Watering Wisdom for Summer Lawn Care

The sights and sounds of lawn care are everywhere these days, with the long arching cast and the tick-tick-tick from sprinklers reminding us of what it takes to keep lawns green and healthy in our Montana setting.

But with all the work and resources that go into this common summer chore, what can you do to mind your pocketbook and be responsible with your water use?  Turns out, there’s helpful tricks we can all adopt to make better outcomes in many ways.

Here are some helpful tips for lawn watering practices, compiled from the Montana State University Extension Publication, “Yard and Garden Water Management”.

Know What lies below: Since different types of soil have different water management requirements, it’s good to start with knowing what kind of soil you have. Some soils (sands and loams) can absorb abundant amounts of water before runoff occurs. Clay soils absorb water more slowly and can only take brief periods of watering before ponding and/or runoff occurs.

Watch Your Watch:  If you plan to use a timer system – make sure it’s in good working condition and turn it off when it’s raining or windy.  Water in the early morning and early evening when evaporation is lowest. Lawns watered under the hot midday sun lose as much as 30 percent of applied water to evaporation. Avoid watering late at night; plants can develop fungus from being wet and cold all night.

Enough is Enough: Established lawns only need 1 to 2 inches of water every 3-5 days. Apply an inch of water about every 3 days if the weather is very hot. One deep watering to fill the root zone with water is much better than watering several times lightly. Brief watering does not allow water to saturate through the grass/surface layer and reach roots. Frequent, shallow watering encourages shallow roots, which are more susceptible to stress under extreme conditions. Overwatering can water-log some soils and cause excessive runoff, root rot problems and nitrate fertilizer loss. Overwatering can also be costly and can deplete water supplies. Insufficient watering can cause problems as well; if soil gets too dry, it can be time-consuming and costly to sufficiently re-wet the soil.

Measure for Success:  One way to measure how much water your sprinkler is applying is by using the can measurement method: place 3-5 straightsided cans (coffee or tuna work well) at even intervals and in a line running away from the sprinkler, with the last can near the edge of the area being watered. Make sure your sprinkler placement gives consistent coverage or some areas may be water stressed. Run the sprinkler for ½ hour, and then measure the depth of water in each can with a ruler. Add up the depth of water in all cans, divide by the number of cans and multiply by 2 to get inches of water applied per hour.

Keep it on the Grass:  Position sprinklers so you’re not watering the side of buildings, the sidewalk or roadways. This will prevent damage to structures, and will reduce the risk of excess water creating erosion, or dirt and oil entering nearby waterways.  Apply water slow enough so run-off doesn’t occur, especially in sloped areas.

Let it Grow:  Set mower height to 2 inches; longer grass shades roots, keeps soil cooler, and reduces evaporative loss. If your mower leaves behind obvious clippings, spread out the piles to prevent the underlying lawn from being killed. Use a mulching mower and leave the mulched grass clippings to decompose on the lawn. Mulched clippings are fertilizer for grass, keep soil cooler, shade roots and help reduce evaporative loss.

By adopting some of these suggestions, your lawn can maintain a healthy appearance around your home, and you can have peace of mind knowing you’re saving on your water bill (or electric bill) and keeping water where it will do the most good.  If your neighbor or landlord could also benefit from these suggestions, you can download or email them the whole “Yard and Garden Water Management” guide.