Conserving Water in the Heat of Summer
article by P. Allen Smith | photo by Jane Colclasure
In the extreme heat of summer, especially in the South, it can become a major chore to keep your lawn and garden looking lush, or even alive. The heat is brutal, and the rainfall often diminishes to near drought level. When there’s no chance of rain in sight, it’s tempting to reach for the water hose, but before you do, consider these water conservation tips to get the most from your effort and keep waste at a minimum.
When the heat is at its worst in the afternoon, it’s tempting to cool your grass off with a light watering. Resist the temptation because when heat is high, water can evaporate before it has a chance to actually reach the roots of your grass and plants. Shallow watering encourages unhealthy, shallow rooting. It’s better to water deeply once or twice a week early in the morning when the temperatures are still cool. Aim for about an inch of water. If you use a sprinkler hooked to a garden hose, it may be a good idea to set out a cup nearby to measure how long it takes to reach an inch of water. Once you have that time, set a timer each time you water so you know when the plants have had enough; it’s easy to turn the water on and forget!
If you don’t already have in-ground sprinklers installed, then it’s best to avoid them. While sprinkler systems are convenient, they are often the culprits of massive water waste. When they are set on a timer you can be sure to find them watering in the rain, watering the street, or a broken sprinkler head just dumping water into the yard. If you do have in-ground sprinklers, be sure to check them periodically to make sure they are spraying where, when and how they should.
Let Grass Stand Tall
Taller grass can help shade the roots and the soil surface and greatly reduce evaporation. Mow grass to a height of no shorter than two to three inches, and during extreme drought, stop mowing altogether.
Choose the Right Plants
Get a leg up on watering by picking grass and other vegetation that is suited to your climate and doesn’t need a lot of water. Bermuda grass is a good drought tolerant grass variety. It goes dormant during a drought, and when it gets water, it perks back up again quickly. Zoysia is another good drought tolerant choice. When planning your beds and borders, there are lots of great plants that can go a little longer without water. Lantana, salvia, lavender and coneflower are all perfect for a flowerbed that is a little on the dry side. Your local nursery would be glad to help you make some drought tolerant plant choices.
Adding a layer of mulch to your beds, containers and borders is a great way to retain moisture in the garden. Up to 70 percent of water can evaporate from the soil on a really hot day. Mulch is an excellent barrier to cool the soil and keep the moisture where you want it. It also helps hold back weeds that might steal moisture. Look for coarse mulch that will allow water to get down through to the soil, and layer it on about two inches deep.
Consider using a rain barrel to conserve rainwater for your garden. These barrels can hold many gallons of water and typically connect to a downspout on your home. Plants love rainwater because it is naturally soft, nutrient-rich and doesn’t have the chemical content you typically find in tap water. There are tons of rain barrel options from your basic plastic barrel to decorative painted barrels that blend seamlessly or add a visual impact to your garden. Most barrels range in price from $60 to $150 depending on their size and capability. If you are feeling handy, making your own rain barrel at home is really not that hard. I made one using a 32-gallon trashcan. See above for a how-to!
DIY: Rain Barrels
1 32-gallon trashcan
1 roll of window screen
1 90-foot hose
1 set of 3 conduit locknuts
2 ½-inch boiler drains
4 flat metal washers
4 rubber washers
Staple gun (optional)
Dremel tool (optional)
1. Clean the trashcan thoroughly.
2. With the utility knife, cut a hole in the trashcan for the boiler drain several inches from the bottom of the can, being careful not to make the hole too big. You want the boiler drain to fit snugly into the hole to minimize leaks.
3. Thread the metal washer onto the drain first then the rubber washer.
4. Place the drain through the hole and thread another rubber washer on the inside of the trashcan.
5. Use the pliers to help screw the locknut on as tightly as you can.
6. Repeat this process for the second drain several inches from the top of the trashcan. This drain will act as an overflow valve.
7. Lay the screen over the top of the trashcan and cut enough to cover the top. The screen will prevent debris from getting in the rain barrel and clogging up the drain.
8. Tie cut screen with twine around the rim of the trashcan (staple gun is optional).
9. Use the scissors to trim off the excess screen.
10. Using the utility knife, cut out an opening in the lid of the trashcan that is the size of the downspout. This will be the intake for the downspout from your gutters. Put the lid on over the screen.
11. To install the rain barrel, cut your waterspout to desired height using a utility knife or Dremel tool. Then, reattach curvy part of a waterspout and set your rain barrel underneath lining up the downspout to the hole in the top of the lid of the rain barrel.
12. When you are ready to use the water you’ve collected, just attach a hose to the bottom faucet. You may need to elevate your rain barrel before filling it to create increased water pressure when watering.