Drought and the Garden

For the last several weeks, we have been looking at ways to help make our landscapes more able to withstand the effects of drought, and to be more efficient in using irrigation water. Earth-Kind, an environmental stewardship program of Texas AgriLife Extension Service, includes water conservation as one its main objectives. To help reach that goal, it pulls together 7 principles to help develop a water-efficient landscape.

These principles include: 1) planning your landscape with water conservation in mind; 2) using plants appropriate for our area and your soil type; 3) having practical turf areas; 4) improving the soil prior to planting; 5) employing efficient irrigation practices; 6) using mulches to cover bare soil; and 7) applying appropriate maintenance practices.

This week we wrap up our series on water conservation and dealing with drought in the landscape by reviewing some of the maintenance practices that affect landscape water use. For more information on this subject, be sure to visit the Earth-Kind Drought Preparedness web site at http://earthkind.tamu.edu/drought

Proper Fertilizing. When properly applied based on the plant’s needs, fertilizers help maintain the health and vigor of our plants. Keep in mind, however, that lush growth that is promoted with high rates of fertilizer nutrients will require more water to maintain the rapidly growing shoots and leaves.

Ideally, you should fertilize the lawn and garden based on the actual needs of the plants. This can be determined by testing the soil. Both Texas A&M and Stephen F. Austin State University have soil testing laboratories that conduct soil tests for a minimal fee. The Texas AgriLife Extension Service Soil Testing Lab fee is $10 for a basic test, which is sufficient for most situations. Forms for submitting soil samples to their lab are available online at http://soiltesting.tamu.edu and also at every county Extension office in Texas.

In the absence of a soil test, fertilize St. Augustine and centipede grass lawns once in the spring and again in the fall to produce a healthy turf without excess growth which demands more frequent watering. Use a slow-release form of nitrogen in the spring application and a quick-release form in the fall. Avoid fertilizing during this current dry spell as you will only increase your lawn’s water requirement.

Apply no more than 1 pound of actual nitrogen fertilizer per 1,000 square feet of lawn at one time. Don’t guess your lawn area – you should measure your lawn area and keep those measurements with your fertilizer spreader as a reminder.

By using this fertilizer schedule, no other fertilizer is needed to maintain most shrubs and trees in the lawn area. For more information on fertilizing, there is a helpful publication on the Earth-Kind Drought Preparedness site – look for the link “Fertilization” on the right. Another good publication, called “Fertilizing Texas Lawns – 10-Point Checklist for Warm-Season Grasses” is located at the AgriLife online bookstore (agrilifelearn.tamu.edu – enter E-436 in the search box. E-437 is another, more in-depth, publication on fertilizing lawns).

Container plants are another story. You are probably watering them daily, and with frequent irrigation, nutrients will be quickly leached out of the porous potting soil. Regularly fertilize with a water-soluble fertilizer, or apply a slow release fertilizer formulated for potted plants to help maintain their health.

Mowing. Mowing grass at the proper height conserves water. Mow St. Augustinegrass at 3 inches; for Bermudagrass mow at 1 inch; for centipedegrass and Zoysiagrass mow at 2 inches. Mow your grass regularly. If you remove too much at a time, it stresses the grass, and lawns don’t need any more stress at this time of year. You should mow often enough so as to not remove more than 1/3 of the length of the grass blade.

Other Maintenance Practices. Regularly check your irrigation system if you have an in-ground system that runs at night while you sleep. Look for geysers (broken heads), washed areas around the heads, misaligned heads, and obvious differences in the amount of water coming out of the different heads. Wilted grass and plants can be a tip-off that something is wrong with a nearby sprinkler head. Sometimes dirt gets in the lines, partially clogging heads. Use a hand trowel to check the soil in suspect areas after an irrigation session. If it is still dry, check your system.

For more information on conducting an irrigation system audit, see the publication with the same title at the Earth-Kind Drought Preparedness web site.

Remember that, even though we are in a drought, lawns should still be watered as infrequently as possible, yet long enough to per irrigation to wet the soil 5 to 6 inches deep. If waterings are too light or too frequent the lawn may become weak and shallow-rooted, which in turn makes it more susceptible to stress injury.

Take the Earth-Kind Challenge! Is your landscape contributing to a healthy and sustainable environment? There’s one way to find out – take the Earth-Kind Challenge. It’s easy. Just answer a series of on-line questions about the cultural principles and practices used in maintaining your landscape. The higher the score, the more you are doing to help preserve and protect the environment in which we live.

  1. Answer the series of on-line questions about the cultural principles and practices used in maintaining your landscape. There are links to Earth-Kind information along the way if you need some help in determining the response that best describes your current practice(s).
  2. After completing the questions, click on the SUBMIT button and you will automatically receive an Earth-Kind score ranging from 0-100. The higher the score, the more you are doing to help preserve and protect the environment in which we live.
  3. In addition to a score you will also receive a summary of the questions and your responses. Those questions marked with a RED X provide suggestions on changes in landscape practices you can implement to help create a more healthy and sustainable environment.

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