watering lawn

Sprinkler System Check-Ups

Can you believe it’s July already??  July is “Smart Irrigation Month” deemed so by the SmartIrrMonthIrrigation Association since 2005, because that’s typically when the hottest temperatures occur.  With high and hot temperatures come higher water use, it’s just a given.  We still want our landscapes to look as good as they have the rest of the year, so we crank up the water.

It’s been a slightly different year already: we haven’t had a 100-degree day yet!  We’ve only had a handful of 90-degree days!  And, we’ve been inundated with rainfall all throughout May and June (which have refilled the lakes! Yay!); so we really haven’t needed to use the irrigation system at all so far this year.

That’s all great news!  But now that it’s becoming increasingly hot and muggy, I know we are itching to turn on those sprinklers!  Before you do, I advise you to do a quick check of the system, to make sure it’s working properly.  Details of how to this are below:

Performing a check of the irrigation system, (aka an Irrigation Evaluation, or Irrigation Audit) is the cornerstone for maintaining the system.  If you are a direct water customer of Round Rock, Water Conservation staff (that’s me) will schedule and do this for you; however, it’s simple enough that you could do it yourself—and it’s highly recommended to check you system monthly!  I recently found a broken head on my own system that I hadn’t noticed or even realized was there, that got hit when the grass was last mowed.   So, how do we check it?

  1. First you need to go to the controller and turn the dial to “test” or “system test” if that option is there (Rainbird controllers have this). If you have this option, great!  The number you see in the display are minutes that, once started, will run each station for x minutes and then turn off.  A good default number is 2 minutes.  After selecting 2 minutes, push the manual start button on the controller to begin the system test.
    1. If you DO NOT have the “test” option on your controller, you can simply program one in. Just choose a program that you are not using for your normal watering cycle—probably the C program.  You don’t need to enter in start times or water days, only watering times; so for each of your stations, enter a runtime of 2 minutes.  Then start the program manually.
  2. Once the system is running, you are looking for problems, issues like sprinkler heads turned the wrong way and spraying the street, rather than the grass. Or heads that do not pop-up over the grass (that’s why there’s that dry spot!), or heads that are clogged, and no water is coming out of them. You could also look for leaking heads, broken nozzles, and other leaks.  For an idea of what some of this looks like, see my blog “What is Water Waste?” from last month.
    1. The simplest, and most worthwhile, thing to fix is misdirected heads; most of them can simply be turned to face the appropriate direction by using your hand to grab the head (essentially the neck) and physically turn it. This prevents water waste, poor coverage, and ensures the water is used, rather than running off the property; all of which are positives for you and your property.
    2. Nozzles that are clogged are easily be cleaned out (when the system is turned off!). Unscrew the nozzle, rinse it and the filter off, and screw it back on.  You may use an old toothbrush or toothpick to clean out the emitter where the water sprays out of the nozzle, it’s pretty small.  Once screwed back on, turn the system on to make sure you have put it on facing the correct direction and it’s watering what it needs to be.
    3. Low heads or heads that do not pop-up over the grass is due to either too tall grass, which is really not a bad thing, usually, or more likely, the heads have settled over time and just sunk into the ground. They need to be replaced with taller heads in order to have better coverage—to get the water out far enough to water what’s it’s supposed to.  You can replace this head yourself with a taller head (they are sold by height in inches, so if you have a 4” head currently, you may increase to a 6”), or depending on the amount of low heads, you may hire a licensed irrigator to do this, as there is a degree of professionalism needed.  You don’t want the heads sticking up over the grass and become a hazard when the grass is mowed.

So that’s the basics of performing a system check!  Do it monthly to actually see how the system is working, that what is supposed to be watered is actually being watered, AND, most importantly, make repairs and adjustments to the system to keep it running efficiently!

Top 10 Reasons to Aerate your lawn

I came across a good website (aerate-lawn.com) the other day about lawn aeration, and the numerous benefits associated with it.  It was timely for me, as I was discussing the same topic with some colleagues recently.  Lawn aeration is crucial to having a healthy yard that requires less water.  We’ll discuss how, but first:aeration

What is aeration?  It’s the process of pulling soil plugs out of the yard mechanically, not just poking holes in the ground.  (In the top picture on the right, you can see the round, tube-like plugs of soil.)

You want the plugs pulled out of the lawn, because that’s where the benefits happen, you’re creating space for the water, roots, and air to get into the soil.  By simply poking holes in the ground, you’re creating more soil compaction.

  1. Reduces your dependency on water. Why spend more money watering your lawn than you have to?
  2. Aerating encourages your roots to grow deeper. Within two weeks of aerating, you’ll notice that the holes left by the aerator start to fill up with plant roots.  These roots are growing thicker and deeper.
  3. Lawn aerator holes help to absorb water. Rather than water having to start penetrating from the surface, it can start penetrating from one to 2 ½ inches below the surface. Not only will the holes made by the aerator hold the water, but they will also help the water to sink 2 inches deeper into the soil.core aeration
  4. It encourages thicker turf. As your roots grow down, your grass will grow quicker and thicker, creating a thicker turf.
  5. Using a lawn aerator helps build organic material in the soil.  Compacted soil just doesn’t have nearly as much organic material in it.
  6. Reduces soil compaction. Aerating also reduces compaction on the roots.
  7. Your lawn stays greener because it doesn’t need as much water to stay green, and because deeper roots have more access to nutrients.
  8. Aerating adds a layer of top-dressing to your lawn.  Aerating your lawn is like giving it top-dressing. This reason alone makes me want to aerate my lawn twice a year.
  9. Lawn aeration reduces runoff. If you’ve ever watered your lawn, only to see it all run off into the street, you know what I’m talking about. When you aerate your lawn, the water goes into the ground and not just over the top of it.
  10. Lawn aeration, as the name implies, makes it easier for your lawn to breathe. Your lawn can more readily exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide with the environment when you aerate it.

After talking with landscape professionals, I heard various recommendations to my question, “when is the best time to aerate?”  The overall answer is, really, there is no bad time, you can’t aerate too much!  But really, you want to do it while the grass is growing, so not during winter months.

Locally, many landscape companies provide this service, and there is at least one place I know of that rents an aerator.

Find many more reasons to aerate your lawn online.

Smart Irrigation Month, Pt 4: Scheduling

SmartIrrMonthWhile it’s technically NOT Smart Irrigation Month any more, I wanted to make sure I got this last part of the series out to you, it’s probably the most important of the bunch.  I’m referring to efficient scheduling of the irrigation system, based on the amount of sunlight in your yard, the sprinkler head type, and to a lesser degree, the plant types in your yard.

These three items require some consideration when entering in how many minutes you are setting each station for-there’s no point in having specialized heads, a shady yard, and native plants if everything is going to run for 20 minutes no matter what it is.  Unfortunately, I see that happen a lot.  Then folks wonder why areas are brown or plants are dying.  (There’s also the consideration of soil type and soil depth; we’re not going to get into that here, but it certainly does play a huge role in irrigation amounts.)

Amount of Light

It may seem obvious, but I’m going to come out and say it anyway-shady areas require less water than sunny areas.  If you have good tree coverage and areas of the yard receive less than 6 hours of direct sunlight daily, that’s considered a shady yard.  The narrow, sides of our houses qualify for this designation.  Full sun areas are areas that need more water, usually; this is dependent on what the plant type is here.   So, when entering time into your controller, you know that the times should be higher for the sunny spots and lower for the shady ones.

Head Type

As I’ve talked about in an earlier blog, there are two main sprinkler head typesrotor and spray.  There is also drip irrigation, which technically has no head at all!  Rotor heads, if you remember, rotate, so they are not watering the same area the entire time they are running, therefore, they need to run for a longer period of time than spray heads.  The minimum I typically recommend running them for is 15 minutes, and that’s in a shady area.  Usually between 25-35 minutes is a good time for sunnier areas with turfgrass.

Since spray heads are stationary, they pop-up and stay watering the same spot the entire time, they can run for a shorter amount of time than rotors.  I usually recommend between 6 -15 minutes for those stations, depending on the plant material and amount of sunlight, with the 15 minutes being for areas in full sun and turfgrass.

Drip irrigation is different.  Drip typically emits water very slowly, very minimally, so it oftentimes needs to run for longer periods-30 minutes at minimum or much longer in many cases.  I caution you to know how many gallons per minute your drip is using before you just set it for an hour.  I’ve seen drip that was using 20 gallons per minute, which is just as much as “traditional” spray zones!  Unfortunately it cased very high water usage at the property before it was discovered.

Plant Material

Landscape material is the last component of the irrigation scheduling trifecta.  Landscape could include turfgrass, trees, shrubs, groundcovers, perennials, annuals, natural areas (like tree motts), bare ground, rocks, and I’m sure many other things.  It may be obvious as well, but it does need to be said-areas with no vegetation really don’t need to be watered.  The bare ground will just be muddy.  Same goes for rocky paths, they don’t grow.  Mulched areas don’t grow.  Driveways, sidewalks, patios, and decks don’t grow.  Pools don’t need to be filled by the sprinklers (I’ve seen plenty of sprinkler heads spraying directly into pools!).  Trees have usually been growing there longer than you’ve lived there, so they typically don’t need the extra water.

Native plants, established shrubs, or other established perennials do not, I repeat, do not need the same amount of water as the grass.  That’s why you’ve planted them-they are native!  They are made for our climate and weather conditions.  They will survive without being irrigated twice per week.  I can’t count how many times I see native plants being watered more than the grass.  It’s counter intuitive to the reason for using natives.  So, turn those stations off completely and just water when they look completely stressed out.

I like to recommend that people put the stations that are shrubs or plants on a different program than the grass stations and set them to water once every other week (if needed; if there’s been no rain).  If you want to keep the shrub stations on the same program as the rest of the yard, simply turn down the time.  I recommended between 6-8 minutes regardless of if it’s sun or shade.  They really just don’t need it. Many natives do best in dry, hot conditions and die with too wet soil.

Turfgrass is a little tricky too.  A lot of Bermuda grass gets planted here, yet is watered just as much as any other grass (namely, St Augustine).  What I said about native plants is true about Bermuda too, you’re growing it because it’s drought tolerant: it doesn’t need to be watered as much.  Bermuda grass that’s overwatered tends to get a lot of weeds growing in it.  If you have Bermuda, I recommend cutting back the watering time to once per week.  Let it perform.  Yes, Bermuda goes dormant in times of drought, but it’s not dead.  It will green up when it rains or receives irrigation.  It looks better with rainwater though.  Also, Bermuda is not going to survive in shady areas, it will thin out and eventually all die.  It requires full sun to really thrive.

St Augustine grass has such a bad reputation as a water hog, but I don’t buy into it.  It’s not setting the controller, the yard owners are!  St Augustine does great in areas with partial sun or partial shade.  I’ve seen it look really good in full sun too, with less water than you may think.  It will also thin out in full shade areas, but does better than most grasses.  Ideally, St Augustine should be kept at 3-4″ tall when it’s being cut to keep the soil from drying out.  I water my St Augustine yard with rotor heads for 20 minutes and it’s looking great.

You may have picked up that there’s no exact time that works for every station or even every yard!  Irrigation systems unfortunately aren’t just a turn it on and forget it.  It will take a little tweaking to determine how many minutes the yard will perform well on, and it may need to be changed every year as the trees grow and give out more shade.

Here’s a watering Summer (June – September) schedule I follow, when irrigation is necessary, setting my controller for two water start times (i.e. 2:15am and 4:15am)

PlantExposureType of HeadDaysRuntime (min)
St. AugustinesunsprayEvery 5-7 days 10 – 15
  rotorEvery 5-7 days15 – 30
 shadesprayEvery 5-7 days 8 – 10
  rotorEvery 5-7 days15 – 20
BermudagrasssunsprayEvery 5-7 days10
  rotorEvery 5-7 days20
 shadesprayEvery 5-7 days8
  rotorEvery 5-7 days15 – 20
Zoysia japonica (wide blade zoysia, El Toro, JaMur, Palisades)sunsprayEvery 5-7 days 10 – 15
  rotorEvery 5-7 days20
 shadesprayEvery 5-7 days10
  rotorEvery 5-7 days20
Buffalograsssunspray1x per 2 wks10
  rotor1x per 2 wks20
 shadespray1x per 2 wks8
  rotor1x per 2 wks15
Common shrubssunspray1x per 2 wks10
  rotor1x per 2 wks20
 shadespray1x per 2 wks8
  rotor1x per 2 wks15
Common groundcoverssunspray1x per 2 wks10
  rotor1x per 2 wks20
 shadespray1x per 2 wks8
  rotor1x per 2 wks15