Many parts of California will have to endure water restrictions this summer due to the ongoing drought. As gardeners, we want to preserve as many plants as possible without running afoul of the water authorities. Although you may not be able to maintain a huge, lush, green golf course-type lawn, there are some steps you can take to keep your garden as green as possible.
Turfgrass is popular because it’s beautiful (when maintained), relatively easy to care for, and provides a friendly play area for kids and pets. It’s also quite thirsty, so if you still want a lawn, you may want to consider limiting its size to just what you’ll use. Turfgrass is cooler than bare ground or concrete and has a cooling effect on surrounding spaces.
Artificial turf has become quite popular in recent years, but it can get unbearably hot in the summer months if installed in a sunny area. This turf is useful in shady places where grass will not grow, or in odd-shaped spaces that are difficult to irrigate properly.
When water is scarce, prioritize your vegetable garden and established trees. A thick, fluffy layer of grass clippings in the vegetable garden can keep the soil moist, insulate shallow roots from intense summer heat, and keep weeds at bay. Vegetables need regular watering and evenly moist soil to produce a quality crop. Irregular watering can stress plants, which can encourage pests and disease. Established trees add value to your landscape and are difficult to replace, but they can usually get by with deep, less frequent watering.
Avoid using gravel or black mulch – these increase the ambient temperature and can cook tree roots quickly. Natural bark mulch will protect the soil without reflecting heat.
It’s important to recognize the signs of water stress before permanent damage sets in. Wilting, yellowing, or folding leaves that don’t return to normal (without watering) are easily recognized. During the hottest hours of the day, many plants will wilt, but return to normal once the temperature drops. Leaves that darken and become dull, or sunburned leaves also indicate water stress. Turfgrass that doesn’t spring back after being walked on, or becomes dark, is also showing signs of water stress. Be on the lookout for these signs so you can water before things get worse.
Sprinkler systems should be inspected regularly since a tremendous amount of water can be wasted due to leaks, sticky valves, and mis-aimed sprinkler heads. Set irrigation timers to start their cycle in the early morning so if you’re watering your driveway or sidewalk, you’ll be able to tell by looking outside while enjoying that morning cup of coffee.
Drip irrigation should also be inspected regularly. Drip lines can break or be chewed on by thirsty animals (or, in our case, an obnoxious cat). They can also become clogged with debris or insects. Listen for the telltale “whoosh” or look for a stray shooting stream of water. Be especially vigilant for signs of water stress in plants that are exclusively drip irrigated. It is often said that the first sign of a drip system failure is a dead plant.