Watering Landscapes in Utah
We are living in a wonderful age where we can thrive in desert climates, but sometimes this can be detrimental as well. Many times, we forget that water is not an unlimited resource. With the influx of population growth in Utah over the last few years and the quickly dwindling water sources due to climate change, we are going to be very short of water very soon. On top of this situation, sometimes our yard isn't even effective in utilizing the water that is given it. Some of the plants die, others look poorly. I know that you are thinking. How do we have a thriving yard when we are facing all of these issues? Without just dumping constant water on the problem? In reality, dead plants and poorly growing plants are caused by many factors but we will focus on water for this article. Feel free to view the other articles that discuss this same problem, i.e. soil, drainage, fertilizer and pests. Sometimes it can be just as simple as changing the delivery method of the water. But I will go into full detail later.
A decade or two ago, most yards in Utah were installed with spray head sprinkler systems giving complete coverage in all the beds and lawn. But this is rarely the best way to go. Spray-watering in your flower beds and overspray from the lawn into your beds often aids in the growth of weeds, creating an endless cycle of maintenance. In recent years, improvements have led to a more efficient system in watering the yard. Drip systems, either point source or inline drip systems, lose less water to wind because it waters directly on the soil. Spray heads are also subject to the wind; even a slight breeze can cause a section of the yard to not water well. We often find dry spots or areas where plants always die. They may not receive water due to wind. Spray heads only give even distribution if all of the plants are nearly the same height and lower than the pop-up. If a tall plant is in front of the spray head, then the other plants around it will not get watered. Drip systems give even distribution regardless of the space each plant takes. So with a drip system you won’t have dry spots, unless for other reasons. Drip systems require less pressure for even distribution and can be watered during any time of the day instead of having to water during the times you are not using the yard. The only real downsides are that drip lines do have more parts that will need to be replaced approximately every ten years. But having a thriving yard is often worth the updates.
The type of watering, spray vs. drip, is only part of the problem however; secondary water also has its issues. Many of us use secondary water on our yards which comes from canals from spring runoff until we need to start drawing from reservoirs or Utah Lake. This lake is generally full of salt, chemicals, and soil runoff. And we are spraying it directly into our yards! Most plants really struggle dealing with this water and approximately ⅓ of the them won't survive that water. It is obviously very frustrating to lose ⅓ of the plants in your yard that you spent so much time and money to install. Surprisingly though, using the drip line method will reduce the ⅓ to only a handful of plants. Most plants will grow fine if their leaves are not being sprayed. (Spruce, fir, or Japanese Maple will die from poor water sources either way) And as a side note, culinary water has a lot fewer chemicals and salts, so they rarely cause as many problems for your plants. So whichever you use to water your landscape, your plant options might need to change.
Another issue that can be challenging is the needed length and frequency of watering. The primary factor in determining how long and often you should water is actually the soil in your yard. For most plants, once they are established, you really only need to water one or two times a week. On average, water-wise plants need to be watered only once a week. In sandy soils you will want to water more frequently for shorter amounts of time so the water will be near the roots for the optimal amount of time. In clay soils, you will want to water less often and for longer times so the soil has time to soak in all the water. If you do the opposite, you will easily over water and flood other parts of your or your neighbors yard. This is especially true if your landscape is higher level than your neighbor’s. Also, overwatering drains into the street, polluting our water systems and our lakes through runoff. In the end you will want to experiment to find out how quickly your soil soaks in the water and how quickly it drains so that your landscape gets enough water to thrive but not too much to pollute water systems, erode yours and your neighbor’s land, and drown your plants.
Another simply obvious but often overlooked solution would be to hardscape some of landscape, especially highly frequented locations. If you have less lawn, you need less water. Converting often used paths to locations in your landscapes to hardscape designated paths will also help reduce the water usage and increase curb appeal. It also helps lowering maintenance.
Another easy solution for water conservation is an oldy but a goody. Having 3 inches of mulch or compost in the flower beds will keep moisture near the roots that need it so you won’t need to water as much. This also has the side benefits of reducing weeds and increasing nutrients in the soil. There is a reason why so many people with beautiful yards take the time to cover all of their beds with mulch every spring.
Living in Utah does present a solid amount of difficulties when it comes to watering out yards, but following these few suggestions will make dramatic results. If you can manage the water in your landscape, you can manage your landscape.