Neil’s Best Water-Saving Suggestions

Texas is in a terrible drought currently and many cities are being forced to curtail water we gardeners can use. I’ve assembled a list of what I consider the best ways to put every drop to efficient use and here they are.

Sprinkler head has accumulated dirt and debris that is keeping it from spraying uniformly. It’s an easy task to disassemble and clean the head, then put it back in place.

Automatic Sprinkler Systems
Work with a licensed professional irrigation contractor for all new installations, as well as repairs to existing systems.

Water deeply, then let the surface of the soil dry somewhat before watering again. That encourages deep root growth. Daily sprinklings encourage shallow, weak roots.

Learn to recognize signs of dry plants (subtle changes in color, wilting, folding or rolling of leaves). Wait until you see those symptoms before allowing sprinklers to run.

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Your licensed irrigator may suggest bubblers, low-angle heads and other water-conserving options. But ask to see examples that have been in use for 2-3 years to be sure they’re still functional.

“Smart” controllers do conserve a significant percentage of water used in irrigating landscapes and lawns – if they are installed by a licensed irrigation contractor, if their operation is explained to you, and if the systems are maintained properly.

Conduct an irrigation audit. Have someone advance your system station-by-station as you check all heads for proper operation. Do this at least annually, preferably early spring and mid-summer.

Heads, plants, exposure and soils vary within the same landscape. Adjust your system so that all stations will dry out at approximately the same rate. This will probably require periodic changes in the time settings.

Watering frequency will vary greatly from season-to-season. It is very likely, for example, that you may not have to run sprinklers at all during normal winters. Again, the “smart” controller may be a big help.

If one station on your system appears to have very low water pressure, it is likely that there is a broken pipe or head that is allowing most of the water to leak. Check all of the heads on that station and make any necessary repairs.

Sprinkler heads that are not spraying evenly may be partially or totally clogged. This is a very simple DIY repair. Unscrew the head and rinse out its filter/strainer. Be sure the head is properly aligned as you reassemble it.

Trim grass, shrub or groundcover growth away from heads that are partially blocked. If necessary, raise the heads by installing short extenders.

If you find wet spots in your lawn or landscape several days after you water, there is probably a valve that is not closing completely. The leak will be slow, and it will be from the lowest head on the station. (Note: the valve at fault may be at some distance from the wet spot.)

Turf Management
Choose a drought-tolerant type of turfgrass. Bermuda and buffalograss are equally drought-tolerant. However, bermuda is the more dominant grass of the two. It will usually end up being your dominant lawngrass.

Note that bermuda requires 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight daily. If you have only 5 to 6 hours, St. Augustine would be your alternative. While St. Augustine does require more water than bermuda, most people apply much more than it really needs.

Mow your lawn at the height recommended for the type of turf that you’re growing. Allowing the grass to grow taller does not improve its ability to withstand heat, cold or drought.

Learn to recognize signs of dry turf. One of the best ways to conserve water is to wait until you begin to see those indications. Bermuda will turn olive-drab in hot, sunny locations. Its blades will roll. Zoysias react similarly. St. Augustine will turn to a darker, dull and glossy green shade, and its blades will fold. If you leave “footprints” in the turfgrass blades as you walk across the lawn, the grass is dry.

Use labeled herbicides to reduce populations of water-consuming weeds. Your Texas Certified Nursery Professional or gardening expert from an independent local hardware store can advise you of the best types for your weeds.

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Choose water-conscious plants. That doesn’t necessarily translate into “native” plants. It’s best to ask your Texas Certified Nursery Professional for plants that are adapted to your locale.

Use gray water (from the clothes washer, for example) to irrigate landscape plants whenever possible. Rain barrels and cisterns can help by capturing rainfall, although it may take several/many vessels to provide a meaningful supply.

Prepare the planting soil carefully, especially for plants that will be comparatively small at maturity.

Create a water basin around each new plant. That will allow you to soak the plant’s soil by hand-watering slowly and deeply with a garden hose, since all of the plant’s roots will be in that original soil ball initially. Standard landscape irrigation alone will not be sufficient. This is the single most important piece of advice I can give any gardener with new plants in their landscape.

Mulch landscape beds with organic mulch (compost, bark, shredded tree leaves, etc.). Mulches reduce soil-to-air interfaces. They slow runoff, and they moderate rates at which soils heat up in summer. They also retard germination and growth of weeds.

Fertilize landscape plants during spring and fall of dry years, just to keep them healthy and reasonably vigorous. This can be done as you feed your lawn, or you can make separate applications to landscape beds. In periods of extreme drought and water curtailments, reduce recommended rates of application by half.

Trees compete with turfgrass and shrubs for available water whenever they share the same soil. If, however, you feel that you need to provide water to large trees, do so with a soaker hose circled around the trees’ drip lines (outer edges of canopies of leaves).

Established landscape shrubs and groundcover beds will dry out more quickly than large trees, and their cumulative value can be significant. However, just a few waterings per summer can save them.

Weeds are notorious wasters of water. Hoe them out, apply a suitable herbicide according to label directions, and mulch to discourage them.

Here’s hoping you have found this information useful. If so, feel free to print this page and save it. Share it with a friend. Send it to your HOA. All I ask is that credit be given to Neil Sperry’s e-gardens weekly newsletter. Sign up at

Posted by Neil Sperry
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