Three months ago I gave information on our current drought and its impact on our local landscapes. This week I'll broaden my discussion with more tips for conserving our precious water without losing our gardens.
Cedaredge and Orchard City both have declared a Stage II drought. This means that outdoor watering will be limited to the period, 6 p.m. to 10 a.m. It also means that water users will be encouraged to reduce water usage through a rate structure that will penalize higher water use through a progressively increased rate tier system with each 10,000 gallon tier costing more per thousand gallons.
Most of us have probably not been efficient water users. Do you forget your sprinklers and overwater, create runoff? Do you water in the middle of a hot day? Do you use sprinklers that spray much of the water through the air? Do you water your landscape without knowledge of each plant's water needs? Do you cultivate a large lawn, even requiring a riding mower? If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you have room to reduce your outdoor water usage.
First and foremost you must prioritize your plants from most to least important. Trees, followed by shrubs and woody perennials have the highest rankings. Grass and annuals have the lower rankings. This is because higher priority plants take longer to grow to a usable size.
Cutting back on water does not mean your plants will all die. It does mean that they won't necessarily look their best. I've been watering most of my trees on a 30-day cycle before drought conditions prevailed. I could probably cut this back a little. I water the entire area under the tree's canopy for one hour. Watering adjacent to the trunk is a waste of water. The feeder roots are further out. These roots are generally no deeper than 18-24 inches.
My trees do very well under this regimen. Spruces, aspens and cottonwoods would ideally like to be watered every 21 days. Pinyons and junipers need only to be watered about every three months. They can do okay on even less. The one hour duration holds for most trees.
Most shrubs that are a good fit for the arid west can go 3-4 weeks between waterings. There are exceptions, such as apache plume, three-leaf sumac, yucca, sagebrush, rabbitbrush, spirea, and barberries. They can go 45 days between waterings. Most xeric woody perennials can go on a 30-day schedule. These recommendations are my normal watering routines.
Now what about your precious lawns? Too many of us are married to our lawns, desiring grass that looks like a golf course green. And too many of you plant too much grass. America's love affair of lawns has caused more trouble than any other landscape element.
Okay, so you have all this grass and want to conserve water? First, consider cutting down your lawn area. Second, evaluate your sprinkler system, if you have one. Many irrigation systems have gotten out of adjustment and are not covering the lawn area uniformly. Check yours out and fix it! Many of you are watering too much. Kentucky blue grass can do very well if watered every three days for 20-25 minutes. Our goal is to wet the soil down to 6-8 inch depth.
Buffalo grass can go 45 days without watering and show no major ill effects. It won't look as good as under a 30 day watering schedule but it will do just fine.
You may even consider stressing your lawn by withholding all the water it wants to look its best. It may even need to go dormant if water is very short. It will come back. Mow your lawns at a higher level and don't fertilize. Nitrogen applications will only encourage more growth requiring more water for support. Aerating your lawn will improve water penetration. Always a good thing.
Last but not least remember that watering less frequently but longer is better than watering more frequently for a shorter time. Do mulch your gardens to conserve moisture. Above all, do not plant anything new during drought restrictions. Once the drought is over, consider planting more drought tolerant plants and minimizing those plants with high water demands. We will survive this latest drought and hopefully learn to be better water users.
Jim Leser retired to Cedaredge in 2007 after a career with Texas A&M University Extension in entomology. He is a member of the Cedaredge Tree Board and a Colorado Master Gardener.