Ask a Master Gardener: Laura Stone’s Six Simple Steps for Making Your Landscape Water Wise

Native plants like Salvia Amistad and Prairie Dawn Penstemon reduce the need for supplemental water. All photos courtesy of Laura Stone.

Attention green thumbs! The City of Dallas Water Conservation office announced its call for entries for its 2017 Water Wise Landscape Tour. Gardens will be selected for the October 14th tour based on beauty, maintenance, and water conservation efforts. If you’re ready to throw your hat in the ring, you can enter until August 18.

For those who may need some help understanding and improving your yard’s water usage, we’ve got your back. We asked Master Gardener Laura Stone for some guidance on making our gardens more water wise. So whether you want to improve water consumption in your existing yard, or to strategically plan a new landscape project, Stone has a blueprint for sustainable success.

Laura Stone, Master Gardener

1. Test and Calibrate Your Sprinklers

This tops Stone’s list of must-dos. “I usually recommend people do an evaluation of their irrigation system twice a year,” Stone said. “So much water gets wasted from an improperly calibrated irrigation system.”

To test yours, Stone recommends placing a tuna can (or other inch-deep container) on your lawn, two to three feet from a sprinkler. Keep track of the time while running your sprinklers until the can is full. That’s how much water your lawn needs per week, in the height of summer. On average, Stone says, this takes only eight to 10 minutes. “People usually put way too much water,” she said. To prevent over-watering and to maximize absorption, Stone recommends two short, four to five-minute watering cycles.

Also, check for damaged or misaligned sprinkler heads. “Turning a sprinkler head in the right direction is like screwing in a light bulb. It’s really that simple. There’s no need to water the sidewalk.” Timing is everything in watering, she says. “Start your sprinklers at 3 or 3:30 in the morning and be done by 8:00 at the latest. The earlier you can run it, the less you’re going to lose to evaporation.”

2. Add mulch. Then add more mulch.

Mulch helps the soil retain water lost due to evaporation from sun and wind. “This is the perfect time of year to put mulch down,” said Stone. She prefers Cypress mulch, which lowers the pH or our North Texas clay, and doesn’t float away in a summer deluge. “It’s the cheapest of mulch, which is even better. It’s cost effective!” And don’t skimp! “Most people will just put a thin layer on top – like potato chips on a casserole. But mulch needs to be three inches deep – minimum – to be effective.”

3. Drip Instead of Sprinkle

“There’s a movement away from the pop-up sprays to drip lines,” Stone said. “It’s becoming more and more accessible and more and more affordable. If you’re putting in a new garden, new drip line systems are fantastic!” While a bit more labor intensive, existing irrigation systems can be retro-fitted with driplines, too. And drip lines can be customized to your watering needs.

4. Organic Matters

Doing some new landscaping? “Work in some organic matter! We all hate clay coil because it’s so difficult to work with, but it’s incredibly nutritious,” Stone said. “Roots just have a hard time penetrating it to get to those nutrients.” The solution? Break up clay soil by working in organic material such as shredded leaves, grass clippings, compost, mulch or even shredded newspaper. “Organic matter improves your plants’ ability to get water. It helps maintain moisture content and reduces the need for supplemental watering.”

Drip lines keep moisture consistent in container gardens. All photos courtesy of Laura Stone.

5. Careful Container Gardens

“When you plant in a container, you really want to fill it up,” Stone said. Leaving soil showing leads to evaporation. “Besides, the beauty of a container is that it’s overflowing in the first place.” And a pot is not necessarily a pot, she says. Glazed pots lose less water, while terra cotta pots have pores and plastic pots heat quickly in the sun and cause water to steam out. Bear in mind that container gardens require more frequent watering. If you’re hand-watering a pot, Stone says to expect to water it three times a week. She also recommends using drip systems to manage your container gardens. “You can feed a drip line off an existing sprinkler head, and it’s extremely easy – and cost effective.” Fittings are available at big box and garden stores and run about $8.00.

6. Go native!

If you’re looking to add to your garden this spring, “there are so many beautiful native plants,” she said. “Native plants are designed to take our hard clay soil here in North Texas and they’re better able to deal with our natural rainfall.” Not only do they require less supplemental water, according to Stone, native plants also reduce work in garden and cut down on pests. “I’m a big advocate for going native. It can be beautiful, it can be sculpted, you just have to choose plants that are best suited for our really bizarre climate.”

A Texas Master Gardener for 15 years, Laura Stone is the proprietor of Featherstone Garden Design. Her specialty lies in creating sustainable, maintainable gardens for clients from Grand Prairie to McKinney, and all areas in between.