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Gardeners' Dirt: Good watering practices in drought conditions

By Jack Goodwin - Victoria County Master Gardener
July 25, 2013 at 2:25 a.m.

Container plants are a colorful alternative in times of drought, but they require regular attention due to their small amounts of soil and pots that attract heat.  Container plants need regular watering, sometimes daily, depending on plant selection and placement, with care to not overwater and cause root rot.  Clay pots are recommended over ceramic in extreme heat conditions because they breathe more and retain moisture better than those made of less porous materials.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we had 2 to 3 inches of rain every two weeks all year long? Dream on, oh drought-dweller. It has been a rough couple of years - and the end may not be in sight. Since the rainfall in our area has been sporadic and mostly inadequate, it is critical to know how, when and where to water.

Turf, plants have different watering needs

Turfgrass, trees, shrubs and potted plants have different watering needs. The amount of water needed depends on the type of soil and amount of direct sunlight on any given day. Water will run through sandy soil faster than heavier black or clay soil.

The amount of organic material in soil encourages proper drainage and retention of moisture. Organic materials are decomposed leaves, grass clippings, small twigs, bugs, worms and other natural occurring plant and animal microorganisms. Compost can be added to landscape and potted plants to increase organic material necessary for plant health and water retention.

Retaining moisture in planters and pots

In dry times, direct sunlight for more than four hours will dry out soil and cause plants to wilt and show effect of too little moisture.

Apply mulch

Using mulch over the root system of flowers and shrubs helps retain valuable moisture. Mulch also helps keep roots cooler in hot, dry times and reduces weed growth. Using drought-tolerant plants cuts down on water usage.

Water regularly

Potted plants are sensitive to direct sunlight because of the limited soil in pots and the sun-soaking pots themselves. Regular watering or using drip irrigation may be necessary for potted plants.

Avoid root rot

Be sure soil in pots is draining well or there is a danger of root rot from soaking roots in water for long periods of time. Root rot will kill all plants if not discovered and corrected.

Use improved soil

Most commercial potting soils have organic material in them and are ready to use. If you use yard dirt, you will likely need to add compost to make the best plant growing soil. Good soil should be crumbly with a course texture and only slightly sticky when wet.

Watering turfgrass and trees

Turfgrass and trees are huge water users. In dry times it is not likely you will overwater. It is far more likely to underwater using a standard sprinkler on a garden hose. Grass generally should be watered every seven to 10 days at least two inches per watering area.

Turfgrass grown on soils that are shallow or very course (sandy) will have to be watered more frequently. A steadfast recommendation is to wait until the turf is showing signs of moisture stress to water.

Sprinkler system provides regularity

If grass is not shaded at all, it may require more water to look lush. An automatic sprinkler system is ideal because of the regularity and quantity control available in newer systems.

The systems now being sold are required to have an automatic shut-off if it rains. This is for professionally installed systems. It will not run again until the sensor shows dry conditions.

This is a water saving feature and is helpful because it does not allow overwatering. The 'do it yourself' systems can, may or may not have an automatic shut-off installed.

Partially shaded grass will retain water better than if it is in the direct sun most of the day.

Shallow watering causes tree roots to rise

Regular shallow watering encourages shallow roots. Trees show evidence of shallow watering when their roots come up to the surface of your lawn. Most tree roots are only 10-12 inches below the surface. If underwatered, tree roots rise seeking water.

Water where roots are

Mature trees should not be watered at the main trunk but out to the crown covering area where the roots are. Watering grass also waters trees, which have roots far away from their trunk.

Only new starting trees should be watered at the trunk. At that point in their life, the trunk is where its roots are, but as the tree grows, the roots grow out further from the trunk.

Our water is a precious resource so necessary for all living things. Let's be wise in how we use it and preserve all we can. Good watering practices conserve water. Let's make for happy gardening even in drought conditions.

The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or, or comment on this column at



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