Category Archives: watering

Save Water – Save Trees

I had to do it. I couldn’t resist. Even though I’d vowed not to get any new plants until fall planting season when I saw the one gallon Pride of Madeira just begging for a new home I succumbed to my impulse. I rationalized this plant was on my wish list and will be drought tolerant so I wasn’t being totally irresponsible.

I’ve always wanted an echium fastuosum on my hillside. I admire those huge spires of purple-blue flowers whenever I see them in other gardens. These are tough plants getting by with no summer water once established and the flower spikes are bee magnets. I covered it with a layer of shade cloth for a few days because it was so hot when I planted it. This will help it establish more quickly while the roots take hold in the soil.

Flame_tree
Flame tree on Stanford campus

In your own garden it’s wise to establish a drought to-do list. I’m talking about what plants get your precious water and what to let go.

As we enter another dry year many of our ornamental and fruit trees are dying. Many were watered along with the lawn you have now let go brown. Others might have been surviving on natural rainfall. Whatever the case in your garden don’t let your trees die.

Nature has already killed an estimated 12 million trees in Calif. forests since the drought began four years ago. Most of these have fallen victim to bark beetles that attack trees weakened by drought.

In our own neighborhoods, trees are a long-lived asset. A tree is not something that can be easily replaced. It’s OK to appropriately water trees. Dying trees can be a safety hazard and removing a dead tree is expensive.

It takes years to grow a tree to mature size. Save and use shower and cooking water to help them out. Maybe it’s time to install an simple laundry-to-landscape system to water your landscape trees. Or set up a separate drip or soaker hose for your trees and give them a good deep drink at least once or twice a month. And remember that the tree’s feeder roots are not at the base of the trunk but out at the drip line and a little beyond.

laurel tree.1600
Laurel tree on Stanford campus

A rule of thumb for determining when to irrigate is when 50% of the water has been depleted from the soil in the plants’ root zone. This allows a buffer of water in the soil in case the weather suddenly turns hot and windy and applies to trees, shrubs and perennials.

Sandy soils hold less water than clay soils and must be irrigated more frequently. A common misconception is that it takes more water to grow plants in sandy soil than in clay soil. Actually the total amount required for the whole year is the same for both soil types. The amount of sunlight, wind, temperature and humidity control how much water a plants needs – the soil is only the reservoir.

To check the water content in the soil dig 8-16 inches down into the soil with a trowel, shovel or soil tube and feel the soil. At about 50% available water:
* Course soil appears almost dry and forms a ball that does not hold shape.
* Loamy soil forms a dark ball that is somewhat moldable and can form a weak ribbon when squeezed
between the finders.
* Clayey soil forms a good, dark ball and makes a ribbon an inch or so long and slightly sticky.

If you are planning to plant some new trees this fall, be sure they are drought tolerant natives or low water use non-natives. There are many nice specimens to choose from. And don’t skimp on the mulch.

It’s important to maintain our existing tree canopy and plant for the future. Even in times of drought, no especially in drought, planting and stewardship of trees is critical. Not just for their future but for ours as well.

Planting for Birds and Watering Tips

Purple-finch
Purple finch

My garden is alive with birds. Butterflies and bees also seem to find it an interesting place to visit. I’m always on the look out for plants that will attract even more of these exquisite creatures. Fortunately there are many that have low water requirements which is a prerequisite these days.

But how do you plant something new given the new water restrictions? And what about those existing trees, shrubs and perennials that birds, bees and butterflies depend on? How much water do they need to survive?

Everybody loves winged creatures in the garden. Adding plants that attract birds, bees and butterflies is at the top of the list of requests for nearly every garden that I design.

Trees that provide fruit, seeds, nectar and protein from insects attract many kinds of songbirds. Our native Big Leaf Maple is a favorite of the Evening Grosbeak who relish the seeds and early spring buds. Another bird magnet is the dogwood. Our Pacific dogwood as well as the Eastern dogwood and even the hybrid of the two, Eddie’s White Wonder, all are very valuable sources of food for many birds. Their summer berries are high in fat and important for migratory and wintering birds.

achillea_yellow
Achillea

In every garden possible I try to include low water use shrubs and perennials that attract birds. My favorite Lesser Goldfinch is partial to the seeds of yarrow, buckwheat and aster. Kevin’s mahonia is favored by Western bluebirds. Blooming now in our own neck of the woods is Mexican elderberry. Their butter yellow flowers will form purple berries rich in carbohydrates and protein and attract an incredible number of birds. And I always can find space for another variety of manzanita or ceanothus.

Both hummingbirds and butterflies are attracted to flowers that provide nectar. Among their favorites that won’t break your water budget are natives such as penstemon and salvia. Galvezia, mimulus, monardella, California fuchsia and ribes are also important nectar sources for them in your garden. Add a couple non-native, drought tolerant perennials like lavender, gaura, coreopsis, verbena, scabiosa, lantana and wallflower and you’ll provide a feast for all your winged visitors.

So how much water do different types of plants need during the heat of summer?

As a rule of thumb, trees and large shrubs need deep but infrequent waterings. They should be on a separate valve than your smaller shrubs and perennials. After the last two winters of little rain, many trees are showing signs of stress. It’s not easy to replace a tree that will take 20 years to regrow if you have to replant. Water ornamental trees 1-3 times per month depending on the type and soil. Tree roots are 12-36” deep and require 10 gallons of water per inch of trunk diameter.

Apply with a soaker hose, drip system emitters or hand held hose with shut off and soft spray attachment according to your water districts restrictions. Don’t dig holes in the ground in an effort to water deeply. This dries out roots even more. Be sure to water the root zone to the indicated root depth every time you water. Watering deeper than the root zone only means you are wasting water. You can test how deep you watered by pushing a smooth rod -1/4” – 3/8” in diameter- into the ground soon after you irrigate. The soil probe should easily slide through the wet soil but become difficult to push when reaching dry soil.

verbena_Homestead-purple
Homestead Purple verbena

The roots of smaller shrubs are 12-24” deep in the soil. Established native shrubs may need only monthly waterings to keep them looking their best while other shrubs may need watering every 7-10 days during the heat of the summer. Perennial roots only go down 12” or so and may need watering once or twice a week depending on it’s water needs.

With lots of mulch and the above watering tips you can keep all your plants happy and healthy for everyone to enjoy.

Rose Tips and Tricks

The_Mystery_RoseSurrounded by roses of nearly every color in the rainbow I smelled vanilla, spice and honey. The sun peaked in and out of the clouds allowing the vivid hues of the petals to change with the light. I was enjoying the garden of rose aficionados Mark and Lane Maloney of Scotts Valley. Among their 40 rose bushes I was to learn how an expert cares for these beauties.

The oldest roses in the garden are 60 years of age. Mark dug them from his mother’s collection when she died in Atherton 5 years ago. He starting collecting most of his other roses 20-30 years ago when he and Lane moved to the Scotts Valley property. Because he seldom has a rose die the only new rose in the garden is a double blooming red variety called Legend and named after Oprah. It was just starting to open on the day I visited this amazing rose garden.

I asked Mark which rose is his favorite. It was hard to pin him down to just one. The Distant_Drum_rosegarden is divided into two separate beds. One bed is devoted entirely to roses while another blends roses with other perennials. I admired a large shrub covered with pinkish flowers and he replied “this is one my most beautiful roses. It starts out a deep dusty rose then fades to lighter shades as it ages”.  Most of the roses in the garden have large ornamental name tags that he purchased online. The sign at the base read Distant Drums.

I was drawn to the Double Delight as I know it’s one of the most fragrant. Another rose with an incredible scent is Dolly Parton but on this day it hadn’t opened yet. Mark described it as “big and pink”, which seems appropriate.

Strike_It_Rich_roseDouble Delight, like many roses, blooms in cycles. They set buds and bloom for a month, rest for a month, then set another round of blooms. Mark said he usually gets about 3 cycles per season. One of his favorite roses will bloom all summer non-stop. Strike it Rich lives up to the name with lovely sherbet-orange flowers.

Mark also likes Black Magic with deep, reddish-black blooms that last 2 weeks in the garden as does another of his favorites, Fame, with pink flowers so bright they are nearly iridescent .  With deep yellow blooms Gold Medal caught my attention. But then I saw St. Patrick with those cool greenish-white blooms. Mark told me that in the white rose department he thinks White Lightnin’ is a beautiful rose as is the classic, JFK.

The roses in the Maloney’s garden are lush and healthy. What’s your secret I asked? Mark Perfect_Moment_rosesmiled and handed me a Rose Garden Calendar he had prepared on his computer for me. In a nutshell this is how he does it.
Late December- prune heavily down to about 24″ tall.

Early January- spray roses with dormant spray and again in early February.

March 1- fertilize and repeat each month through September.

Mark uses a systemic fertilizer which keeps insects at bay. He also uses an acid fertilizer once or twice a year as well as putting banana peels on the surface of the soil for potassium. I laughed when he told me his banana peel tip. I was nearly standing on a blackened peel with sticker still intact when he shared this info.

His other “secrets” include picking off diseased leaves regularly, pruning lightly throughout the year, mulching with several inches of chipped wood and watering with 1″ of water per rose each week applied in a trough  surrounding the shrub.

Mark is a member of ARS (American Rose Society) with he suggests as a good source of information and also rose recommendations for different areas and climates. He also maintains the roses at the Scott House at Civic Center. So when Mark talks roses, I listen.

Smart Irrigation

dry_river_bed2.1280Several years ago I was invited to tour a beautiful garden in the hills above Scott Valley High School. Robby Frank was more than eager to share his techniques for gardening in deer country. He was also in a personal battle with gophers and moles and I affectionately bestowed upon him the title, serial mole killer. I am happy to report that Robby has won the war on all fronts. His garden is more lush than ever and with that comes the ongoing dilemma of saving water in the landscape especially in this time of drought.  He solved the problem by installing a Smart Irrigation Controller and has been so pleased with the results he’s on a Smart Irrigation crusade to educate fellow gardeners. Here’s his story.

We all know mulching is one of the ways to conserve water in the landscape. Robby has long been an advocate of composting and regularly renews the mulch in his garden. He even calls himself  “Mr Mulch”. He has permeable paths and a dry river bed that allow rainwater runoff to soak into the soil slowly. He keeps his plants pruned in a naturalistic manner because “smaller plants use less water'”. But all this wasn’t enough. His 3 “dumb timers”, as he calls them, were using too much water. That’s when he started researching weather based smart irrigation timers.
drought_tolerant_plantings.1024
“To me it seemed like an easy way to conserve water and it’s better for the plants as well”, Robby said. “It will increase the irrigation times if the weather is hotter and dryer than usual,  decrease if it’s colder and turn itself off if it rains”. Robby was already familiar with the Rainbird brand of controllers although there are many other companies that offer them. That’s why he eventually chose the “Simple to Set” Smart Indoor/Outdoor Irrigation timer or Rainbird SST 1200s.
Rainbird_Smart_Irrigation_Controller
Scotts Valley Water District offers a Landscape Rebate program for weather based irrigation controllers and has a list of acceptable models on their website. Robby paid $165 online for his controller as he couldn’t find a local store that stocked them. Since then he has convinced the local Ace Hardware to carry them.  It replaced his 3 old controllers and he received a rebate from the SV water district for $100. San Lorenzo Water District has a similar rebate program.

To qualify for the credit, he arranged for someone to come to his house to take pictures of his old watering_schedule.1280controllers. After installation they came again to see the new controller and he completed the necessary paperwork. The rebate credit which can vary from $75-$100 doesn’t cover the cost of the controller or installation labor and is determined by the type of controller installed. You can’t go wrong with saving water, money and getting a rebate, too.

The best part of the new system is how it saves water and is better for the plants.  The controller is never turned off. You enter your zip code and the watering schedule you prefer and the controller adjust the amount of water either up or down as needed. For instance, when it was dry before the December freeze, the controller watered his landscape at 20-30% of normal so the plants were not totally dry during that week and were better able to stand the extended freezing temps.

Likewise, the sensor can trigger the controller to irrigate 130% of normal if it’s exceedingly hot and dry. The controller, also called a timer, comes with 10 years of historical weather data for any US ZIP code and includes a rain and temperature sensor.

Robby showed me how amazingly easy it is to set up and program the controller. It’s called the Simple to Set irrigation timer and I agree. Because he propagates most of his succulents himself from cuttings, it’s easy for him to add a bit of extra irrigation on a one-time or sort term basis until they become established. He couldn’t do that with his old timer. It had to water the whole area on a valve the same. Now he has 12 zones that he easily programmed for just the right amount of water whether it’s several times a week or once a month.

Robby Frank is on a crusade to save water and Smart Irrigation is the way to do it. If you want to read more about how he battles deer and moles you can access the story I previously wrote about him on my blog by searching Serial Mole Killer. He would love to find other local like-minded gardeners to share stories.

Good Watering Practices

philadelphus_Covered_BridgeThe recent heat wave was one for the record books. The temps were not the highest we've ever had around here but as each day melted into the next I kept thinking that fog, nature's air conditioning, was surely on it's way. Even drought tolerant plants need a little help at these times.

Watering is crucial as plants are growing vigorously. Water makes up 90-98% of every plant we grow. It's needed for photosynthesis, as well as reproduction and defense against pests. Checking soil moisture and improving a soils ability to absorb and hold water should be a priority when you're out in the garden. Don't wait for plants to wilt and burn before correcting watering problems.  

There are ways to water more efficiently and ways to conserve that water. Now is the a good time to review some good watering practices and guidelines.

When is the best time to water? Watering in the morning is the most efficient whether you water by sprinkler, drip system, soaker hose or by hand. The water soaks deep in the soil without risk of evaporation. It bolsters the plant for the day and has dried from leaves by evening reducing the risk for foliar diseases like mildew. Plant roots are also more receptive to watering in the morning.

Is it true that water droplets will scorch leaves in the sun? According to a study published in New Phytologist, a journal of research in plant science, there is a slight risk of leaf burn on fuzzy leaved plants in the sun. The hairs can hold the water droplets above the leaf surface and act as a magnifying glass to the light beaming through them. The study also reported that water droplets on smooth leaves, such as maples, cannot cause leaf burn, regardless of the time of day.

I my forty years of gardening, my own observation is that the leaf burn on a fuzzy leaf must be very small, indeed, as I've never observed any damage. If you find a plant needs water midday, by all means go ahead and water it. Containers even benefit from the cooling effect that watering provides

Most plants need 18" depth of well-drained soil to thrive although trees and many vegetables roots grow several feet deep. More than an inch of water per week may be needed for their success and in the case of many trees and native plants, deeper but more infrequent watering is required.

You can easily measure how much water you are applying. If you have a sprinkler system, place a straight-sided container like a tuna can on the outside edge of the area being watered. Let the sprinkler run until one inch of water has accumulated in the can. When using a drip system or soaker hose, irrigate until a 3" deep test hole dug 1 ft out from the emitter or end of the soaker is moist. Moisture at that level indicates than an inch of water has been applied. The best way to determine how many inches of water your soil needs for a good soak is by digging down after the water has had a chance to settle. When watered well, the soil should feel cool and damp at the bottom of the hole. If the soil feels warm and dry you haven't watered long enough. You need to do this test just once to get a feeling for how much water your soil can hold and how deeply it's soaking in.

if you have a lawn, decide if you really need it that large and maybe not in the front yard at all.  Keep the mowing height high during the heat of summer.  Mow when the grass is about a third taller than recommended height. For common fescue, mow when the grass is 3-4" tall, with your mower set at 2-3 ".  Fertilize only when your lawn needs it to keep a good green color.  Over fertilizing results in quick top growth which needs more water and is susceptible to insect damage and fungus problems.  A good rule of thumb for watering a lawn is to water 1 x per week when the temperature is 70 – 80 degrees., 2 x per week when it's 80 – 90 and 3 x per week only when it's above 90 degrees.  Make sure the water soaks in encouraging the roots to extend  30" below the surface which will make your lawn more drought tolerant.
 
Consider replacing your lawn with a walk-on ground cover like woolly thyme or chamomile.  You can't play touch football on these ground covers but they will tolerate light foot traffic.  Another alternative is to plant low growing native grasses that require only a handfull of trims per year compared to a conventional lawn.
 
Water wisely in other areas of your garden.,  Construct soil basins and furrows to direct water to plant roots and increase this basin as the plant grows or use a soaker hose on the surface to slowly water at the drip line of trees and shrubs. Fruit trees, citrus and flowering trees need a deep irrigation every other week. Less thirsty established trees like Chinese pistache and strawberry tree need irrigation about once a month. Newly planted trees need water regularly. Gradually reduce frequency after a year or so.

And above all, mulch, mulch, mulch.  Cover the soil with at least 2" of organic mulch such as compost or chipped bark.  The mulch holds in moisture as well as keeping roots cool and gradually decomposes and enriches your soil.  Keep it away from the base of trunks or plant stems. Don't use rocks or gravel as a mulch because they add heat to the soil and moisture evaporates faster.

Take good care of your plants this summer.
 

Watering tips for Santa Cruz Mountain Gardens

Summer is in full swing now and you may be torn between reading a book on the chaise lounge or pruning the wisteria. Actually, it’s important to do both. Watering is crucial also as plants are vigorously growing and the warmer weather evaporates available soil moisture quickly.

Ignore generalities such as "provide one inch of water each week" or "don’t water at midday,the leaves will burn". Instead, become aware of your garden’s moisture needs. Hot, sunny, windy slopes or shady beds with clay soil and new plantings all require a different watering strategy.

When is the best time to water? Is it true that water droplets will scorch leaves in the sun? According to a study published in New Phytologist, a journal of research in plant science, there is a slight risk of leaf burn on fuzzy leaved plants like ferns. The hairs can hold the water droplets above the leaf surface and act as a magnifying glass to the light beaming through them. The study also reported that water droplets on smooth leaves, such as maples, cannot cause leaf burn, regardless of the time of day.

However, in my thirty years of gardening , my own observation is that the leaf burn on a fuzzy leaf must be very small, indeed, as I’ve never observed any damage. If you find a plant needs water midday, by all means go ahead and water it. Containers even benefit from the cooling effect that watering provides.

That being said, watering in the morning is the most efficient whether you water by sprinkler, drip system, soaker hose or by hand. The water soaks deep in the soil without risk of evaporation. It bolster the plant for the day and has dried from leaves by evening reducing the risk for foliar diseases like mildew. Plant roots are also more receptive to watering in the morning.

Water makes up 90-98% of every plant we grow. It’s needed for photosynthesis, as well as reproduction and defense against pests. Checking soil moisture and improving a soils ability to absorb and hold water should be a priority when you’re out in the garden. Don’t wait for plants to wilt and burn before correcting watering problems.

Most plants need 18" depth of well-drained soil to thrive although trees and many vegetables roots grow several feet deep. More than an inch of water per week may be needed for their success and in the case of many trees and native plants, deeper but more infrequent watering is required.

You can easily measure how much water you are applying. If you have a sprinkler system, place a straight-sided container like a tuna can on the outside edge of the area being watered. Let the sprinkler run until one inch of water has accumulated in the can. When using a drip system or soaker hose, irrigate until a 3" deep test hole dug 1 ft out from the emitter or end of the soaker is moist. Moisture at that level indicates than an inch of water has been applied. The best way to determine how many inches of water your soil needs for a good soak is by digging down after the water has had a chance to settle. When watered well, the soil should feel cool and damp at the bottom of the hole. If the soil feels warm and dry you haven’t watered long enough. You need to do this test just once to get a feeling for how much water your soil can hold and how deeply it’s soaking in.

Be kind to your plants this summer. It only take a few minutes for a drop of water suspended form a soil particle to be drawn upward from a root tip to the farthest leaf blade and then released from leaf stomata as air cooling vapor. How cool it that?