Get the most out of your water

Starting Sept. 6, Austin will enter Stage 2 Mandatory Watering Restrictions in an attempt to ensure that enough water is available during the ongoing drought. City Manger Marc Ott made the move last week because of low combined storage levels at Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis, which are only 45 percent full.

How this affects you:

  • Lawn watering will be allowed only once a week (odd numbered addresses on Saturday, even numbered addresses on Sunday), before 10 a.m. and after 7 p.m.
  • Hand watering allowed any time.
  • You can wash your car only before 10 a.m. on your designated watering day, and there can be no charity car washes.
  • No automatic filling of ponds or pools allowed.
  • No outdoor fountains allowed unless it provides aeration for aquatic life.
  • Water may not be served in restaurants unless it’s requested.

Here are some tips to get the most out of your water for your landscape.

Soaker  hoses vs. sprinklers: When water is sprayed into the hot, dry air, a lot of it is lost to evaporation. Sprinklers are the most effective way to water lawns, but for trees, foundation areas and garden beds, use a soaker hose or drip irrigation system, and only on your designated watering day.

Mulch and compost: Organic matter helps soils retain water, adds nutrients and feeds the microbes that keep plants healthy. Covering the soil with a few inches of mulch also prevents weeds. But organic matter breaks down and has to be replenished, so as often as once a year, add more compost to your trees and garden beds. Top that with mulch such as shredded hardwood or pine needles until the bare soil is covered by a total of at least 3 inches.

In the fall, top the lawn with about 1/4 to 1/2 inch of a fine compost like Dillo Dirt, made locally from yard clippings and treated sewage. (Yes, it’s safe, though some recommend using it on a lawn but not in the veggie or herb gardens.)

Compost and mulch are inexpensive, especially if you can buy in bulk. But it’s also easy to make your own compost from yard trimmings and kitchen scraps like vegetable peels, and the city even has a rebate. Read more about how to compost here.

Trees: Don’t let your trees get too stressed or they’ll become vulnerable to diseases. Cover the soil from the trunk to the drip line (a ring under the outer edge of the branches) with 3 to 4 inches of mulch, making sure to pull it away from the trunk by a few inches to prevent rot and insect damage. Good mulch options are compost, shredded hardwood or a combination. The best way to water is with a soaker hose along the drip line. Avoid watering close to the trunk of mature trees, but for young trees, you can use something like a Tree Gator, a sack filled with water that slowly releases into the soil.

Lawns: You only need to water 1 inch per week. Watering deeply and infrequently will force roots to grow deeper, protecting the plant when the top of the soil dries out. But when water can’t soak in effectively, it will pool and run off, wasting water while the deeper soil stays dry. That’s an even bigger problem on a slope.

Give the ground time to absorb the water using the “cycle and soak” method, which forces water deeper. Using a shallow container like an empty tuna can, figure out how many minutes it takes to water 1 inch. Divide that time by three; water three times, each for a third of the minutes, giving the area about an hour to absorb before watering there again. For example, if it takes 60 minutes to water 1 inch, water for 20 minutes at a time, moving the sprinkler to other areas for the interim, then repeat the process twice. Automated sprinkler systems make this easier, but if you use a hose-end sprinkler, think of it as your weekly exercise.

There are many water-thrifty alternatives to a lawn, but if you want turf grass, consider Bermuda, Zoysia or buffalo grasses. Only use St. Augustine, the thirstiest grass, in shady areas where other grasses won’t grow. When you mow, use a mulching blade set to a height of 3 inches in the summer to shade the soil, recycle the nutrients in clippings and prevent evaporation.

Have less lawn, use less water: Landscaping with native and well-adapted plants will use much less water than sod. The city offers rebates for residents who convert part of their lawn to an area that doesn’t need to be irrigated, such as gravel paths and patios or garden beds planted with natives. Learn about good plant options from the City’s Grow Green program or the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Native Plant Database.

Foundations: Southeast Austin is notorious for its clay soil, which expands when wet and shrinks when dry — sometimes by several inches. Make sure the soil around your foundation is kept evenly moist to prevent shifting and cracking. Soaker hoses are effective when set about 2 feet away from a slab, at least 5 feet away from pier & beam (watering too much or too close to P&B foundations will cause the piers to tilt).

To shade the soil and prevent evaporation, mulch and plant garden beds around the foundation. Set plants about 2 to 5 feet away from the building to give them room to grow and have good air flow. Avoid large plants near entrances and windows, where they can conceal criminal activity.

Collect rainwater: It seems hard to believe, but it will rain again. Low-tech rain barrels and cisterns allow you to save that water and use it when you most need it. Learn the basics in this PDF from the Austin Energy Green Building program, which has links to more resources.

For barrels, I like the Moby, which holds 65 gallons and has a removable lid for easy cleaning, a big overflow for heavy downpours, a fine mesh screen to keep mosquitoes away, and up to two spigots. I hear that some of the best prices on large polyethylene tanks are at the website Plastic Mart. It’s based in Burnet, so you can get one even cheaper if you pick it up rather than have it delivered.

And save money while you’re saving rainwater with a rebate from the city. A very good, large-capacity home system can be had for about $2,000 to $5,000 total, and the city will reimburse you for half the cost of the materials.

So until it does rain, here’s hoping these tips help you save water, save money and save your valuable plants and structures.


About burlyheights

C. Forrest is a longtime resident of Burleson Heights.
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