Many of us, hopefully most, care if we save potable — i.e., drinking — water in the landscape. About 1,000 people move to Florida daily. This will create an increase in the overall water demand, and water is a nonrenewable resource. To make sure there is enough to go around, each of us needs to consider ways we can save potable water in our landscapes.
Here are some examples of Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ principles and related practices that conserve water. Two of the dozen ways below that can save water, save money and cost you absolutely nothing include shutting it off and a free irrigation evaluation.
Shut it off — ‘it’ being your irrigation controller. Yes, there is an ‘off’ setting, which is a good option, especially now during the rainy season. Do you walk or drive down your street as the rain is falling, see your or your neighbors’ irrigation systems in operation and wonder why? We also wonder why. Please see the sections below: functioning rain shut-off device and free irrigation evaluation. Both paragraphs may be eye-opening.
Florida Statute 373.62 (2009) requires a functioning rain shutoff device where in-ground irrigation has been installed. The life expectancy of some of these devices is one to three years. Is yours working? If your irrigation system is running when it’s raining, chances are it is not.
If you are in Hillsborough County, call Heather Crowley of UF/IFAS Extension Hillsborough County at 813-744-5519. She can provide more information on how to determine if your rain shutoff device is working correctly or if you need to look at alternatives. Heather can also provide a free irrigation evaluation on-site or over the phone. Please refer to the University of Florida publication “Residential Irrigation System Rainfall Shutoff Devices, or Rain Sensors,” by Michael D. Dukes and Dorota Z. Haman, at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ae221.
Purchase drought-tolerant plants, which require significantly less to no water after establishment. All plants need water to become established, meaning root and shoot growth. How do you know if your plants are drought-tolerant? Order a free copy of “The Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ Guide to Plant Selection and Landscape Design” from https://watermatters.org. Look under Florida-Friendly Landscaping™, then free publications. This guide provides information on plant materials for Central Florida — our area — and the key is useful for identifying plants with high, medium, low or no drought-tolerance.
Hydrozone your plants. This means grouping your plants according to their watering needs. Again, the Plant Selection Guide will be beneficial because it shows the soil moisture needed by the plants in the guide, from well drained to wet, and four categories in between. An example of why we should hydrozone our plants would be planting an herb garden and cactus together. If you water the herbs to meet their needs, the cactus will be overwatered and die.
Plant ground covers instead of turfgrass where turf is not purposeful. Turfgrass purposes can include play areas for children, pet areas for dogs, putting green, etc. Ground covers generally require less water, fertilizer and pesticides than turf. The guide referred to above provides information on several groundcovers that will work in our area. Just note the site conditions (sun, shade, soil texture, soil pH, soil moisture) in your landscape and select accordingly. If you live in a deed-restricted community, check your deed restrictions and meet with your landscape review or architectural control committees as required before making changes.
Mulch landscape beds (2-3 inches deep after settling). Mulch is beneficial because it retains moisture in the soil, moderates soil temperature, reduces runoff and erosion, improves soil structure, suppresses weeds, enhances the beauty of the landscape, provides increased area for root growth and protects plants from lawn mowers and weed eaters. Organic mulches recommended include eucalyptus, melaleuca (punk tree), pine bark, pine straw and oak leaves.
Microirrigation is great for landscape beds. Compared to traditional in-ground irrigation systems, microirrigation provides gallons of water per hour instead of gallons per minute. This irrigation method not only conserves water, but it is also less restricted by water restrictions. If you have not attended a microirrigation workshop for Hillsborough County residents, you may want to register for one at https://ifas.ufl.edu/extension-calendar-events/. This same link works for other classes we offer. We provide one microirrigation kit per household, one time only for a nominal fee.
Apply ½-¾ inch of water (irrigation or rainfall), which is all plants need per watering event. How do you know how much water you received from rainfall? Use a rain gauge to determine whether this amount has been reached and empty the rain gauge after viewing it. You can also do a ‘catch-can test’ to determine the amount of water your inground irrigation system is providing by individual zone. For more information on the catch-can test, please see the University of Florida publication “Irrigation System Maintenance” and read the section on calibration at https://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/water/articles/systems/maintenance.shtml.
Harvest rainwater for ornamental plants, not edibles, if captured from your roof. If you have not attended a rainwater harvesting workshop for Hillsborough County residents, you may want to register for one. We provide one drilled and spigot rain barrel per household, one time only for a nominal fee.
Consider creating a rain garden in a low area of your landscape. This will decrease some of the stormwater runoff from your yard. Rain gardens are beautiful landscape additions. Plant selections should include those that like wet feet and are drought-tolerant for times when we don’t receive much rain. Consider using swamp hibiscus, swamp sunflower, wiregrass and muhly grass. Before you purchase plants for your rain garden, determine the existing site conditions. Rain gardens installed in sandy soils only hold water for a few hours.
If you are a high-water user (15,000 gallons per month or more), you can contact our office to determine if you qualify for a free irrigation evaluation. Check your water bill, which shows the number of gallons of water you are using.
Bottom line: All of us have a stake in and an impact on the future. Conserving water in our landscapes involves easy options as shown above. For assistance with horticultural questions, call: 813-744-5519. More gardening and workshop information is available at https://hillsborough.ifas.ufl.edu. Remember to reuse, reduce, recycle and repeat.