be fine with a deep soak about once every 10-14 days. Your flowers are the next thing to give your attention to. If your flower beds are mulched, your flowers should do fine being watered about once every five to seven days at the most. As a bonus, you’ll have fewer problems with slugs, snails and earwigs because you’re letting things dry out between watering. Always check the soil moisture and condition of your trees, shrubs and flowers before watering; they don’t use water according to our calendars and may be able to go even longer between waterings.

Last on the list for water is your lawn. Grass is tougher than you may think. The average lawn in Utah receives much more water than it needs to look good and be healthy. Keep in mind, a brown lawn isn’t burning up and brown doesn’t mean dead. A lawn watered very infrequently will brown out, but it isn’t dying, it’s just becoming dormant, waiting for better conditions.

So, what can you do to reduce water use in your landscape and keep things as healthy as possible during a drought?

  • Water everything in your landscape less often. Lawns are the most challenging part of watering less often because we’re so particular about how they should look. There are many healthy, good looking lawns in our county that were already being watered only once or twice a week at most. Those lawns have been “trained” to root more deeply and go longer between waterings. If you’ve been watering three times a week or more, you can cut back the frequency to not more than twice a week. Your lawn won’t die; it will adjust and survive. If you were already watering just once or twice a week, you can increase the interval between waterings by one to three additional days. You will see some browning because of the extreme heat, but it won’t affect the long-term health of your lawn. The exception to infrequent watering is productive fruit trees and trees or shrubs that were transplanted in the last couple of months. Fruit trees (just the trees, not the entire zone) will need watering about once every seven to 10 days until harvest. Recently transplanted trees and shrubs don’t need daily watering, but they do need water about twice a week while they develop their new root systems. Use drip irrigation, watering bags or a hose-end sprinkler on low output twice a week just for the area of the planting hole. Don’t water an entire zone in your yard to water a new tree.
  • Check your watering system carefully and make repairs or adjustments as needed. The water wasted by poorly functioning sprinklers could have been used for our plants instead.
  • Use drip irrigation in shrub beds, flowerbeds and home orchards.
  • Mulch exposed soils. You want that precious moisture to leave the soil by going up through your plants instead of just going up into the air by evaporation. Remember, drip emitters should be below the mulch, not on top. Bark nuggets will help hold in moisture and cool the soil around trees, shrubs and flowers. A one-half to 1-inch layer of compost in vegetable gardens will do the same thing but won’t need to be removed before planting next season.
  • Delay planting or moving trees and shrubs until conditions improve. Transplanting is stressful for plants. Extreme heat makes it even more difficult for them.
  • Don’t fertilize — not lawns, not trees, not flowers. Fertilizer pushes growth and we want our lawns, trees, shrubs and flowers to rest and survive for now.
  • Use a mulching mower and drop grass clippings back into the lawn. This will help keep the soil cool and act as a mulch to reduce evaporation.
  • Mow taller — 3 to 3 ½ inches tall. Taller blades mean deeper, more drought-tolerant roots. Taller blades also shade the soil and keep it cooler.
  • Don’t mow your lawn if it’s brown and dry.

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