Plan for Water Conservation

Landscapes add beauty and value to your home while providing important environmental benefits. The plants in a landscape add valuable oxygen and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They also keep our homes cooler in summer, reduce erosion and stormwater run-off and provide wildlife habitats.

Research has shown that a landscape that has been carefully planned and installed and properly managed will be healthier, less prone to insects and diseases, and will require less irrigation. Georgia’s landscape and turf industry and UGA Extension are leaders in environmental conservation and are working to create sustainable environments in our cities and residential communities. Georgia’s landscape and turf industry and UGA Extension are also urging citizens to join this environmental effort by implementing inexpensive and easy-to-perform landscape management practices that decrease the need for irrigation and/or lead to greater efficiency of irrigation when it is needed. These tasks can be part of the planning, planting and/or maintenance of the landscape.

Right plant in the right place

When selecting plants for the landscape, make lists of the plants based on their water needs (low, medium or high) and sunlight requirements. This information is typically found on the plant tag. Arranging groups of plants with similar water and light needs together in the landscape will allow you to match water needs with irrigation zones and reduce the amount of water applied to areas with plants having low water needs. This will also improve the health of individual plants and reduce disease and environmental stress by limiting over-watering and underwatering.

Test the soil

The first step in planning the landscape should be to test the soil. A soil test will tell you how much lime needs to be added to the soil. The calcium in lime improves soil structure and promotes root growth. Increased root growth will lower irrigation needs. Soil testing is available through your local county Extension office and some retail garden centers. Click here to order soil testing kit.

Where is the water?

Explore alternative ways of obtaining water for irrigating plants, such as rainwater harvesting and storage, collecting air conditioner condensate and planting rain gardens. The average annual rainfall for Georgia is between 50 and 60 inches and harvesting and saving rainfall for landscape use during dry periods can reduce the strain on water systems and wells. If your landscape has an irrigation system, investigate how alternative water sources can be used to supplement the existing system. You also can have an irrigation audit performed by a professional to maximize the efficiency of your existing irrigation system.

Use the land wisely

When planning the landscape, place plants with low water needs at higher elevations and plants with high water needs in flat areas or at lower elevations where they can take advantage of natural infiltration and water drainage. Also catalog the sunlight patterns throughout the day. Plant sun-loving plants where they get six to eight hours of full sun, and partial shade plants where they will be shaded from the hot afternoon sun.

PROPER PLANTING REDUCES WATER NEED

Soil amendments are key

Organic amendments can improve the physical and chemical properties of the soil and increase water movement into the soil (infiltration). They also feed valuable microorganisms that change soil nutrients into forms that can be better absorbed by the plant. This results in a healthier plant environment, allowing easier root development and fewer soil-related problems. Incorporating 1 to 2 inches of an organic amendment, such as compost, into the soil to a depth of 4 inches will improve the soil environment for root growth for approximately 12 months. This will help woody landscape plants and perennial plants establish, but should be repeated annually for bedding plants and vegetables to maximize impact.

Hydrogels help, too

Hydrogels or water-absorbing gels can reduce drought stress on plants, but not by releasing water to the plant. The expansion and contraction of the soil as the gels absorb water and dry loosens the soil and allows roots to penetrate the soil easier. With the added root growth, the plant will have more soil to draw water and nutrients from, leading to a healthier plant with lower irrigation needs. Be sure to use the recommended rates of these products to maximize their positive effects.

Mulch, mulch, mulch

Apply 2 to 3 inches of pine straw or 2 inches of pine bark or shredded hardwood mulch to the soil surface after planting. Mulch not only conserves moisture, it also maintains a uniform soil temperature and reduces weeds that compete for light, water and nutrients. Finetextured mulches prevent evaporative water loss better than coarse-textured mulches. The roots of established trees and shrubs extend two to three (or more) times their canopy spread, so mulch as large an area as possible to trap the maximum amount of moisture in the soil.

Water plants before and after planting

Water is a key ingredient in the planting process. Before planting, water plants while in the container thoroughly to saturate the roots. Water again after planting. Watering throughout the planting process will reduce transplant shock and give the plant a head start on becoming well established.

Be careful when planting around established plants

When planting, avoid disturbing the roots of established trees or shrubs. Approximately 80 percent of the roots of established trees and shrubs are within the top 12 inches of the soil and cutting them with a shovel can cause significant stress. On the other hand, bringing in fill dirt or topsoil and planting on raised beds around established trees and shrubs can suffocate the roots of established plants (roots need air exchange). When existing plants are stressed, they become more susceptible to insect and disease problems and less drought tolerant. However, rapidly growing roots from nearby plants (especially trees) can reduce the survival of many plants during a drought. Avoid planting under or near existing trees, especially elms (Ulmus spp.), red maples (Acer rubrum), water oaks (Quercus nigra) or sweet gums (Liquidambar styraciflua).

Source: University of Georgia Extension Service