by Clay Zdobylak
Most of the people who call us at the Houston SGTX office for residential yard care are coming off conventional synthetic practices and the mindset that comes with that entire culture of landscape care. At some point in the call, often after I’ve heard a litany of concerns about brown spots or dying plants, I’ll ask how often in an average week they irrigate the property. It’s extremely common for people to tell me 3-4 times a week, sometimes even every day. Ah, I say, I think I see the first issue.
Things to consider, I tell customers just starting with our service, is that Houston is not typically a dry place. According to the Koppen Climate Classification scheme, we are in a “Humid sub-tropical” environment, which basically means we rarely need to worry about dry skin or water shortages. This isn’t a dry place most of the time, and the fact that we get about 50 inches of rain a year coincides nicely with the rule of thumb that a lawn needs about an inch to an inch and a half (ideally from rain) a week.
New customers are often shocked when I point out that some of the best lawns we treat and know of don’t regularly irrigate their properties at all, except in emergencies like droughts or a few rainless weeks in a row. Consider grasslands, I often suggest. They have abundant grasses, but almost never stay wet most of any given week. Instead, healthy grasslands produce a healthy soil profile underneath, and use the water that should be stored there after each rain, which can be weeks apart at a time. The reasoning goes then, that if you build healthy soil (and how you mow, inoculate, and fertilize your property is the key here) your plants can, more often than not, have plenty of water without you having to spend a dime. I always enjoy new customers telling me about their reduced water bills.
So, how should we water and how should we build soil to hold the free water from the sky?
If you have grass that’s been down for close to a year, or even years, I generally will tell a customer to try and get comfortable with at most two irrigation events a week, one if they can push through the anxiety. If they really want to encourage the plants to build roots and soil quickly, I suggest they try to transition to only watering if they notice multiple plants on the property beginning to wilt. Honestly, if you only watered when things began to get crispy or to wilt, most properties would be doing great, and be avoiding lots of pests and diseases to boot. Treat your property like the grassland/prairie/savannah it could be: water rarely, but heavily when you do. Also, keep in mind the free water from the sky doesn’t have the soil damaging chlorine our tap water does. Notice the property is a bit dry or realize it hasn’t rained in a week or two? Set a cycle to go off an hour or so before dawn and do it heavy. You can even start a little earlier and have two cycles on that same morning, one beginning back at the start when the first finishes to really soak the soil. Try not to water in the middle of the night so the plants aren’t wet for hours and hours, and remember that beds tend to leach water downhill, and water grass anyway, so you might as well irrigate the beds and grass on the same mornings if you can.
Yes, new sod or seed must be watered petty regularly, but after a few months, you need to start teaching plants that they need to grow roots to look for water. Plants were around before irrigation, after all.
You can build nice soil to hold free water from the sky by mowing pretty high in the growing season (especially St. Augustine grass, which you can cut very high during the warmer half of the year), avoiding artificial and synthetic fertilizers since they tend to warp or damage soil biology and structure, add healthy biology with compost teas or compost topdressings, feeding the soil with moderate organic fertilizers or minerals blends, avoiding synthetic and artificial pesticides as they cause havoc with soil biology, hand water individual new or water hogging plants, and leaving the grass clippings after you mow.
You don’t live in a swamp, and your landscape isn’t designed to be treated as a swamp. If you lean in the direction of the above advice, over time you’ll be able to create a healthy and beautiful landscape like the coastal prairies and woodlands that occur here as wilderness.