Calibrate Your Irrigation System for a Healthier Lawn

Calibrate Your Irrigation System for a Healthier Lawn

Calibrating or determining the rate of water your sprinkler system applies is an easy job.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Obtain 5 to 10 straight-sided empty cans such as tuna fish or soup cans.
  2. Place the containers randomly within the irrigated area so that they catch the water when the irrigation system is running. This needs to be done for each irrigation zone, separately.
  3. Turn the water on for 15 minutes.
  4. Use a ruler to measure the depth of water in each can. The more exact your measurement, the better your calibration will be. Measurements to the nearest 1/8 inch are adequate.
  5. Determine the average depth of water collected in the cans (add up the depths of water measured in each can and then divide by the number of cans).
  6. To determine the irrigation rate in inches per hour, multiply the average depth of water times four. For example, if you collected an average of ¼ inch of water in the cans as a result of letting the irrigation run for 15 minutes, the irrigation zone would need to run for 30 minutes to apply ½ inch of water, or 45 minutes to apply ¾ inch of water, etc.

It’s best to do this calibration exercise during the same time of day the system normally runs so that water pressures are similar.

 

Spread head irrigating lawn

Irrigating lawn. Photo credit: Larry Williams

Here’s why calibrating your system is important.

When a timer/controller is set to come on frequently for short intervals of time (every other day for 20 minutes for example), the result will be a shallow, weak root system and a lawn that becomes dependent on its shallow roots being watered frequently. Also, watering frequently benefits certain weeds such as dollarweed and nutsedge while weakening the lawn.

To develop a deep, strong root system and a lawn that will go through hot, dry weather in better shape without requiring water as often, switch the automatic timer to manual.

 

Watering a lawn on an as needed basis is the best way to water correctly and develop a deep-rooted lawn. This is the reason for calibrating your irrigation system. You should apply ½ to ¾ inch of water to the lawn only when the grass indicates that water is needed. When the grass needs water, the leaf blades fold along the midrib (like a book closing). Also, footprints or tire tracks remain in the lawn long after being made. And, the lawn turns grayish in spots, indicating it needs water.

When 30 to 40 percent of the lawn shows these signs of water need, turn the irrigation system on and let it run long enough to apply ½ to ¾ inch of water. Don’t water again until the lawn begins to show these signs of water need. Don’t water when adequate rain has occurred.

The best time to observe these signs of water need is during the evening when the grass is not in full sun or under heat stress. It’s best to irrigate during early morning hours to prevent lawn diseases and to minimize water lose due to wind and evaporation. The lawn grass is a great indicator for when most other established plants in a landscape need water as well.

Thinking about Planting a Tree?

Thinking about Planting a Tree?

Need tips on planting and caring for trees?  The primary focus in care of your newly planted tree is root development. It takes several months for roots to establish and newly planted trees and shrubs do not have a very strong root system. Start by digging the hole in a popcorn bowl shape. Once planted, backfill around the root system, but be careful not to compact the soil as this will hinder root growth. Be sure to keep the topmost area of the root ball exposed, about one to two inches. A layer of mulch will be applied here.

Frequent watering is much needed, especially if you are planting in the summer. Water thoroughly, so that water percolates below the root system. Shallow watering promotes surface root growth, which will make the plant more susceptible to stress during a drought. Concentrate some of the water in a diameter pattern a few feet from the trunk. This will cause the root system to grow towards the water, and thus better establish the root system and anchor the tree.

Figure: A Traditional Staking Option. Credit: Edward F. Gilman, UF/IFAS Extension.

Mulch is important in the conservation of soil moisture. Pine needles, bark, wood chips, and other organic materials make a great mulch. A three inch layer of mulch will usually suffice. It’s important to keep the mulch a few inches from the trunk as mulching too close to the tree trunk can cause rot.

You should always prune the bare roots of trees during planting. These exposed roots in containers can be damaged in shipping and removing some of the roots will help trigger growth. Pruning some of the top foliage can also reduce the amount of water needed for the plant to establish, as well. Trees and shrubs grown and shipped in burlap or containers usually need very little pruning.

Newly planted trees often have a difficult time establishing if the root system cannot be held in place. Strong winds and rain can cause the plant to tip over. Avoid this by staking the plant for temporary support. A good rule of thumb to determine staking need is if the trunk diameter measures three inches or less, it probably needs some support! Tie the stake to the plant every six inches from the top. However, only tie the trunk at one spot. Don’t tie too tightly so that the tree has no flexibility. This will stunt the growth of the tree.

Following these tips will help ensure your tree becomes well established in your landscape. For more information please contact your local county extension office.

Information for this article can be found in the UF/IFAS EDIS publication: “Planting and Establishing Trees” by Edward F. Gilman and Laura Sadowiski: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdf%5CEP%5CEP31400.pdf

Supporting information also provided by UF/IFAS Extension Forestry Specialist Dr. Patrick Minogue, of the North Florida Research Education Center in Quincy, Florida.

Winter Annual Weeds, a Great Place to Hide Easter Eggs

Winter Annual Weeds, a Great Place to Hide Easter Eggs

As a boy in a small town in Georgia we had a St. Augustinegrass lawn. My dad started the lawn before I was born. That lawn was still doing fine when I left for college at age seventeen. I don’t remember weeds in the lawn during summer months. I do fondly remember winter “weeds” in that lawn.

To see clumps of winter annuals in our yard and in neighbors’ yards was a natural part of the transition from winter to spring. They added interest to what

Bluish Easter egg hidden in chickweed

Blue Easter egg hidden in chickweed. Photo credit: Larry Williams

would have been a plain palette of green. It was expected to see henbit with its square stiff stems holding up a display of small pinkish purple flowers in late winter and early spring. A clump of henbit was a great place to hide an Easter egg, especially a pink or purple one.

Wild geranium, another common winter annual, offered another good hiding place for Easter eggs with its pink to purple flowers. Large clumps of annual chickweed would nicely hide whole eggs. Green colored eggs would blend with chickweed’s green leaves.

Pink Easter egg hidden in crimson clover and hop clover mix

Pink Easter egg hidden in crimson clover & hop clover mix. Photo credit: Larry Williams

Crimson clover with its reddish flowers, hop clover and black medic with their bright yellow flowers were good hiding places for Easter eggs. Plus clovers add nitrogen back to our soils.

I never remember my dad using any weed killer, he rarely watered. The lawn was healthy and thick enough to be a deterrent to summer weeds. But during fall and winter as the lawn would naturally thin and go dormant, winter annual weeds would run their course.

I’ve heard that the sense of smell provides our strongest memories. I remember the first mowing of the season with the clean smell of chlorophyll in the spring air. It was refreshing. Once mowed and as the heat took its toll, by late April or mid-May, these winter annual weeds were gone. What was left was a green lawn to help cool the landscape as the weather warmed. The lawn was mowed high as St. Augustine should be, played on and typically not worried with.

Most people have winter weeds in their lawns that let us know spring is near. Perhaps we worry too much with these seasonal, temporary plants that may have wrongly been labeled as weeds. Besides, how long have we been doing battle with these weeds and they are still here. Most lawns have countless numbers of winter annual seeds awaiting the cooler temperatures and shorter days of early winter to begin yet another generation. By May they are gone.

Year ‘Round Interest with Juliet™ Cleyera

Year ‘Round Interest with Juliet™ Cleyera

Plants with variegated foliage are very popular landscape selections.  As flowers fade on other plants, the colors of variegated foliage continue to add interest through multiple seasons.

A very adaptable shrub that has been around for a long time, now has a selection with beautiful variegated foliage.  Juliet™ cleyera offers green and white evergreen foliage that can brighten up a garden year around.  New foliage adds additional interest with a maroon tinge.

Variegated foliage of Juliet™ cleyera. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County

Like other selections of Cleyera, Juliet™ needs to be matched to an appropriate spot to accommodate its mature size.  Shrubs will reach about 8 feet in height with a spread of about 5 feet.  Plants may look best when left to grow in a more natural form with light selective pruning.  This shrub is probably not suited for planting in front of home windows but used as a specimen or as a nice screen plant.

Once established, cleyera is a low maintenance plant and is adapted to grow well without routine irrigation.  My home landscape has very well drained soil and I have not needed to apply supplemental irrigation to two cleyera shrubs in over 20 years.  Consider a spot that receives full sun or partial shade for your plants.

An added advantage of cleyera shrubs in general is that bees are attracted to the flowers so it makes an additional nectar source for pollinators in the spring.

Winter Watering Concerns

Winter Watering Concerns

Plants need water. This isn’t an outrageous insight, but the details behind this statement can be more complicated than it might seem. While it is true that plants, like all living things, need water to survive, they don’t all need the same amount and they may need more or less at different times. For a healthy landscape, garden, container planting, or lawn, it’s important to pay attention to the little quirks of watering that may not be immediately obvious.

During the wintertime, temperatures are lower and days are shorter. Less heat and sunlight means water will evaporate much more slowly and the soil will stay wetter. With less heat and sunlight, plants grow at a much slower rate (if at all). This means that irrigation systems set for summertime watering are probably going to keep conditions too damp for many plants during the winter. For example, a St. Augustinegrass lawn might only be able to survive 1 to 5 days without irrigation or rain in the summer, but the same lawn can last 8 to 28 days between waterings in the winter. Consider adjusting your irrigation system or watering schedule to account for seasonal differences. Remember also that a practiced eye can tell when a lawn needs water – folding or curled blades of grass, a dulling of color from bright green to bluish-gray, and footprints that remain in turf rather than springing back are signs of drought stress. Before these signs show up, it may not be necessary or beneficial to water.

Snails love moisture, and an abundance of them may be a sign of too much irrigation.

If plants are overwatered, they often show different signs of distress. Lawns may have more issues with fungal diseases or become patchy, which can let weeds begin to take over. Ornamental plants such as shrubs and trees might show signs of nutrient deficiency or begin to drop leaves, appearing sparse and unhealthy. You may notice an increase in moisture-loving pests as well, such as slugs or snails. Check for watering issues if you notice any of these symptoms.

Cooler weather can be a good time to get outside and do regular maintenance on irrigation systems and plantings. Replace or unclog malfunctioning nozzles, patch

Moisture held against the base of a tree by mulch can eventually damage the plant.

holes in water lines, and adjust irrigation heads that may no longer be pointed in the right direction. Prune back plants that have grown into irrigation sprinkler patterns and may disrupt even watering. Put in new or replacement plants and make any adjustments needed to their irrigation. Lastly, add mulch around plants. This can help retain soil moisture, even out changes in soil temperature, suppress weed growth, and add organic matter to the soil as mulch breaks down. Avoid piling mulch against the base of plants, however, or it will hold moisture against the plant and can promote the growth of molds and other fungi.

Improperly placed or calibrated sprinklers can cause problems.

For more information on watering, there is a wealth of knowledge online. The Florida Friendly Landscaping program has a lot to read on the topic: https://ffl.ifas.ufl.edu/handbook/Water_Efficiently_vSept09.pdf

The University of Florida EDIS publications cover many watering topics as well: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/topic_landscape_irrigation

And, as always, contact your local extension office for help as well!

Thinking about Planting a Tree?

It’s Time to Plant and Prune!

The last several weeks have brought consistently cool weather to the Panhandle, with a few downright cold nights dipping well below freezing.  Though winter isn’t officially here, that won’t happen until December 21st, grass mowing season is definitely over and, if you’re like me and didn’t cover your raised bed garden on those nippy nights, vegetable growing has also slowed significantly.  So, what are us horticulturally minded folks with cold-weather cabin fever to do?  It’s time to take advantage of sweat-free temperatures, break out the shovels and pruners, and get to work in the landscape!

Master Gardeners demonstrate correct tree planting techniques.

The months of December through February are ideal times for planting new trees and shrubs.  The reasons for this are simple.  Days are short, rain tends to be plentiful, temperatures are cool, and plants are mostly dormant.  While newly installed plants need water to become established regardless of when they are planted, demand for supplemental irrigation is significantly less in winter (one of our rainiest seasons) and the chances of a new planting dying from thirst is slim relative to warmer months.  Also, planting in winter gives trees and shrubs several months of above ground dormancy to focus their resources below ground, recover from the shock of transitioning from a nursery container into your native soil, and produce valuable roots that will help it get through its first summer.  Think about it.  Would it be easier for you to start and finish a major outdoor project in July with one bottle of water to drink or in December with an ice chest full?  Plants prefer the same!

Not only is winter perfect for planting, tis the season for pruning many species too, deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves in the fall) in particular!  The first reason to prune these species in the winter is to give the plants several months to begin healing before growth resumes in spring and insect and disease pressure ramps up again.  Many serious pests and diseases of trees are most active during warm, wet weather and all of them have easier access to attack trees through open wounds.  Prune in winter to help avoid unwanted pest and disease infestations.  Also, dormancy has conveniently knocked the leaves off deciduous species’ branches, allowing us a clear view of the tree’s crown and giving us the ability to make clear, clean, strategic pruning cuts.  Proper pruning can help maintain a strong central leader that produces a stately, straight tree and remove dead and diseased branches that could cause problems in the future.

While planting in the winter is always ideal and we just outlined several reasons pruning now can be good, not all plants should be pruned when dormant.  For instance, old-fashioned hydrangeas and azaleas that produce blooms from the previous season’s growth.  Pruning these in the winter removes all the flower buds that would have bloomed the next summer and what’s the point of an azalea or hydrangea that doesn’t bloom?  Also, many small trees and shrubs, like Crape Myrtle and Vitex, may never need pruning if you site them where they will have room to mature without encroaching on other plants or structures.

If you have any questions about planting trees and shrubs, what, when, and how to prune, or any other horticultural topic, please contact your local UF/IFAS Extension Office!  Enjoy the weather and happy gardening!