TURF MANAGEMENT AND IRRIGATION
Proper turf management involves watering your lawn with 1″ of water per week. This water can be in the form of rainfall and/or automatic sprinklers. Unfortunately, most properties are not irrigated properly. The problem is the “set it and forget it” mentality that occurs with most sprinkler systems. Most properties with irrigation systems are overwatered.
The best thing you can do for your landscape is to teach it to grow downward (follow the water). If you over water your lawn, it becomes lazy and the roots do not grow looking for water. Conversely, if you increase the watering interval, the plant’s root system will follow the water into the soil and grow deep roots.
The best practice for sprinkler systems in my opinion, is to keep the system on manual and water only when your plants need the water. (Sometimes, this is not practical due to travel, a hectic lifestyle, and so forth.) The next best choice would be to have the sprinkler system on automatic (with rain sensor) and the implementation over time of a reduction in watering. We recommend having the irrigation controller mounted on the outside of your home so the landscape professional can make seasonal changes for you (a service Magic Landscaping provides).
Irrigation controllers are now appearing on the market with built-in weather stations as well as internet access for remote irrigation management. This technology will enable us to preserve a valuable resource-water and to effectively and easily manage irrigation of your property.
You can find out a lot about your lawn’s watering needs by taking a careful look at your entire lawn. If the lawn is green and lush like a carpet, it is getting the proper amount of water. If some areas are soggy, it is getting too much. If you see areas with fainter shades of green or a dry look, the lawn needs more water in those areas. These signs of stress could also indicate the presence of insects or disease. If you are not sure, contact Magic Landscaping, Inc. with your turf maintenance questions or concerns.
A common way to establish your watering times is with a can test. (Get the kids to help!) Place several empty cans around the lawn (if you have more than one lawn zone, be sure there are at least two cans in each zone). Turn on your sprinklers and check the cans approximately every 15 minutes. When the cans have 1″ of water in them, note the time. That is how long you should water your lawn per week to keep it green. Remember, there are other factors to consider, such as sun exposure, soil type and shade areas. For example, a lawn with a southern (sunny) exposure or in sandy soil may need as much as 2″ of water per week, whereas a lawn with a northern or shady exposure may not need water at all. Lawn sloping, thatch and large, rooty trees may also affect water needs.
Some cans in each zone may have different amounts of water after the same amount of time. In this case, the problem is most likely the type of sprinkler head or nozzle. There are different heads or nozzles for different watering needs, and they can be replaced with the proper head/nozzle to make sure your sprinkler system operates at peak efficiency.
There are several factors to consider when determining your correct turf management plan:
- The time of year and the amount of natural rainfall – We want to water our lawns approximately 1″ per week. Sprinklers are needed to supplement normal rainfall. Most people tend to over-water. Keep in mind that after an extensive rainfall, the soil may be saturated and hold water for up to 7 days. Watch your lawn and only water it when it begins to show signs of dryness. Holding back on watering will actually strengthen your lawn by forcing it to send its roots deeper into the soil in search of water.
- The kind of soil in your area – Your soil acts like a giant sponge, and will hold water for immediate and future use. Some soils can hold water better than others. The two most common types of soil in the Bergen County, NJ area are:
- Sandy Loam – Holds water well and allows water and turf roots to penetrate deeply because of its loose structure. The ideal soil for growing turf would be 6 or more inches of this type of soil. With this soil base, we can “fill” the sponge up once a week with 1″ of water and the turf will draw it up as needed.
- Clay – Does not hold water well. Because of its tight structure, clay compacts easily and does not allow water and roots to penetrate deeply. This soil is very common in this area. Clay soil becomes saturated quickly and excess water runs off. With clay soil, we need to water for less time and more frequently.
- The slope or drainage – Water loves the law of gravity. Slopes are more difficult to maintain because the water “runs” down before it can be absorbed into the soil. They require more frequent watering for shorter periods of time.
- Exposure and shade – Areas with more sun exposure require more water; shady areas require less.
- The day of the week you mow the lawn – Mowing a saturated lawn can cause turf damage, deep ruts, muddy areas and compacted soil. You should not water the day before or the day of mowing.
In order to determine how long we can water at a time, we can perform the following test:
- Don’t water your lawn for 5-7 days; let the lawn and soil dry out.
- Turn the sprinklers on and let them run – note what the time is.
- Watch for the first signs of the water puddling or running off – you are looking for the point at which the soil is “saturated” and almost all the water we are applying is running off or forming large puddles in the lawn. (Do not be mistaken by “overspray” running down the street or sidewalk.) Note the amount of time this took. This is the water-holding capacity of your soil. This capacity may vary widely; it may have taken 10 minutes to run off, or it may have taken 2 hours. This is the maximum time you can water your lawn without “wasting” water. (Remember turf usually requires 1″ of water per week.)
- As with the maintenance of all growing things, proper watering is part science, part common sense, and part trial-and-error. With patience and tender loving care, you will discover the turf management plan that unlocks the secret to your lawn’s optimum health.
Your new seed lawn should germinate in 7-14 days (some varieties take up to six weeks). Germination is dependent on air/soil temperatures and moisture. Water should be applied to keep the seed damp. People, children, and pets must be kept off the new lawn until well after the first mowing (approximately 4-6 weeks). Sprinklers should be set to run for a few minutes, 2-3 times per day. Remember the new seed must be kept moist to germinate, but do not soak to drown it. If you see “puddling” occur, there is too much water being applied.
When your new seed lawn has reached a height of 3″ set the irrigation controller so the new lawn is not watered for two days in a row. On the second non-watering day, mow your new lawn with your mower set on the highest cutting height. Then mow again in the opposite direction at the normal height of 2 1/2″ (bag and remove clippings). Resume your watering schedule. Continue mowing on a weekly basis making sure that you suspend watering so that your lawn is dry the day that you cut it. During the year, leaves and debris may fall on the new lawn; be sure to rake and remove debris weekly. Debris that is left on the lawn will kill grass, leaving dead patches and inviting pest problems.
Fertilize your new seed lawn after you have cut it four times. After that we recommend fertilizing 4 times per year, adding weed control with two applications.
You may notice weed grasses in you new lawn. Broadleaf weeds can be a problem in a new seed lawn. If broadleaf weeds are a problem, treat the lawn with a “Weed & Feed” with the second application of fertilizer.
Pests can become a problem in your new lawn. Pests can be molds, fungi, insects or weeds and all must be treated differently. These pests can invade a new seed lawn while it’s still young and vulnerable. Regular mowing, fertilizing and proper watering techniques should prevent most problems. We recommend an IPM approach to pest management to protect both your landscape and the environment. You should contact Magic landscaping immediately if you notice any abnormalities.
Your new sod lawn should start growing immediately. Roots will set within 2-4 weeks. People, children, and pets must be kept off the new sod lawn until the roots are set and turf is firm (approximately 4 weeks). Water should be applied to keep the sod from drying out.
It’s very important to stay off new sod, because the soil is very soft due to the large amount of water applied the first few weeks. After that, the water is slowly reduced and the ground firms up.
When the sod has reached a height of 3-4″ set the irrigation controller so the new lawn is not watered for at least two days in a row. Test to make sure it is firm before mowing. On the second non-watering day, mow your new lawn with your mower set on the highest cutting height. Then mow again in the opposite direction at the normal height of 2 1/2″. Bag and remove the clippings. Resume your watering schedule. Continue mowing on a weekly basis, making sure that you suspend watering so that your lawn is dry the day that you cut it. During the year, leaves and debris may fall on the new lawn; be sure to rake and remove debris weekly. Debris that is left on the lawn will kill grass, leaving dead patches and inviting pest problems.
At six weeks, fertilize your sod lawn with a quality, slow release fertilize, something similar to a 10-6-4, 50% slow release product. After that we recommend fertilizing 4 times per year. Problems with broadleaf weeds are unlikely in a new sod lawn. If broadleaf weeds become a problem, treat the lawn with a “weed & feed” fertilizer.
Pests can become a problem in your sod lawn. Pests can be molds, fungi, insects or weeds and all must be treated differently. Regular mowing, fertilizing and proper watering techniques should prevent most problems. We recommend an IPM approach to pest management to protect both your landscape and the environment. You should contact Magic Gardens immediately if you notice any abnormalities.
The same plant in different conditions will require different watering practices. You must tailor your watering to the conditions and the plant. Obviously, a location that receives afternoon sun and wind (west side) will dry out faster than something that only receives morning sun or no sun. Clay soil holds onto moisture and drains slowly. Sandy soils drain quickly and do not hold onto moisture. Loamy soils have a high concentration of organic material in them, drain appropriately and stay moist longer. If you are uncertain the type of soil you have, dig a hole and fill it with water. If the water does not stay in the hole at all but drains almost as quickly as you fill it, you have sandy soil. If the water stands for a long time in the hole, taking hours to over a day to drain, you have clay soil. Amending clay or sandy soil annually with organic materials such as compost, peat moss, and topsoil will help add nutrients as well as change its composition over time so it drains more appropriately. Simply amending the hole you plant in does not make a significant enough change to dramatically affect watering technique.
The best way to determine when to water is by checking a few of the plants in each type of condition. Push the mulch away from the base of the plant and dig down a few inches with a trowel. If the soil is crumbly, you need to water. If it is squishy, there is no need to water for awhile. If it is lightly moist, check again in a day or two.
You will find you need to water some areas more frequently than other areas – as stated above, there is no “one answer fits all conditions” in terms of watering. Keep in mind, too, that if you have clay soil, even if the soil near the top of the plant feels dry, the base of the plant may be very wet. It would really help to test how quickly things drain in your yard, and utilize that to help you determine the optimal watering schedule.
Plants benefit most from slow, deep watering. This is most effectively achieved via soaker hoses or drip irrigation. Overhead watering is less effective, can promote disease and fungal problems and wastes water. On hot, windy days, you can lose over 50% of the water due to evaporation and runoff before it even gets to your plants. In-ground irrigation systems that are set to water your lawn are not appropriate to water most perennials, shrubs and trees. The perennials usually get too much water, and the shrubs and trees usually do not get enough. You run into similar problems with hand watering. You are very likely not giving the trees and shrubs enough water. If your only option is to water by hand, for trees and shrubs it is better to just place the hose at the base of the plant and turn the water down to a trickle, then leave it on each plant for 15-30 minute (depending on the type of soil you have). That will allow the water to fully saturate the plant’s roots. If you are using soaker hoses or a drip system, the type of soil you have will also be important in determining how long to leave them on. If you have well-draining soils, several hours is okay; for poorly draining soils, 1 hour. If you are using overhead sprinklers, put them on for a set length of time (30 minutes or 1 hour) and check a few plants to determine how deeply watered they are. Use this to set up an appropriate schedule.
Plants that are newly planted require more consistency in watering. It takes about 3 years for perennials and most shrubs to get to their mature size. It takes trees, depending on the species, many years. During the initial year(s), the plant is putting a lot of energy into root formation. In order to remain healthy and flourish, they need to be getting adequate water down to the roots. Evergreens require watering until the ground freezes. After the perennials have gone dormant and the leaves dropped off your deciduous trees and shrubs, you will still need to water evergreens. If you have an in-ground system, have a plan in place to get water to your evergreens once the system has been shut off. Because evergreens have needles, they lose moisture through them during the winter. If they do not have an adequate store of water going into the winter, come spring, they may die.
Mulching your plants with bark, straw, and compost products will help retain moisture and thus reduce the amount of watering you will need to do.
Modern irrigation systems are installed using the latest technology and best commercial quality parts. We have installed countless irrigation systems and have had relatively few problems with them. Please do not overlook the importance of yearly maintenance and proper winterizing of your irrigation system. With proper care, your new system should give you years of trouble- free operation, and should assist you with growing a healthy, lush lawn and thriving landscape.
MICRO-ZONES: PROPER DESIGN OF A RESIDENTIAL IRRIGATION SYSTEM
In order to have a truly successful irrigation system, a number of factors must be carefully considered before pipes and sprinkler heads are installed. Your irrigation system designer will divide your property into zones to determine which areas will be watered and how. I would go so far to say the property needs to be divided into micro-zones, taking the zone concept one step farther than the usual criteria.
Naturally, the first criteria is typically whether an area is in the sun or shade. There is much more to consider than that, however. The type of plant as well as the age of the plant will help determine the amount of watering required. Newly planted plants, shrubs and trees require more consistency in watering. Perennials and shrubs take years to get to their mature size: they need to be receiving adequate water down to the roots. Evergreens require watering until the ground freezes; they lose moisture through their needles throughout the winter and if they don’t have an adequate store of water going into the winter, they may die come spring.
The type of soil is another criteria. In this area (northern New Jersey) the two most common types of soil are sandy loam and clay. Sandy loam holds water well and allows water and turf roots to penetrate deeply. Clay, however, does not hold water well, saturates quickly and allows runoff.
The slope or drainage of an area is yet another criteria when considering the zones for your sprinkler system. Is the area going to be wet constantly due to receiving runoff from a different location? Or is it going to be dry due to water constantly running off of it?
I’d like to suggest creating ‘micro-zones’ when your regular zones include annuals: areas that include annuals need special attention aside from the typical criteria of sun or shade, type of soil, and drainage or slope because of the unique needs of annual plants. Zones can include plants in the shade, turf in the shade, plants in the sun, turf in the sun, annuals in beds and various combinations of all of the above. All of these criteria need to be considered when plants are being chosen for new plantings or when a new system is being installed in an existing landscape. The notion of ‘one pipe fits all’ is gone; the technology exists to give individual attention to all types of plantings in different areas of your property, to ensure a lush, healthy existence for your gardens and lawn. With careful planning and attention from your landscape professional, you will be assured of easy and effective irrigation for years to come.