Annie Calovich

March 14, 2013

As spring arrives, consider yard plants’ water needs

Unlike a winter that held back until the end, spring is not holding back.

Unlike a winter that held back until the end, spring is not holding back.

We’ve had some firmly warm days, daylight saving time is here, grass is greening up, and spring officially starts on Wednesday. Extension agent Bob Neier said that after the recent snow, he checked moisture levels in a couple of spots at the Extension Center in west Wichita. He said that both an area that was watered last year and one that has not been watered in years were moist a foot down.

“No one should be watering now,” he said.

And that’s a relief. This is a time to enjoy.

Last week, we looked at how to start the spring out on the right foot with grass so that we water as little as possible, making the lawn put down deep roots looking for moisture rather than expecting frequent drinks from above.

This week, Neier says that the same principles apply to other plants in the yard, though their roots may grow deeper.

“Start out by knowing how much water you have by digging,” using a shovel or a soil probe, he said. Now that the snows have soaked in, and we’ve had follow-up rain, we’re good for now.

As we move toward planting – pansies can go in now, and alyssum and snapdragons and ornamental kale soon – Neier advises watering plants in with a starter fertilizer solution and then not again until they need it.

“Watch for it,” he said. “We’re often overwatering everything.”

It will be important to be sure that everything is mulched to hold in water, Neier said. There are many choices of organic mulches, just be sure not to use rock, which holds heat. And it’s good to wait to mulch until the soil warms up, so that plants can get growing. “By late May, first of June, mulches need to be on,” Neier said.

“Then most of these things are going to do fine” with a once-a-week deep watering for flowers in the garden, or maybe twice a week if it gets really hot, Neier said.

“Trees and shrubs can go a little longer, but when you do water, you’re going to need to water deeply,” he said. “Most of what we plant here is more drought-tolerant. I wouldn’t water until you see buffalo grass going dormant. Look at the closest park. When you see the grass go dormant, water your tree and really soak it. Then if there are no substantial rains, in two-three weeks, soak it again,” slowly and deeply.

One of the main principles of xeriscape gardening is to group plants that have similar water needs together. “It’s not to say only plant cactus or just use rock. Put prairie-type plants together and they will hardly ever need to be watered.” If you place thirsty plants alongside the dry ones, you’ll end up watering them all to meet the needs of the one that needs it most.

The Extension Service has been offering classes and seminars in various venues about water-wise planting, and attendance has been strong, he said. One of the next opportunities will be the Lawn Care & Water in Kansas Series, three classes that will be from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. April 2, 9 and 16 at the Extension Center, 21st and Ridge Road. The county Extension and the city of Wichita Water Center are sponsoring the classes for $5 for the series. People can attend any or all of them. Here’s the schedule: April 2, basic lawn care; April 9, lawn problems; and April 16, efficient lawn watering. Register online at or call 316-660-0100 by March 29.

The Extension also has a list of plants (search for water wise plants) that, once established, can survive on natural rainfall (but will look better if they’re watered at most every two weeks). The categories include all sizes of deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs, as well as perennials for sun and partial shade, and ground covers for sun and shade.

Anything that is planted new will need water to get established, but Neier has this tip if you’re wanting to water as little as possible: The smaller the plant, the quicker it’s going to be established. So you might scale back a size on whatever tree or shrub or perennial you plan to buy in that case.

Shrubs need a year to establish, and trees need careful watering for at least a year for each inch of trunk diameter, Neier said.

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