Proper Watering – By Mark Govan, Host “Florida Gardening”

June is here and we are in the middle of our dry season. Without the daily afternoon thunderstorms we receive in July and August, our lawns and plants rely on us to monitor just how much water they are receiving. Most of us have probably noticed how quickly our potted plants and vegetable gardens are starting to wilt. Even my lawn and ornamental plants are showing signs of stress due to lack of water. Normally, I would tell you to go out and turn on your sprinkler. Unfortunately, with our current watering restrictions limiting us to irrigating our plants and lawns to only one day a week, we just can not possibly put down the necessary amounts of water needed to keep our plants properly hydrated. This week I want to go over a few suggestions that you can do to lessen the effects our drought and watering restrictions have given us.

Proper watering is one of the most important things you need to do to keep your plants healthy. The minute a plant senses that there is not enough water available; the plant goes into a protective mode. This mode can include shutting down the growth areas of a plant, folding or curling of the leaves, dropping leaves to limit water loss, and ultimately can cause the death of the plant. In order to ensure our plants continued health, we need to water our plants regularly. This means your plants should be on a minimum two day a week watering schedule. Even your citrus trees, landscape plants, lawns, and your potted plants need to be watered at least every three to four days if we do not receive any rainfall. Note: If you do not have a sprinkler system, you are going to have problems.

Right now most of our plants are not receiving the water they need due to the lack of rainfall in our area. Because we can anticipate our plants will need additional watering this time of year, you must think ahead and plan for this dry spell. One way of planning should be the addition or installation of a sprinkler system. Irrigation systems can be an automatic way of putting down the minimum amount of water necessary to keep our plants alive. Hand sprinkling is time consuming and at best merely hit and miss. Unfortunately, even those of us that have an irrigation system installed are at the mercy of government restrictions on the number of days we can use our sprinkler systems. Our current once a week watering restrictions were put in place several months ago, limiting when we can water. This means we have to look beyond irrigation systems to other products that can help. What can we do? Well, there are several moisture management products on the market which can help you manage your water use in the landscape. Hydretain is one of the moisture management products I like.

Hydretain is a liquid product that is available in a convenient hose end sprayer you hook up to your garden hose. Just turn on the water and spray this product over your lawn and around your plants then water it in. In a few short days you will see a significant improvement in the drought fighting ability of your plants. Once this product is applied to the lawn or flower beds and watered in, Hydretain binds with the roots and acts like little water magnets pulling water vapor out of the air and directing it to your plants root system. Even though this product must be reapplied every three months, the application is easy and for most lawns or flower beds it only take about five minutes to apply.

Using Hydretain or another moisture management product in conjunction with your sprinkler system can help tremendously. Unfortunately, because of our high summer temperatures you will still have to monitor your plants between watering days. If you do not have a sprinkler system and are using city water, Hydretain can help you save money on your watering bill by allowing you to water less often. As I stated above there are other moisture management products on the market but I have used Hydretain for several years and I like the results. Another way to save water is to purchase drought tolerant plants or native plants.

Native plants require less water than non native plants but unfortunately like all plants they still require watering until established. Rain barrels can help fill the gap in between watering days by giving you an additional source of water to draw from but the same problem exists, you have to water your plants yourself. The likelihood of your plants being susceptible to drought conditions increases when you have to get out and water your plants yourself.

This is why I still believe that a good irrigation system is the best way to ensure your plants vitality. If you currently have an irrigation system, make sure your system is inspected regularly by a professional for leaks, proper coverage, and broken sprinkler heads. Also check to make sure your rain shut off valve is working properly. Rain shut off valves are required on all sprinkler systems to ensure the system will not run during a rainstorm. If you have your sprinkler system worked on by a professional service and you do not have a rain shut off valve, you will be required to have one installed. This device will shut down your irrigation system if we receive rainfall that day saving you from having to water. The next item you will need to know is how much water your plants require.

Turf grass requires one inch of water two times per week. In order to determine if you are putting down enough water when you run your system there is a simple process you can follow. You will need several empty tuna fish cans or other measuring device and scatter them around your lawn where your sprinkler system will be watering. Next you will need to turn on your system and time how long it takes to fill the cans with one inch of water. Be sure to repeat this process for each zone you have. You should have the same amount of water in each can when you finish each zone. Once you determine how long it takes to fill your cans with one inch of water then you will need to set your irrigation timer to this time limit. Each zone will probably be different.

If you find that you have differing amounts of water in each can then your system needs to be looked at to determine if you are receiving proper coverage. A lot of times my irrigation technicians find sprinkler systems that have been installed with both rotors and pop up sprinkler heads on the same zones. This should never be allowed as rotors are meant to cover larger areas and have different flow rates than pop up heads do. Call a certified sprinkler repairman to go over your system and adjust your individual zones to put out the one inch of water necessary in each zone in the most efficient way.

One inch of water will penetrate our Floridasoils to a depth of about eight inches. The deeper you water, the deeper your roots will grow. This is important because you need moisture in the root zone for the roots to elongate. If the roots do not grow into this area then they will not have the ability to reach the water they need during the hot summer days ahead. This can lead to your plants wilting or drying out altogether.

Another way to help your lawn grow deeper roots is to advise your lawn maintenance people to mow your lawn at the highest possible setting. For St. Augustine lawns I recommend a blade height of four inches. Remember, this measurement is of the blade not from the concrete. Many maintenance people tend to cut their grasses at one half to one inch of blade length (scalping) which directly influences the length of the roots and the health of the lawn. Short blades of grass or scalped lawns mean short roots which will dry out quickly. Long blades of grass translate into long roots.

A good example I can share with you to explain this is the median strips in the roadways. These grasses are allowed to grow to a height of eight to ten inches with seedpods on top of that. With little or no water available to them, they continue to grow because of their long roots. Talk to your maintenance people and inform them of the guidelines put out by thy University of Florida IFASregarding turf grass mowing heights. If you mow your own grass make sure you raise the mowing deck up to the highest setting.

Shrubs on the other hand have different watering requirements than do turf grasses. Many of our shrubs line the foundation of the home or hug the roof line. Areas along the structure tend to have water directed to them naturally either by runoff or by being trapped in the mulch used to cool the roots. Water requirements for these plants are one half an inch of water applied two times per week. Be sure to add mulch once a year around the base of your plants to conserve water and lessen evaporation. Try not to mulch next to the stem of the plant. Mulch heaped near the stems of our plants can cause diseases to enter the plant so spread the mulch over the root area s only.

Potted plants are another problem which there is no general answer. When the plants are dry, water them. Some pots have drainage saucers which are tricky because if you get a lot of rain then they need to be emptied or you risk rotting the plant. If they are empty you want to fill them and sometimes you may not need to. The best thing to do is to feel the soil. If the soil feels dry add water or you can use watering bulbs available at local garden centers. These bulbs release water as the plants demand it. This can save you time and allow you to go on a vacation without having to worry about your plants at home.

Water is essential for all plants and proper watering can mean the difference between a healthy plant and a sick one. Beware of the summertime showers that may inundate your yard early in the week allowing you to turn off your sprinkler system only to forget to turn it back on. I believe that if it rains on your irrigation day then turn your system off for that day but you need to turn it back on the following day. Leave yourself a note to remind you to turn it back on or have your home inspected by a licensed irrigation specialist. Thanks for your time and remember, without plants we would not be here!

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