Maintaining Turf and Gardens in Times of Drought and Water Restrictions

By Todd Layt

Water is THE issue. I watched Burkes Backyard’s spring special last month with interest, and have noticed the constant theme on other gardening shows. It is all about water, and techniques to get your own water. Water restrictions have forced us to invent new ways to harvest water on our properties, and the resources that allow us to do this keep coming. There are many other things we can do to not rely on water from water authorities, allowing us to tell the Bureaucrats to go jump, and stick their lousy water. I can’t wait till it rains and rains, and these water authorities start complaining we are not using enough water, because water users are collecting their own, and it is their bottom line that suffers. As you can see I am angry and fed up with the water situation in Australia.

Enough of the sop box, back to the topic. Before focusing on our main subject of drought and summer maintenance, collecting our own water is one way to survive water restrictions, the other is to plant the garden and lawn using smart practices that allow the greenlife to survive severe drought.

1. Collecting our own water

Tanks, grey water, drainage cells, water diversion, rain harvesting, rain gardens all help collect water. Tanks and grey water are becoming well understood, although people are still confused what plants can be used with Grey water. One study, which can be seen at www.ozbreed.com.au/research gives a list of plants that have been well tested for grey water use. The best plants were Dianella Little Jess, and King Alfred, and Lomandra hystrix Katie Belles and Tropic Belle.

Rain water harvesting is now moving beyond water tanks. Rainwater gardens are becoming popular. These are simply gardens that are sunk slightly below the rest of the ground levels, allowing water to sit in them for a while. If the right plants are chosen, these gardens simply will not need watering. People are running downpipes into gardens, and now underground storage of water is becoming popular. Atlantis corporation’s drainage cells and drainage water tanks, harvest the water from all over the property, not just roofs and gutters and store it underground. www.atlantiscorp.com.au Anyone using this technology, can really tell the water authorities to stick it. If a home or commercial site harvests its own water runoff, they will have all the water they need for gardening.

2. Plant the garden and lawns wisely

Choosing the right plants and lawn type is the first step. As a breeder of the No Irrigation Ozbreed Lomandra and Dianella Strappy leaf Plants, I know first hand how tough many of our native plants are. In most populated areas of Australia, many plants will survive on natural rainfall. Lawns such as Empire Turf, and couch varieties, and even some Buffalo types such as Palmetto will survive on natural rainfall through all but the worst drought periods. Places like Perth will still require water in summer.

When establishing greenlife, you can give it a helping hand. Good soil preparation, the right PH, and using organics mixed into the soil will help the plants survive the drought and hot summers. A new product called Sanoplant has real promise when it comes to making soils hold more water, thus providing extra protection for plants and turf in the drought. Unlike Water Crystals, Sanoplant makes the water far more available to the plants and turf. It stores approximately 16 times its own weight in water, and the distributor claims that by using this product about 50% of irrigation water can be saved. It must be incorporated into the soil at soil preparation stage.

3. Maintenance techniques that help gardens survive drought and water restrictions

Lawn
All the obvious things do help lawns survive drought, so try to remember to implement them. Aerating the lawn can alleviate compaction problems. A compact lawn will suffer badly in drought and summer. I have a spring time ritual of applying a wetting agent to all my lawns. Dry patch is far too common in lawn areas, so don’t forget the pre-summer wetting agent application.

Fertilising is also important. A healthy lawn will survive and recover from drought stress better than a sick one. Its root system and rhizomes become stronger and denser. However, too much nitrogen in summer is not a good idea, so summer fertilising should be avoided. Recent research showed that the most important time to fertilise your lawn is in fact Autumn. It provides a much healthier lawn than just a Spring fertilising alone. Basically the best fertiliser result was an application of slow release fertiliser in Autumn, and a quick release or slow release in early spring.

Mowing the lawn higher was shown to have a major impact on the quality of a lawn in the hot summer months. In a lawn mowing study, the lawns mown at the lower height browned significantly more than the lawns that were mown taller. See Ozbreed Australia. In past studies, turf roots have been shown to develop deeper, if the lawn length on top is higher. Never mow more than 1/3 off in times of drought. Blunt mower blades are well known to increase the symptoms of lawn drought stress.

Watch our for summer bugs. Army worm, web worm, and African black beetle can weaken and sometimes devastate a lawn, greatly reducing its ability to survive drought. The first step is to detect bugs before they cause trouble, or before major damage. If you see birds feeding on bugs in the lawn, or if you see small damaged areas look for bugs. First you could try a drench test, but if this fails to show any bugs, then dig up parts of the lawn and look for insects around the roots. Then identify and treat the pest. Ignoring damaged areas in summer particularly, can sometimes allow rapid infestation.

Deeper less frequent watering will also help, although our water authorities are taking this option away from us. The best way to save water on lawns, would be to allow people to water heavily once per week. Roots respond to infrequent deep watering by growing far deeper, much deeper than lawns watered shallow and frequently. Why do governments not get this? Still many clients will have water tanks, grey water, or hopefully soon rainwater harvesting systems, so get them to use the water for long deep waters, rather than frequent shallow ones.

Postpone herbicide applications during a hot summer or drought. They will weaken the lawn, and could increase the chance of long term damage. Using a mulching mower and leaving clippings amongst the thatch has been shown to reduce evaporation of water from the soil below. Try to minimise traffic on the lawn in periods of drought. Finally, prepare your customers to expect a brown lawn in times of severe drought and water restrictions. When it rains again, or water is available, it will generally recover. One way to patch up bare areas is to buy Viro-Cell lawn plants, or use runners, and plant out the bare areas.

Gardens
A lot of the advice for gardens is the same for lawns. Use a wetting agent, aerate the soil in spaces between plants to allow water to penetrate (remembering to mulch afterwards), fertilise in autumn and early spring, preferably with a slow release fertiliser, avoid fertilising in summer and avoid pruning in the middle of a drought or hot summer. Pruning may also stimulate new growth, increasing the requirements for water. Avoid chemicals in summer, and practice less frequent deep watering if you have good tough native plants, or other deep rooted plants, except in very sandy soils, where long deep watering can be wasteful.

Prepare your clients for plants stressing out in times of water restrictions. For some plants like Dianellas and Lomandras, the stress will be low, and they will easily recover, but for weaker plants, some deaths may occur. Think of this as Darwin’s theory coming true. Survival of the fittest! Next year install tougher plants. For trees you need to be a little more caring, as they take much longer to grow, and if overstressed, and hit by huge winds, they have a habit of sometimes falling on houses or people, so if they are suffering, prioritise water for the trees. For shrubs, survival of the fittest is an option.

No one however wants their garden to die, so there are other things you can do to help keep it alive. Mulch is really important, but don’t just put any type of mulch on your client’s garden. Mulches with lots of fine grade material have been shown to actually reduce the amount of water getting into the soil, as they easily become hydrophobic. Fine mulches also germinate weed seeds really well, so avoid them like the plague. Only use chunky coarse grade mulch. This will let water flow easily into the garden, but will help significantly limit evaporation of water from the soil.

Windbreaks can greatly reduce the effects of drought on gardens. Anti-transparents, such as Envy also reduce plant damage from hot dry winds. Container plants should also have a wetting agent applied. By moving containerised pot plants into slightly shaded areas, they will far more easily survive the dry summer period.

Another way to avoid drought prone gardens and painful future water restrictions is to lobby the government to provide suitable infrastructure. Yeah right, if that’s going to happen. I think our first ideas of helping your clients find ways of harvesting water from their premises is a better option, or practicing smart greenlife installation and maintenance techniques. Surely the pain must be over soon; how much longer can our sunburnt country suffer the worst drought in history, and poor government planning?


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