Sprinklers watering a Southern California lawn. Courtesy Metropolitan Water District

By Ted Howard

California is facing the most serious drought it has seen in generations. Gov. Jerry Brown finally took the step last month to mandate water cutbacks in residential areas throughout the state, and some of the biggest cutbacks are here in Southern California. Overall, the state is expected to reduce its water consumption in residential areas by 25 percent, but the cities that currently consume more than their fair share are expected to cut back even further.

In Malibu and Rancho Santa Fe, for example, residents must reduce their water usage by 36 percent. In San Diego, it’s a relatively low 16%. But cutting back at all is proving difficult for the entire state. San Diego only managed to cut water usage by 3.5 percent in April compared to the same month in 2014. Clearly, we will all need to take responsibility for our water usage and do our part to help see the state through this difficult time, but that doesn’t mean losing our gardens.

Ted Howard

As a lifelong gardener, I sympathize with the many people who worry that they must watch their flowers and lawns wither in the name of water conservation. But I have great news for these people: It’s possible to keep your garden and save water at the same time. There are a lot of great ways that gardeners in can make better use of the resources allotted to them so that their plants do well without excessive amounts of water. Here are my top 10 tips for keeping your garden healthy while doing your part to conserve water.

  1. Install a fertigating feeding tank that contains bio stimulants and plant foods. Such tanks can be connected to your sprinkler or drip system and help you reduce water usage on your lawn and garden by up to 40 percent. Fertigating systems do this by injecting micro doses of nutrients into your sprinkler system every time it waters, helping your soil, lawn, and plants absorb water and food more easily and effectively. Like a drip system, a fertigating system will require an upfront investment, but it will pay for itself through water cost savings.
  2. Install a modified drip system in your garden to give your plants a regular supply of water at a slow pace. This will help you avoid over or under watering plants and should help you conserve up to 30 percent more water compared to a standard sprinkler system. While city ordinances restrict people from watering their gardens more than three times a week, drip systems are typically exempt from this ordinance.
  3. Mix soil moist crystals into your soil, about one pound per hundred square feet. These little crystals look like salt, but expand about 300 to 400 times in size when they are exposed to water. They will not only help your soil retain moisture, they will also help physically aerate the soil. They last three to five years and are available at most nurseries.
  4. Mulch your plants to help reduce the amount of water your plants need. You can purchase mulch at a nursery or make your own by using fallen leaves from your yard and grass clippings. A mulching lawn mower is excellent for this.
  5. Spray a liquid penetrate into your lawn and gardens. This is another great way to aerate your soil and save water. Liquid penetrates don’t feed your plants, but they help them grow by injecting more air into the soil. This allows more nutrients to get to the roots of your plants and lawn, which also allows your plants to grow deeper roots and absorb more water.
  6. Water your garden and lawn in the early morning to wash the nitrogen-filled dew into your plants. This will also give the water a chance to seep down into the ground before the hot sun has a chance to evaporate it.
  7. Check your sprinkler system to make sure it doesn’t have any leaks and that pop-ups are twisted in the direction they are supposed to be. Often when pop-up sprinklers get old, they leak profusely and take water pressure away from the other pop-ups.
  8. Use a pressure regulator to monitor the pressure of your sprinkler system. Most yards have their water pressure set much too high for the system to work effectively. If the pressure is too high, you’ll end up watering the air and not your plants. 90 PSI is the standard pressure for a proper sprinkler system.
  9. Invest in a smart irrigation clock. These clocks are connected to WiFi and help you determine when to water next based on current weather forecasts and moisture sensors placed in the ground. If that all sounds too complicated, you can also invest in a moisture meter for $8 to $10 and probe your soil to find out whether it’s time to water.
  10. Use landscape plants that are drought tolerant. In addition to California natives and succulents, there are hundreds of appealing evergreen choices that are in common landscapes that do not require much water.

Some of these actions take more work than others, but all of them are worthwhile to help reduce your water use and see your garden flourish. Southern California homeowners are currently required to reduce their water consumption and a combination of a few of these actions will easily allow you to achieve that goal. You could even surpass it, helping do your part for the state, the environment, your garden, and your bottom line all at the same time.

Ted Howard is a master gardener, landscape artist, and irrigation and drought expert with nearly fifty years of experience. Named a man with “Flower Power” by the Los Angeles Daily News, Howard’s gardens can be found throughout the Greater Los Angeles area. For more information please visit SavingWaterCA.com.

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