The Happy Gardener's Water Management Program

Through The Drought Years 1987-1992
Contra Costa County


The purpose of this report is to show how proper water management during a time of drought can keep your landscape alive, green, and healthy. This report concerns itself with what happens to the water once it reaches the home, passes through the water meter, and is managed outdoors.

The Happy Gardener already had a Water Management Program before the drought started. The purpose of this program was to give homeowners a simple solution. We gave our clients:
1) a gardening education through our newsletters,
2) a schedule to set their automatic clocks by,
3) separate watering systems for the most common types of sprinklers,
4) a source of information that is broken down into a language the layman can understand.
Years ago before the drought, and before we knew that there would be an urgent need, I did my own testing. This led to the creation of our irrigation schedules.

Oftentimes we talked so much about water that we forgot about the other factors involved in keeping our landscapes healthy. It is important to realize that plants, like people need oxygen first, and water second. It's easy to lose perspective on that aspect and concern ourselves instead with the amount of water that plants need. Plants have many needs that have to be met in order to survive. One of those needs is proper fertilization.

Landscapes today are more than just a simple lawn or row of shrubberies. Landscape areas are now as complicated as your local nursery. Today we may find literally 20-40 (and in some yards over 60) varieties of plants. Most yards have large turf areas with a variety of grasses (ranging from cool climate, to warm climate grasses). In the early stages of the drought these gasses tended to be blue gasses and toward the end of the drought the trend was to have perennial rye and tall and dwarf fescue. For the purpose of this report, we will refer to the landscape as all the plants, bushes and trees in the yard except for the lawn.

During the drought, water companies throughout the state devised a variety of conservation methods, which unfortunately these methods confused the average person, leading many of us to arrive at different conclusions based on different ideas. Sometimes in the confusion, water was not saved but actually wasted. This waste occurred because there was no clear answer to the question of how to manage water outdoors. How can we keep the landscape alive while at the same time conserve water? In earlier times, letting our landscape die in order to minimize water consumption was the easy decision. Nowadays many home owners invest a large portion of their income towards their landscape and want to keep it alive as well. Throughout the drought years it was difficult for the average home owner to water his yard using the proper combination of conservation and landscape maintenance. Since our business services homes in the residential areas I felt compelled to find ways to help the home owners cope with their outdoor water use as well as remind them to conserve on their indoor water use.


Helping Our Clients Help Themselves


Every month our newsletter provides our clients with pertinent gardening information plus and an irrigation schedule to follow. Endowed with this information they are more able to make our program work for them. For example, if the irrigation schedule says to water three times per week but the clients feel they can get by in their yard with watering only two times a week, they know they can go ahead and water less if need be. And if they need to water a little more then they can do that as well. Learning to water properly allows our clients the freedom to determine whether their yards need more or less water so they adjust accordingly without worrying about wasting water. The clients also gain a better understanding of the dynamics involved with watering their yards. Water management becomes an easier task and is something the whole family can be involved with.

We explained to our clients that run-off is the extra water that flows out of the sprinklers and floods into the street, and why it occurs and how to control it in their own yards. Run-off can be controlled by dividing the running time of the sprinklers into three separate intervals. For example, if you were running your pop-ups for thirty minutes, you would divide that by three and come up with 3, ten minute intervals. This technique combined with watering at the proper times will allow for a better saturation. Over the years we have learned that watering in the evening or during the wee hours of the morning is better than watering during the daytime hours simply because sunlight evaporates water faster than moonlight. Sunlight causes water droplets to turn into tiny magnifying glasses that may cause leaf burn. Watering in the dark prevents pests and disease because fungi are more active with plants in sunlight than in moonlight.

We suggest these watering times: Run the water at 1:00 am for ten minutes, then turn it off and allow it to saturate the soil. Then at 3:00 am turn the water on again for another ten minutes. At this point the soil is ready to receive the water for another saturation. Water again at 5:00 am for another ten minutes. Watering this way keeps run-off to a minimum. If we were to just water straight for thirty minutes, half of the water would run off down the driveway and into a storm drain after the first fifteen minutes. Giving the soil time to drink the water allows it time to soak into the deeper root systems. During the summer months this is especially important because more saturation means less watering.

We probe the soil throughout the year to determine how much water it needs. For example, June, July, August, and September require more water than November, December, January, February, March, and April. In most cases the water can be turned off from November through April. Saving water during these times gives us a large amount to draw from when the season is dry.

I realized that by setting cans out in the lawn and watering the lawn for thirty minutes and then measuring the collected water to determine how much time it took for those cans to get an inch of water (the recommended amount during the drought) would be inaccurate. The problem is that by the time it took for the cans to fill up (to the recommended amount) the same amount would end up running out into the street. Therefore, when I determined what an inch of water might be, the running time had to also be accounted for in order for the "can" method could work.

In order to figure out how much water the lawn and landscape needed, I devised my own test and used various sprinkler types such as pop-ups, impacts, single and multiple rotaries. I ran these systems until run-off occurred. When run-off occurred I knew it was time to shut off the water. This gave me the ideal minute time to set the clock. During these tests I would also probe the soil to determine the water depth. I was then able to measure not only the surface area but also below the surface to determine how much water I would need. Because of differences in the sprinkling systems themselves, more watering time was required for some types while less was required for other types. For example, a pop-up is designed to water an area that is 10'x10'. This sprinkler puts out more water in a smaller area so less watering time is needed. An impact sprinkler or single rotary sprinkler covers a larger area sometimes as large as 20'x20'. Therefore it covers more area with less water so more watering time is needed. The difference in sprinkler types has no affect on the accuracy of the run-off test. No matter what kind of sprinkler system you use there will always be run-off. Using the data from our tests we are able to put together an overall schedule that will work under any conditions and in any yard because of the flexibility of allowing the client to determine whether his yard needs more or less watering. The schedules allow clients to turn the water off at the point when the sprinklers run-off.

Clients have found that following certain guidelines has taught them to water properly, which turn kept their lawns green and healthy throughout the drought years. The guidelines are:
1) When day temperatures exceed 95 degrees the lawn should be watered that night for 1 interval (usually 5-8 minutes). This returns water to plants that may have lost moisture due to transpiration,
2) Watering should be done after the sun has gone down.

The biggest problem we among our newer clients was that they had no other resource before they came to us. After their twenty thousand dollar landscapes were put in, the landscapers set the clock for them and waved good-bye. The clock stayed set throughout the year without any changes made for the season. Then the water bill came. The water bill would be so high that the homeowner would then be forced to find a different way to water their landscapes. In most cases they simply watered every day for ten minutes. The problem with that was that it worked great when the climate was cool but as soon as the days got warmer it didn't work. The homeowner would find himself watering for fifteen minutes a day and then twenty minutes a day and so on, sometimes up to two hours a day, in order to maintain a healthy yard. The end result would be that their water bill would be too high. The homeowner would get frustrated, turn the water off, and let the landscape die. Or go the next step and just pay the outrageous water bill.

Homeowners who went looking for answers had trouble finding a solution. Either they would get scolded for using the amount of water they thought necessary, or they would be given some theory on water management that would be too complicated for them. The end result being that they just couldn't make it work and they would get frustrated. Many of our new clients sought us out at this point. I would put them on our Water Management Program and teach them how to water properly. Water Management is challenging at first because home-owners are afraid to turn the water off and give it a chance to work. It doesn't work overnight, it needs time to develop. Like all living things, plants must learn to live in a drought environment, and learn to adapt to a new program. In order for this to happen plants must learn to drink water slowly, and put roots down deeper to get to where the water source is. Within a month things tend to turn around. The nice thing about this is that plants respond very quickly because they get one thing back that watering every day robs them of and that is oxygen.


Water Management Doesn't End at the Faucet


Proper maintenance of turf and landscape work hand in hand with water management. For example, grasses need to be cut at different heights throughout the growing season. You have to know when to cut low and when to cut high. For example, a higher cut shades the soil. Lawn mower patterns should be changed weekly or else ruts will develop. Did you know that the grass needs more water to recover from the cut if the lawn mower blade was dull than if it was sharp?

Dethatching removes the dead and dying grasses, which thereby allows a deeper penetration of fertilizer and water.

Adding organic matter to the lawn helps it maintain moisture for a longer period of time.

In the landscape, it is beneficial to put a ditch or burrow around shrubberies and trees to allow water to penetrate more deeply. Covering the landscape areas with a 2-4" layer of mulch helps to deter weeds and can also maintain a level of moisture to off-set dry out periods between irrigations.

The articles in our newsletters provides our clients with insights that may help them to recognize and determine whether improper irrigation was installed in their yard. For example, if a yard has only shrubberies and trees, then there isn't a need for an overhead sprinkler system. In this situation, an underground system, such as a drip irrigation system, is more beneficial to that kind of yard. Or, sometimes, a sprinkler nozzle was originally installed behind a shrubbery rather than in an open location. Relocating sprinkler heads can make the water hit the target areas more evenly, alleviating the problem of dry spots.

We take the time to show and inform our clients about better types of irrigation products. One of the worst water wasting product on the market is that little brass pop-up that pops-up only 1 1/2" above the soil level. Because it's not propelled by spring action, the gravity action tends to leak a lot of water. We have seen this brass pop-up leak more water than it shoots out toward its target area. We encourage changing over to a hard bodied, 3-4" plastic, that will allow the sprinkler to pop-up above the grass and hit the target area evenly. Keeping the pop-up above the grass prevents the water flow from being restricted by grass blades.

In most cases it is better to change the rainbirds (impacts) over to single rotaries or multiple rotaries. The reason being, that just like the brass pop-ups, the rainbirds spill more water to the side. In a lot of yards the rainbirds are in cases that are below ground and are restricted by the grass blades. This restriction keeps them from hitting the target area. With a single rotary system the water will work more efficiently.

A single rotary sprinkler tends to pop-up four to six inches above soil level. Above the grass blades the heads move a lot slower which allows the water to better penetrate the turf areas. This same principle can be applied to landscape areas to show that single rotary systems can reach the target areas easier because they are above the plant matter.

To remove the grasses that interfere with the water flow of the nozzle, take a weed eater and cut to expose a ring shape around each sprinkler head. We refer to this as "ringing the irrigation." When you can see your sprinkler easily you can determine whether it is hitting its target area.

Since arriving at the conclusion that ordinary sprinklers cause run-off too soon, I have designed WaterSavers, a conservation tool, that fit easily into the bottom of the shrub adapters found on the risers in the landscape. WaterSavers maintain the sprinkler's original spray pattem, and at the same greatly reduce nozzle fogging so much that they help keep the water in the landscape and out of the street.

For lawns, we use pressure compensating devices (pcd's) made either by Rainbird or by Toro. Each company produces the pcd's that are compatible with their sprinklers. We'll talk more about these products on our chapter on WaterSavers.

We try to convince our clients to go with an automatic irrigation clock rather than with a manual system. The problem with manual clocks is that we can too easily forget about them. It's easy to turn the system on and let it run for hours beyond its necessary time. This doesn't happen with automatic systems. Irrigation clocks should have two to three available watering times. The clock should also have more than one program enabling you to split the lawn and landscape into separate watering times. Lawns and landscapes should be on alternating schedules. For example, if you water your lawn Monday, Thursday, and Saturday, then you would water your landscape Tuesday of that same week. Some older clocks do not offer this option. We work with you on changing these clocks and we teach you how to maintain your clock. If you know how to water your lawn automatically it will be easier for you to water manually.

There are times when it is imperative to give your lawn more water and this must be done manually. We recommend that more than one person in the house know how to use the clock. Also, teaching your maintenance gardener our Water Management Program can help save you money on your water bill because sometimes a gardener will over-water out of fear that the lawn is not green enough.

In this report you will see a variety of subjects covered. Including our newsletters, our education program, water management data (obtained through surveys of our clients in Danville, Blackhawk, Alamo, Walnut Creek, and Moraga areas). Most of our clients manage their water consumption on their own. Many of the services we offer are free of charge and many simple steps do not require our constant presence. For the purpose of this report it is important to mention that most of the effort was put forth by the homeowners themselves. The Happy Gardener provides the homeowners with newsletters and flexible schedules but it is essentially up to them to make the program work. Our water management program allows homeowners to save water with little to no effort.

Our business, The Happy Gardener, for classification purposes, is a pest and disease management business. Our services include but are not limited to providing timely pesticide applications, biological control, and manual control services. We also provide fertilizing services, consultations, lawn management, weed management and water management to residents of Contra Costa County. Upon request, we can set our client's irrigation clocks or upgrade an enhance their existing irrigation system. We are not maintenance gardeners or landscapers.

Our water management program not only saves water, but also helps to maintain a healthy environment in the landscape and in the home. We, at The Happy Gardener understand the importance of living in a beautiful environment.


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