Published on 07/08/96

Water Your Landscape Without Water

Your city or county has banned or restricted outdoor water use. But you've invested big bucks in your landscape. How can you water it without water?

It can be done, said Gary Wade, a horticulturist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.

No, you can't train your landscape plants to do without. They have to have water to survive.

"But you can do a number of things to help landscape plants make the best use of the water they get," Wade said. Some of the best things you can do require no water or very little.

Take mulch, for instance.

"Three to five inches of mulch will help hold moisture in the soil and prevent evaporation from the soil surface," Wade said.

"Fine-textured mulches, such as pine straw, pine bark mininuggets and shredded hardwood mulch do a better job of conserving moisture than coarse-textured mulches," he said.

Mulch as large an area around the plant as you can. "Remember, the roots of established woody ornamentals extend two to three times the canopy spread," he said.

Another trick you can use to "water" without water is to give your plants your newspaper. Use a leaf rake to gently pull back existing mulch. Be careful not to disturb the surface roots of plants.

"Then place two or three sheets of newspaper on the soil surface," Wade said. "Moisten it, and rake the mulch back over the newspaper. The newsprint will serve as an added barrier to moisture loss."

But don't make the paper layer more than two or three sheets thick. A thick layer of newspaper, he said, will actually keep rainwater from penetrating to the roots.

Sometimes the best no-water watering you can do is to not do some things. Fertilizing and routine pruning, for instance, encourage new growth that requires more water.

"Fertilizing isn't wise during extended dry periods," Wade said. "Fertilizers are chemically salts and can actually dehydrate plants' roots."

While routine pruning stimulates growth, he said, some selective pruning may be necessary when a plant wilts and begins showing leaf scorch, and branches start dying. In this case, cutting back the top will reduce the water demand the foliage places on the roots.

If you can water, use a garden hose to direct water only to wilting plants to conserve water.

"Give priority to trees and shrubs planted within the past four months," Wade said. "Water these plants every seven to 10 days when it doesn't rain."

Annual and perennial plants demand more water than woody ornamentals. But wait for them to wilt before you water.

"Some perennials, like sedum, gaura, day lilies and ornamental grasses are extremely drought-tolerant and can survive long periods without water," Wade said. "Plants will tell you when they need water when the leaves wilt, droop or turn gray-green."

If you're not allowed to water anything outside, Wade's advice is to cut back annual and perennial flowers that wilt in an effort to reduce their moisture loss.

"This will reduce the plant top's demand for water and help keep the root system alive," he said. "Lightly pruning shrubs that become severely wilted will also help them conserve moisture and survive the dry period. And if plants are stressed, mulching is critical."

Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.