Figuring out the watering drill for dry times in the lawn, garden

05/03/2014 12:00 AM

05/03/2014 9:54 AM

Tell me if it happened, and I just missed it.

Has it rained longer than five minutes this year?

Even if it did, all the wind we’ve been enduring would have sucked the moisture up and out long ago.

So, while a favorable pattern for summer rain is in the long-range forecast, we can’t count on that, and we’re looking at a dry spring.

I suppose that should make me grateful for the mint that has jumped the window box (it’s all over now), and for the woody bare stem that I had pulled out of a pot and tossed on the ground last weekend, only to see, a few days later, green leaves sprouting from the dry wood. I rubbed the tiny leaves, smelled thyme, and stuck it back in a pot. Sometimes it pays not to clean up the garden too fast.

These are the kinds of plants, on Herb Day, that we can celebrate without having to worry about rain.

For the others, we need to be training them – including our lawns – to use the least possible water, no mater what the forecast. And suddenly next week’s temperatures look like summer. So it’s time for a reminder of how to water.

The basics

• Water when a plant needs it, not according to a schedule. This requires time and effort.
• A good way to determine this is by using a long screwdriver or another type of probe that can be plunged into the ground to see how far down the soil is moist. But a screwdriver can go into sandy soil even it it’s dry, and may be impeded in clay soil even when it’s wet, so other observations have to be made.
• Water close to the ground or on the ground.
• Water early in the day.
• Keep an eye on hoses and sprinklers so that you can turn them off when water starts running off instead of into the ground.
• If you have a sprinkler system, be sure it has a rain sensor, and have it checked to be sure it is working optimally.

Fescue lawn needs

If the top 2 to 3 inches of the fescue lawn is so dry that you can’t form a ball in the soil, then it is time to look for signs of stress from lack of water: blades starting to curl up, a purplish or gray color to the grass.

The lawn should dry out as much as possible without causing damage. (And lawns will go dormant before they die from dryness. They’re actually pretty tolerant.) This makes the roots go deep for water, which will make the grass more resilient to summer stress and reduce the need for water.

Start by putting down an inch to an inch and a quarter of water at one time, but being sure that you water only as long as there is no run-off. If your sprinklers put down water too fast, the lawn won’t be getting what it needs.

Clay soil does not absorb water as quickly as sandy soil, nor does it dry out as fast. Clay absorbs water at a rate of 0.2 inches per hour. If you round that up to 1/4 inch an hour for ease, that means it would take four hours for an inch to soak in. If your sprinkler is putting down an inch in 30 minutes, much of that will evaporate or run off.

In sandy soil, water soaks in at a rate of 2 inches an hour. That means it will take only a half-hour to put on an inch of water.

Do a test with a straight-sided container such as a tuna can to see how much time it takes for your sprinkler to put down 1/4 inch of water for your clay soil, for example. Then water only that long, waiting an hour for it to soak in before you turn the water on again. Repeat. It will take four hours.

If you’re watering only one zone or area at a time, you can move from zone to zone in the course of the hour. If you have a newer sprinkler system, you should be able to program it do so.

If you’re using a sprinkler attached to a hose, you may want to keep the sprinkler in one place and water one area a day, moving the sprinkler to water another area the next day. Programmable timers can turn off the sprinkler after a certain amount of time.

If you fertilize fescue, it will require more water. It will grow more, and require more mowing. For the sake of water conservation, there is no need to fertilize fescue in the spring unless you didn’t fertilize in the fall. If you want to fertlize fescue in May and want to save on water, put down half the usual rate of slow-release fertilizer — 1/2 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. Organic sources are slow-release, including Milorganite, cottonseed meal, alfalfa-based fertilizers and other products derived from plants or animals.

Warm-season grass needs

Warm-season grasses are more drought-tolerant and love the heat. Bermuda, zoysia and buffalo grasses naturally go dormant in the middle of summer. If your lawn is bone dry, water it. Err on the side of watering it very little.

During the summer months, watering warm-season grasses half an inch every two weeks will keep them out of dormancy and moderately green.

Tree, shrub, flower needs

When planting, water new plants in well and then not again until they need it. Be vigilant for signs of any stress, and use the screwdriver to monitor moisture levels around plants. You want to be sure the water goes deep enough to reach down through the root ball.

Plants will continue to require water as they become established. Shrubs need a year to establish, and trees need careful watering for at least a year for each inch of trunk diameter.

As a general rule, flowers in the ground will do fine with deep watering once a week, or maybe twice a week when it gets really hot.

If possible, place hoses on the ground and let the water go until it starts to run off. Be sure the plants dry out somewhat between waterings.

Trees and shrubs can go a little longer between waterings as long as you’re going deep. Watch for signs at the nearest park. If you see the grass is going dormant, soak your trees. If there are no substantial rains in the next two to three weeks, soak them again, slowly and deeply.

Wait until the soil is good and warmed up, usually late May or early June, so that the plants get growing, and then be sure to mulch everything to hold moisture in. Use an organic mulch, and not rocks, which hold heat.

Time to plant

After crazy cool weather last week, it looks like our planting days can finally begin without fear. Time to hit Herb Day and the nurseries in earnest (I’m lucky I’ve lost only a single cucumber plant to over-anxious purchasing so far this spring).

See you out there!

About Annie Calovich

Annie writes about home and garden, including her Bit of Earth column on Saturdays. She has been at The Eagle since 1985, working as a copy editor, a nation/world editor and a reporter. She’s a KU graduate who started out at The Coffeyville Journal.

Contact Annie at 316-268-6596 or

Follow Annie on Twitter: @AnnieCalovich

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