As some of you know, I'm in the landscape business. As summer has set in and droughts imposed I have been shocked at how many people really have no clue about how to properly maintain their yard.
Just because a politicians says we need to reduce water expenditures is no good reason to let your lawn go to waste. A good lawn actually requires very little water to be maintained. Here are some tips to help keep that lawn green during the hot summer months.
First and foremost, do NOT over water the lawn.
Many people see brown spots in their yard and immediate begin to dump insane amounts of water on it. The second best way to kill your grass is to over water it. Overwatering is recognizable by a flat brown color with rotting 'runners' (most grass grows like a ground covering vine, this 'vine' is called a runner), showing under the dead grass blades. The ground is always very damp and you can scratch the ground straight to soil with the tip of your shoe with little to no effort. Certain grasses give you a warning sign, such as Bermuda grass which will turn a high yellow if you over water it, or Centipede grass which will take on a purpleish color (which it will do if you have a fungus or the wrong fertilizer as well). Overwatering means you are not only wasting money on water, but you're about to have wasted possibly thousands of dollars on otherwise perfectly good grass.
Don't fertilize as often.
Many fertilizers require that they be watered in to the ground so that the grass can absorb the nitrates. During a drought, greener grass needs slightly more water. It's okay to let the grass 'dull out' for a few weeks. Plants have a switch that lets them conserve their energy when food supply is low. If it gets too low to sustain itself it dies, but if there is just enough to live, it will slowly go dormant (like it does in the winter) or slow itself down to consume less resulting in a subdued color.
Don't underwater the grass.
This may be confusing given the previous two tips, but over watering drowns the grass, and over fertilizing consumes too much and gives the ground too much nitrate, so under watering forces the grass to starve and die. I've explained that less water in a drought may cause some grass to prematurely go dormant, and this is fine, but the grass needs to be weaned off of 'normal' amounts of water. Habitually this is good practice for grasses such as Bermuda grass anyway because Bermuda grass have very shallow roots. With Bermuda grass, the more you water it, the more shallow the roots. As with anything living, the ability to sustain itself needs to be taught. Starve the grass over a few seasons and the roots dig deeper to where the moisture stays longer and you'll eventually only need to water every couple of days. However, blatant under watering grass and plants causes them to go into a kind of shock. When you start back up with the normal water regime the plants will have to go into overdrive to take on the normal level and likely drown resulting in the exact opposite of what you want.
Be smart about watering days and times.
Many people have heard that it is best to water right before dawn. This is absolutely, positively correct. Morning dew provides natural water to plants and grass, and there is nothing wrong with kick starting this process, as a matter of fact, you'll need 1/3 less water for the lawn if you set your irrigation to STOP watering at about 4:30 am (depending on elevation and season). Give the turf (grass) zones about a 20 minute water time and the mist zones (flowers and shrubs) about 10 minutes (unless it's a very small strip bed or tiny area and then let it run for about 5). It's also good to water every other day. Here in Georgia I set irrigation clocks to run Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday allowing Sunday to be the odd off day. Giving the grass a day or so to soak the water in and 'want' water is good. As I stated before, it forces the grass to search for its own food. This also ensures that the grass doesn't drown. If you find that the grass still dulls out, don't water more often, just more time per zone (increase 5 minutes per turf zone a week until the grass livens up).
Plan your bed dressing.
Flower beds are often top dressed with a variety of materials. Pinestraw, mulch, pine bark, or river rock are the common dressings and all of them do a couple of things. Most people have the beds dressed for the look, and to help reduce weeds. Weeds drink water too and the more weeds you have, the less water goes to your plants and shrubs, so weed often and weed completely (chemical defoliant helps some too). There is one of the listed dressings that does one thing better than the others. River rock and pea gravel (or marble chips) retain more moisture and virtually never break down (unlike pine straw), never fade (unlike mulch), and never attract termites (unlike pine bark). Moisture retention goes a LONG way in irrigation. With rock, you can take flower bed watering times and cut them down by ½ to 2/3. The drawback is that they can be hell on a mower.
Cut your grass.
No one ENJOYS cutting grass (unless you're just weird), but grass that is constantly cut uses less water as well. A good grass height is about 4" for Bermuda and Zoisia and about 2.5" for St. Augustine and Centipede. Of course there are more turf grasses than that, but these are the ones most common in my area. For those who have Fescue (and why, I couldn't tell you) or Kentucky Blue, 2.5" is good.. just so long as you get it long before it goes to seed.
When you cut your grass, wait two days and look at your grass tips. If they've turned brown on the tips you're not cutting the grass, you're tearing it. It means that it is time to change or sharpen the blades. Also make sure that you have your mower deck (if on a riding, stand plate, or walk behind) be as level as possible. Uneven decks can scalp the grass and leave brown strips all over the yard.
Give your lawn good shade.
It is common sense that sunny areas have higher temperatures and as such, it also makes sense that water evaporates faster from said areas. To help with water retention or moisture retention, have a landscape installed that provides some shade. Not only will it look nicer in time, but it will keep the amount of water needed to keep it green much lower. A little fact, an average sized will use roughly 1 MILLION gallons of water on an average summer when it has no shade.
Check for pests.
Grubs eat grass roots. This causes the grass to die in spots. If you see dead and dying circles of grass in your yard, dig around about an inch deep in various spots of the suspected area and if you see a grub worm kill it and give the lawn an anti-grub additive. Many people mistake grub infestations for lack of water. No matter how much water you give the lawn, the grubs will keep killing grass.
Army worms are another pest that kills grass. You can literally watch them eat it and kill the grass. Army worms attack golf courses and can shut a hole down on a matter of hours. Army worms are the LAST thing you want outside of a kid pouring diesel on the lawn.
Ants don't kill the grass, but they can seriously make walking in the grass unpleasant. In Georgia we have fire ants, and while I've been bitten by them enough that I don't really feel it anymore, I've seen many grown men flee yelling with a foot full of ants. There is a homeopathic remedy for ridding the lawn of ants; pouring grits on the mound in hopes they'll eat it and then have the grit granule expand in their stomach killing them. ERRRNT - Won't happen. Ants will bypass the grits and you'll just have wasted quite possible a great breakfast food. Go to Lowe's or Home Depot and get fire ant killer or in the spring get some fertilizer with ant killer mixed in it (and grub killer while you're at it)
Install a rain sensor.
Nothing irritates me more than to drive down the road when it's raining and see commercial irrigation running. An irrigation system (one done right) is… kind of expensive. If they (or you for that matter) are going to dump thousands of dollars on irrigation, then the very least you can do is drop another $100 dollars on a rain sensor. Rain sensors send a signal to the irrigation control box to NOT water when it detects rain on the way, while it is raining, or just after it rained. It will turn the irrigation back on when the grass needs to be watered automatically. They're cheap, worry free and save both money and water.
Do not water plants with turf heads.
This is my second largest irrigation pet peeve. Many times have I been infuriated by a home owner who thinks that they can just adjust their sprinkler heads for turf grass, over to also water their perennials. If I have to hear one more person bitch about why their plants died I'm going to get very blunt with them.
Don't be a dumbass. Grass needs roughly 20-45 minutes of water from a turf head (depending on size of zone and season) every other day. The average turf head puts out about 3 gallons per minute across a 60 ft full circle (this is variable as the nozzle can be changed from 1 gpm to about 8 gpm on most residential turf heads and the distance water is thrown can be adjust from anywhere from 2 ft to 160 ft and depends on water pressure and size of turf head… but I'm getting too technical here). Anyway, a turf head is designed to supply grass with an ample amount of water, and flowering plants and shrubs need a fraction of this, so to water them as you would grass will surely make them drown. For plants and shrubs there is what we call spray or mist heads. They pop up anywhere between 4-12 inches and provide a constant spray of water, and should be left to run about 10 minutes. They put out more water because unlike turf heads, mist heads do not oscillate or rotate, which is why you run them for less time – it's a constant spray over a small area.
The newer and sometimes better alternative is what is known as a MP Rotator. It's a low precipitation head that pops up like a mist head, has the median coverage areas of a turf head and the balanced output of both. It is designed to water both grass and plants without kill either one, so if you're in the market for a new irrigation system – request these kinds of heads – they're efficient all around. Their one drawback is that they are relatively expensive.
Fix a leaking head or pipe ASAP.
Many homeowners look at their irrigation like an American car. If it's got an oil leak, you can wiat it out until you've got time to fix it. WRONG. If you have a leaking head, you're wasting water and potentially flooding the part of the yard close to your irrigation head. You'll notice that the spots in your yard appear to be greener by the heads than where there are not any. If in fact you DO have a leaky head you'll notice WHILE the irrigation is running. Water leaking from a head after the zone shuts off is generally a result of gravity pulling water back down the pipe and out of the head itself. This is normal, but if it really bothers you or your yard has a steep incline and just don't like water doing what it does, have a CV installed. A CV is a backflow of sorts; it lets water flow one direction and not the other. Installed on the irrigation head, water will still flow back down the pipe, but remain confined in the pipe and not leak from the heads once the zone shuts off.
A broken pipe is a different issue altogether. Symptoms of a broken pipe can include a large gaping hole in your yard with exposed pipe and water gushing like a geyser when the irrigation cuts on down to a patch of really green grass in an obscure place. I've even seen pipe break so deep underground that over time it simply pushes the ground up and creates a floating patch of really green grass. It's best to have the pipe repaired or repair it yourself (it's really pretty quick and easy – usually) because broken pipe reduces overall water pressure in the zone and decreases the arc / radius of the water thrown from the head, which subsequently means you are not getting proper water coverage – killing the grass, and defeating the purpose altogether, making you, a sad panda. Not good.
Don't interject your opinion when irrigation is being installed – aka – leave me to do my job, despite what you think; I'm going to be right every time (it's my job).
It may come as a shock, but people like me actually understand the sciences (applied) involved in this blue collar job. Yes, you might THINK that putting more heads per zone is a better idea because it should reduce the amount of water you need to water the lawn, but the fact is, not only will you not have the right pressure to run the number of heads you THINK you need, but you'll have a decreased coverage area, need more zones of more heads and in the long run actually use 1/3 MORE water to water effectively
Essentially, if you have 6 heads per zone, spread 30 ft apart and you think that 7 heads 20 feet apart will use less water, keep in mind that each head has a 3gpm output, and runs for about 20 min (360 total gpm on the 6 head zone). If you let the zone now run for 17 minutes, you're 15 less gallons of water, have less coverage and pressure, and in the end, underwater the grass. So with all of that, because you have less coverage, you'll need another zone, and more than make up for the conserved water. It's just not going to benefit you in the end, I promise.
You might even think that placing plants in a certain fashion may look better than when I plan it out and that's fine, but do you understand how plants grow, how much water they need later and how big they'll really get (because let's face it, you probably won't be pruning them as often as you should *cough* crepe myrtles *cough* azaleas *cough* knock out roses *wheeze*... excuse me)