In his blog article, “Save Water in 5 Steps,” Landscape Designer Wells Rawls puts things into perspective with his swimming pool comparison. He says, “A swimming pool that measures 30 ft. wide by 50 ft. long with an average depth of 5 feet holds about 56,000 gallons of water. A small landscape can lose enough water to fill a swimming pool.”
He bases his comparison on a “typical” irrigation system that uses 50 spray heads at 2 gallons per minute, running once a day for 20 minutes per zone which works out to 2,000 gallons per day. If this system runs for 5 months, that’s 300,000 gallons per season. And with 20% of water lost to evaporation during daytime watering, that amounts to “60,000 GALLONS OF WATER LOST FROM OUR AQUIFER PER SYSTEM PER YEAR!”
It is no wonder that Southern California is now being government mandated for restricted water use. For this reason, and simply because we care about the environment and our future, The Yard Fairy has stepped up our effort to offer water saving solutions to our landscaping clients. We recommend making the following changes to your landscape design and irrigation system:
1. Maintain and monitor your existing irrigation system throughout the season.
Map out which zones cover which areas. Record existing run times. Note what type of sprinkler heads are used. Visually check each zone as the system is running and adjust sprinkler heads as necessary. If your system is old, you may want to consider replacing the controller, which we’ll cover in more detail in the next point. Poorly performing and mismatched sprinkler heads, leaking pipes, damaged valves and clogged nozzles all reduce the overall performance of your irrigation system. You’ll want to upgrade these components if you run into problems.
For more efficient water use, alter your watering schedule as the seasons change, and there becomes less of a need to water at certain times of the day. Today’s computerized controller systems offer more sophisticated options for managing your watering cycles. By monitoring the absorption capacity of the soil, you will also be able to tell when you’re over-watering and causing runoff, which of course means wasted water that offers no benefit to your plants.
Smart Irrigation Controllers are developed using advanced technology that can determine how much and how frequently your plants and/or lawn should be watered based on the type of vegetation and amount of precipitation expected in the area. Results from independent research, backed up by our own experience, show that water savings of 26-32% are possible with the installation of a Smart Irrigation Controller. When you switch to native plants, add to this an extra 33-60 gallons per day per 1,000 sq. ft. (Exact savings depend on climate conditions and efficiency of your design).
3. When appropriate, switch to methods such as drip irrigation, that will minimize evaporation.
Spray irrigation imitates rain, but the difference is that the sun is typically not shining when rain falls – and it rains for much longer periods than when we water our lawns. So, if you’re using a spray sprinkler head system on hot, sunny summer days, a good amount (as much as 20%) of the water you’re applying is actually evaporating into the air due to heat and wind conditions.
Many of today’s water conservationists have switched to the more efficient drip irrigation system. This is easily accomplished by converting your old, spray head system. Cap off the spray heads, join the new drip parts with the old spray parts, and attach a 1/2 inch drip tube to the old spray head. The new system will live above the ground, and you can camouflage by covering the tubes with mulch.
As a San Diego County Water Authority-recognized Smart Irrigation installer, The Yard Fairy recommends that you consult with a professional who has knowledge of the more complex aspects of this type of upgrade. For example, as Rawls explains in his blog article, “Filtration is very important. Because of the small holes used to deliver the water, even small amounts of dirt or debris will clog the emitters. When converting a spray zone to drips, always install a filter at the valve. Your irrigation parts store can recommend a model that works for your system and application.”
4. Longer means stronger when it comes to root systems.
Wells Rawls advises, “The coarser your soil, the shorter the duration between watering times.” In other words: smaller soil particles hold water longer than larger soil particles do. If your soil is primarily coarse cobble rock, you will have to water for longer periods of time if you want your lawn and plants to retain moisture at the roots.
Train your grass and plants to “harden off” between waterings, by giving them a longer watering cycle followed by a drying-out period. This will ensure that they put roots down deeper and derive more moisture from the ground. Younger plants will need more frequent waterings, as their root systems are just developing – but as they mature, you’ll want to space out the waterings so they can adapt accordingly.
Rawls advises to model your irrigation frequency after what happens in nature: “The reality is that it rains for hours, and then no rain for days or even weeks. Plants have evolved over time to cope with this by growing when soil moisture is high and hardening off during dry periods to wait for the next rain cycle. Remember, we want to imitate nature.”
So it makes sense that if you water for a 30-minute period twice a week rather than a 10-minute period 3 times a week, your plants will develop stronger and deeper root systems that enable them to take their own water from the soil. That means the need to water is less frequent, and nature takes care of your garden for you. You can check your root zone by digging down with a small shovel and then checking the moisture levels at different soil depths.
Trees and shrubs have root systems that reach deep down into the soil, many feet below the surface. Because of these complex root systems, mature trees typically only require a small amount of water in addition to what Mother Nature provides. However, you can help retain the amount of water the surrounding soil absorbs by lining your trees with mulch. Other plants such as vegetables, flowers, herbs, ornamental grasses and such, also benefit tremendously with the application of mulch to the plant beds.
Mulch offers many advantages, both for the soil and the plants themselves. Mulching helps save water by providing extra water storage, and by reducing the rate of evaporation from the soil. It holds onto nutrients better, and insulates plants from low temperatures, giving them an early start plus extra protection during cold spells. You can put mulch around your plants, flowers, vegetables, shrubs and trees with excellent results – and you’ll find that you need to weed much less often, as it deters weed growth while allowing plants to thrive. Additionally, soaks water in better while preventing the soil from washing away.
6. Choose native plants and grasses.
The Yard Fairy specializes in creating beautiful natural landscapes using an array of plants that thrive in San Diego weather conditions. These include both plants that are native to the area, and those which are found in comparable climates in other parts of the world. While a lush, green lawn can be luxurious, in this day and age more people are making the practical switch to native grass and groundcover that grows naturally in their type of climate. This can be a bit of a process initially, but it’s worth the extra time and effort if it means saving thousands of gallons of water per year.
In his article, Wells Rawls recommends first using an herbicide to kill the old lawn, then tilling the soil, and finally applying new seed using the hydroseeding method. He advises, “Seeding rates are important when using these [native] bunch grasses. At lower rates, the bunches can create a bumpy feel when walking on the lawn. Traditional seed is applied at a rate of 4 lbs per 1,000 square feet. These grasses should be applied at 8 lbs per 1,000 square feet.” Other types of plants will require their own methods for removal and replacement. A landscape specialist such as The Yard Fairy can walk you through the various options native-friendly plants as well as devise a plan to modify your yard and garden for impressive, water saving results.
Turf areas refer to the grass-covered parts of your yard that serve as a “green carpet” to be walked upon. You can greatly reduce the amount of watering required to keep your landscape looking attractive, by switching from turf grasses to other types of groundcover plants – for example, elfin thyme. Pavers, paths, raised beds and ponds are other great ways to reduce the amount of grass in your yard, thus cutting down on your water consumption. Consult with The Yard Fairy to explore options that will enhance the aesthetic appeal and increase personal enjoyment.
8. Set up a water budget.
Check out Be Water Wise for tips on how to devise a watering schedule that meets your monthly, weekly and daily goals for the season. Commit to your water budget and monitor your performance by reading the water meter each month. If you’re exceeding your anticipated water use, determine which activities, not just outdoor use but also inside your home, may be contributing to the problem. Adjust your outdoor watering schedule as necessary.
Many of the techniques previously described in this article can make a drastic difference in the amount of water you consume on a daily basis. For many Southern California residents, it is worth the investment of consulting with a certified irrigation specialist and water-wise, eco-friendly landscape professional.