UF Experts: Despite Rain, Water Conservation Efforts Still Needed
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Despite several days of rain heavy enough to cause localized flooding in Florida and parts of the Southeast, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Drought Monitor today is reporting that much of the area still faces moderate to extreme drought conditions.
And with rainfall deficits forecast to persist for the foreseeable future, University of Florida lawn and garden experts have some unexpected advice for homeowners: Don’t water so often.
Less frequent watering will cause lawns and shrubbery to learn to make do with less water, which will help them survive drought conditions, according to UF horticulturalists.
“When homeowners water, they should water deeply and at length — at least three-quarters of an inch of water per application,” said Bob Black, an associate professor with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “Then don’t water again until the plants start to wilt.
“Stretching the interval between water applications conditions the plants,” he said. “If plants get used to being watered on a daily basis and the homeowner has to skip days due to watering restrictions, the plants are going to be hurting bad.”
Homeowners can easily determine how long it takes for their sprinklers to deliver that amount of water using coffee cans placed in the yard while watering.
Black said that when it does rain, homeowners should skip their next scheduled watering. Only when the plants are again starting to wilt should supplemental watering be resumed, he said.
Turfgrass specialist Laurie Trenholm said the same rules apply to lawns.
“The best way to water your grass is to turn off your automatic sprinkler system,” said Trenholm, an assistant professor of environmental horticulture. “You want to irrigate when the grass tells you that it’s ready to be watered.
“These signs include the leaf blade folding in half, the grass taking on a bluish-grayish color or footprints remaining on the grass long after it has been walked on,” she said.
Trenholm cautioned homeowners to take special care when considering whether to use fertilizer to try and jump-start their lawn for the spring.
“It’s best for homeowners to reduce or refrain from fertilizing lawns during a drought.” Trenholm said. “We don’t want to encourage the grass to grow at this time, but just try to keep it alive.
“But if they feel they must fertilize, they should fertilize lightly with a fertilizer that has low nitrogen levels since we don’t want to encourage growth right now,” she said.
Trenholm said homeowners shouldn’t make the mistake of letting the sight of a lawn service truck applying fertilizer at their neighbor’s house prod them into action.
“Professional lawn service companies have different products and different application methods available to them,” Trenholm said. “They are able to apply smaller amounts of fertilizer in such a way that it’s going to be helpful to the yard rather than damage it.”
Black said there are additional steps that can be taken to help conserve water. Since weeds compete for water, landscape beds need to be weeded and well mulched, he said.
“Addition of mulch to beds reduces the loss of water through evaporation and also helps protect the plant,” he said.
In addition to conserving water, Black said, mulching makes economic sense as well.
“Using leaves or pine needles as mulch is good for the plant and it also saves money because we don’t have to worry about the cost of hauling,” Black said. “I think people have learned that it’s a wise thing to go ahead and use that organic matter on your property rather than carry it away.”
If the drought persists through the summer, as some long-range forecasts predict, Black said homeowners may need to be ready to make some hard decisions.
“If things are really getting bad, gardeners may need to remove weak plants,” Black said. “We don’t want to waste water on plants that are not doing that well.”
Additionally, Black said a little effort when planning a landscape project can reap benefits in hard times.
“Most people buy too many plants when they could have spent less money on fewer plants and accomplished the same thing,” Black said. “We don’t need as many plants in a bed when fewer plants will cover the bed area just fine and require less water.”
The NOAA drought monitor can be accessed from the Florida Disaster Management Web site at: http://it.ifas.ufl.edu/fdm/.