For a place that has already had more than 45 or 50 inches of rain this year, there’s a surprising amount of drought damage evident in our landscapes. It’s hard to explain, because lake levels stayed respectably high through the summer, yet as the weeks progressed, the ground grew drier.
By late July, I noticed that many North Texas residents, businesses and cities seemed to have given up on watering their plants. Apparently, they’d had enough water for one growing season. Unfortunately, this type of neglect is a curse of death for many valuable trees, shrubs and ground covers, and the scars are still out there.
Many people don’t understand watering or how to handle this important gardening chore properly, especially this time of year.
Perhaps some of those people will have thoughts of renovating their gardens this fall or, at least, in the spring.
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On the flip side of the coin, I’ve seen a fair share of water-wasting activities. Last week, for instance, while running a few errands, I happened by a retail shopping center with a large commercial landscape. Lo and behold, not 12 hours after the conclusion of an 8-inch rain event, the sprinklers were running. The ground was saturated and there was absolutely no place for that water to run except into the street and down the storm sewers.
I’ll confess now that I was a touch outraged, so I took a photo of the sprinklers running and posted it on my Facebook page — chastising the property owner for wasting water when the next drought could already have started. (We never know.) And that was when the figurative floodgates let loose. Probably 95 percent of the people responding posted some form of support or agreement.
But, oh, that other 5 percent. It was as if I’d come out against motherhood. Their use of water, they said, was their own right. And the fact that I didn’t make an effort to contact the property owner to inform him about the city water restrictions that were being broken, well, that was unforgivably lazy on my part.
One lady went so far as to theorize that it might have been a woman whose husband was out of town — with an inference there that she might not know how to turn off a sprinkler system? I started to explain that this was a large national retailer and not a home, but was saved by the bell as other women started calling her out for the helpless-woman assumption.
My takeaway from all this is that many people simply don’t understand watering or the importance of handling this important gardening chore properly, especially this time of year.
So, here’s a cheat sheet of suggestions.
Don’t presume that plants will have to be watered in wintertime. If we get regular rainfall, at least every couple of weeks, the soil may be moist enough for roots to stay properly hydrated. I’ve gone entire winters without having to water my landscape.
Of course, new plantings are a different story. With their more limited root systems, you can’t afford to let them get dry. Spot-watering with a hose may be necessary.
On a standard sprinkler system with a regular time clock, change from the “automatic” to “manual” mode so you can determine when your plants will be watered.
If you have a “smart” controller, be certain that it’s working. It’s supposed to measure rainfall, wind and temperature and balance those against soil types, sun or shade, slopes and types of plants that you’re growing. It’s that controller’s job to determine when an automatic sprinkling system should run. But you have to make sure the smart controller is still functioning.
If you have doubts, contact your licensed irrigation contractor for a system checkup.
If you have a standard sprinkler system with just a regular time clock, change it from the “automatic” to “manual” mode. That way you can determine when your plants will be watered. That will avoid mistakes like I witnessed last Sunday. You won’t even miss the system turning on by itself — you’ll be able to activate it all with one flick of a finger to press the “start” button. It’s a small price to pay for all the control you’ll take back.
If you have a standard controller, be sure your system is equipped with a freeze guard that will shut it off when temperatures approach the mid-30s. Most cities will fine you if you put water into the street during freeze events, plus it’s not good for your shrubs and ground covers to be coated in ice.
If you’re watering with a hose-end sprinkler, remember to always disconnect the hose from the faucet. That will prevent pipes from freezing in the outside walls of your house. Drain the hose and sprinkler to keep them from freezing and rupturing. Better yet, put them in the garage or barn.
Water in anticipation of extremely cold weather. Freeze damage will always be greater if plants are dry. Soak the soil deeply one or two days before the cold winds arrive.
Mulch your plants, not only to moderate the rates of soil temperature changes, but also to lessen weed growth. Mulches reduce the soil-to-air contact, so they slow the soil’s drying dramatically.
Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sundays on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: http://neilsperry.com.