By Lisa Olson, Master Gardener
You may be wondering why we need to worry about water since we live in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” but even here, fresh, drinkable water is a precious commodity and requires energy to clean it. According to the Minnesota Technical Assistance Program, “the wastewater and water treatment sectors account for as much as 3% of electricity use in the U.S. nationwide.” Since it is always there, like a reliable friend, every time we turn on the faucet, it is easy to take this precious resource for granted. In times of drought, even here in Minnesota, the population can deplete aquifers faster than they can be replenished. It is time to appreciate water and learn how to use it more wisely and efficiently – water smarter.
Established Lawn and Gardens
Water your lawn deeply, but less often. Typical, healthy Kentucky bluegrass lawns, common in Minnesota, need about an inch of water each week, maybe less depending on your soil and conditions. If you have been quick to turn on your sprinkler, the roots of your grass may be very shallow. By letting the soil dry out down to about a 6-inch depth, you can encourage deeper root growth and a more drought tolerant lawn. As Michigan State University reminds us, it is always a good idea to have your soil tested so you can amend it if necessary. Also, check for compactness to make sure the water you are applying can penetrate the ground. By being familiar with what you have, you are better able to meet the needs of your particular lawn, enabling you to make adjustments to the soil so that your watering techniques can be most effective.
If you have a built-in sprinkler system, you may be tempted to just set it and forget it, perhaps programmed to match your city’s watering restriction schedule. (https://extension.umn.edu/lawn-care/water-saving-strategies-home-lawns.) Don’t fall into that category of un-smart waterers! First, set out containers in different locations in your yard to catch the water being supplied by your sprinkler system to educate yourself on how much water you are actually giving your grass. Second, water in the morning before the heat of the day so you don’t lose a lot of water to evaporation. Winds are usually calmer first thing in the morning as well, and morning watering gives the blades a chance to dry off throughout the day to avoid providing a breeding ground for diseases to develop under wet, dark conditions that could occur if you water at night. If you do have a sprinkler system, check into rebates that may be provided by your municipality to residents who install soil moisture sensors. The sensors can be placed into the ground and set to prevent the sprinkler from running if the soil is still damp down to 6 inches below the surface. One other thing you can do to minimize frequent watering of your lawn, is to let it grow to a height of at least 3 inches. The longer stems will shade the roots to prevent drying out too quickly, while at the same time hamper weed growth in the thick, healthy lawn.
Similar to your lawn, a morning drink of water for your flower and vegetable gardens is a good idea. Watering the plants at their bases is another way to prevent water from sitting on the leaves which could lead to a breeding ground for molds and diseases to take hold. Soaker hoses are ideal for the garden setting to keep water off the leaves. To go the extra mile to conserve water, capturing rainwater in a barrel and reusing it to water your gardens is another smart watering idea.
New Lawn and Gardens
If you are starting with a blank canvas, preparing to put in a new lawn or garden, you have the opportunity to make some intentional choices during the planning stages that will set you up for success as a smart waterer. As far as lawns goes, while Kentucky bluegrass is a good choice because it has the ability to go dormant during dry spells, do some research about other winter-hardy, drought-tolerant grasses that require little or no watering. You may find a low maintenance lawn that not only requires minimal watering, it may have the added benefit of supporting pollinators.
In your gardens, group together plants that have similar watering needs so you can water efficiently only where needed. (http://www.seattle.gov/documents/Departments/SPU/EnvironmentConservation/SmartWatering.pdf.) When you are making your plant selections for your flower gardens, it is wise whenever possible to choose native plants. Native plants are much more likely to require less water. Remember, they were here before we were and survived without us watering them. Unfortunately, we cannot plant and just forget about them. Depending on soil and runoff conditions, native plants will still need some minimal attention.
Want to boost your watering smarts I.Q. even higher? Whether your garden is established or new, applying mulch around your plants in late spring after the soil has warmed will prevent the soil from drying out too quickly. As an added bonus, it will free up your time from having to pull weeds as it acts as a weed barrier.
Educating yourself about smart watering techniques is the first step toward becoming a good steward of our precious water resource. If there are youngsters in your life, you can use resources like the Minnesota DNR where you can find fun games to help educate them so we can continue to have fresh, clean water for future generations.