Water Help – By Mark Govan, Host “Florida Gardening”

This week I was walking through my greenhouse and I started thinking about how warm it was. Generally speaking April is a nice warm month with cool nights and many of our plants should just be waking up and putting on their foliage. Well, just three weeks into spring and I have had to prune back several plants because they have been growing since February. Although unusual, I like this. All of my plants have blossoms on them and they are growing great. With all this activity in the garden you would think that you can sit back and enjoy your plants early growth. Unfortunately, this is not the case and there are several things you need to know about proper watering of your lawns and ornamentals.  

            Proper watering is probably 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 can include shutting down new growth areas of a plant, folding or curling of the leaves, dropping leaves to limit water loss, and ultimately the complete shutdown or 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 regular watering schedule by either a sprinkler system or by hand watering. This includes your citrus trees, your landscape plants, your lawn, and your potted plants. Note: If you do not have a sprinkler system, you are going to have problems.

            Currently, we are under drought conditions due to the lack of rainfall in our area. Normally this time of year we should have received over nine inches of rainfall. Currently we have only received a little better than four inches for the entire year. With these current dry conditions, we can expect additional water restrictions to be put in place tightening our ability to properly hydrate our plants. What can we do? Well, there are several moisture management products on the market which can help you manage your water uses in the landscape.

            Hydretain is one of the moisture management products I like. Once this product is applied to the lawn or flower beds, it 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. Use of this product does not relieve you of the responsibility of monitoring your plants or the amount of water they need but if you are looking to eliminate one watering per week because you are paying for city water, this product is for you. 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 water occasionally. Rain barrels can also help you save many plants 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.  

            This is why I still believe that a good irrigation system is the best way to ensure your plants vitality. Be sure to have your watering system inspected regularly by a professional for leaks, broken sprinkler heads, and adequate coverage of both your lawn and your landscaped areas. Also check and be sure your rain shut off valve is working properly. This will shut down your irrigation system if we receive rainfall that day. 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. Here is a simple way to find out how much water your system is putting down. 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 that for each zone you have that you use several cans to measure how much your system is putting out in each area. You should have the same amount of water in each can when you finish each zone. If you find that you have differing amounts of water in each can then your system needs to be looked at to determine if your sprinkler heads are too small or too large. A certified sprinkler repairman can adjust your system so you will put out the same amount of water in 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.

            One inch of water will penetrate our Floridasoils to a depth of 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 it needs during the hot summer days ahead. Be sure to advise your lawn maintenance people to help your lawn survive drought conditions by allowing your lawn to be cut at a minimum of four inches of blade height. 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. In other words short or scalped grasses mean short roots and long grass means long roots. A good example of this is the median strips in the roadways. These grasses are allowed to grow to a height of six to eight 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 IFAS regarding turf grass mowing heights. 

            Shrubs on the other hand have different watering requirements than does turf grasses. Many of our shrubs line the foundation of the home or hug the roof line. These 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 but not next to the stem. Mulch heaped near the stems of our plants can cause diseases to enter the plant so be sure to spread the mulch over the roots only.

            Potted plants are another problem to 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 do this and enjoy your garden. Thanks for your time and remember, without plants we would not be here!

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