Too much or too little watering and plants die, turf turns brown, a tree is no more.
Twist a faucet handle and water flows. Seems so simple. In landscapes, water exposes a more complex personality. Too much or too little water and plants die, turf turns brown, a tree is no more. How much water is enough? Depends on the plant, turf or tree. Soil type, temperature and wind also make a difference.
Using water wisely, however, is a no-brainer. Look at it this way: With a growing population, there's an increased demand for water, yet the supply remains the same. Each drop counts, but we often forget.
"A lot of people feel, you pay your rate, you're in the eat-all-you-want line when it comes to water," says Tim Crowley, water management coordinator for the city of Folsom, Calif. "They don't have an understanding of how much water the plant needs and how much water the irrigation system is really applying in relationship to that."
Lawns are especially water-needy, but all things green and leafy require water. About 60 percent of water use in California is from outdoor irrigation, says Angela Anderson, water conservation administrator for the city of Sacramento.
"I don't think people are aware of how much water they use," she says. "That's due to the customer believing they're entitled to as much water as they can use."
Plants are 90 percent water. The challenge is how to deliver the right amount of water to the root system. Overwatering can easily kill landscape plants. As the soil becomes saturated, air pockets are eliminated, so the plant drowns and the roots rot.
"If there are soggy spots in your yard, foliage turning yellow, moss growing in the lawn or fungal diseases, that might mean too much water," says Julie Saare-Edmonds, landscape specialist for the California Department of Water Resources.
An efficient irrigation system is extremely important, according to Saare-Edmonds. Most sprinklers are set to run in early morning hours, before homeowners are awake, which means problems can go undetected for long periods.
"Efficient means it doesn't leak and water isn't running off the lawn," she says. "In the fall, it should be adjusted so it doesn't run at all. People just don't realize that plants need less water. If you have very sandy soil, plants want more frequent waterings, but less time. Heavier clay soils need slow deep watering, but not as often."
Landscape horticulturist Pam Bone of Sacramento, Calif., says the best way to know your soil and its water requirements is to dig around in it. There may be half a dozen soil types in one back yard.
"I tell people to bend over, dig in it and get to know your soil," Bone says. "Take out a hunk of soil with a trowel or shovel. Water the soil, then go see where that water went. Can you drive a pick into that soil? Is it making gurgling sounds?"
Underwatering is often the result of clogged sprinklers or drip systems. By the time we notice the area has turned brown, it's often too late.
If you suspect the irrigation system isn't working properly, your local water district may be able to save your plants and trees through free home water audits. The aim is to promote conservation, a timely topic in the age of water meters. Call your water district to find out if it offers the audits.
Dan Vierria writes for the Sacramento Bee.