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Lawn irrigation

Save Your Lawn and Your Water Bill with These Easy Steps

Ah Florida, the sunshine state…its no secret that we get a lot of sun and a whole lot of heat down here, we’re real champs when it comes to putting up with it in order to maintain our lawns and landscapes. When thinking about how to properly maintain a lawn in Florida one of the first remedies that comes to mind is, of course, water! Don’t get me wrong, this is one of the most basic needs for your yard, but sometimes we Floridians can get a little carried away with the H2O; which can not only hurt our water bills but can be harmful to our environment as well.  Here are some basic steps to making your lawn healthier and more environmentally friendly!

You Need Your Handbook

Your irrigation timer is your lawn’s lifeline, it controls when, how long and how often your lawn will be watered. This means that understanding how to work your irrigation timer is important; of course, no one expects you to have all of the ins and outs of the timer memorized but it is key to have the handbook stored in a dry, easy-to-access area. If you happen to have lost your handbook you can always give an irrigation company a call, let them know the make and model of your timer and they will be more than happy to give you a new copy. Many are also available for download on the manufacturer’s website.

Also, sometimes nature steps in and does the watering for us, be sure that your timer has a rainfall sensor and that it is working. These sensors are intended to temporarily shut off the irrigation system if there has recently been rain, which is not only helpful but is also regulated by Florida law 373.62!

Let’s Look at the System…It’s a Must

Now that we have mastered the irrigation timer, we are ready to jump the next hurdle…the system itself. You can perform a quick diagnostic by manually turning on the irrigation system and checking for broken emitters, leaks, clogs and broken pipes.  Also be sure to make check that water is not being wasted on sidewalks, driveways and streets.  Adjust your sprinklers back to the correct position if over spray is occurring. When most people think of home irrigation systems, they tend to assume that they are very difficult to fix when in reality, this is not the case. Beyond this, parts can be easily found through retail hardware stores and irrigation companies.  Be sure to keep the irrigation parts consistent and refrain from mixing manufacturers.

Irrigation overspray

Irrigation overspray. Photo credit: UF/IFAS Extension

Calibrate Your Timer!

The next step is to perform a calibration test.  As scientific as this may sound this task is simpler than one might think.  For best results, the test needs to take place during the time frame that you would normally run the system. You begin by placing flat-bottomed containers (such as coffee or tuna cans) randomly in one irrigation zone at a time. If you happen to have a hose-end sprinkler you simply place the containers in a straight line from the edge of the watering radius to the sprinkler. Once this is done we are ready for phase two: After the system has run for fifteen minutes go to each container and measure the amount of water inside with a ruler or tape measure. Add the levels in all the containers together and divide that number by the number of containers that were used. The result of those numbers is the average amount of water applied within fifteen minutes in that zone. We can then take that average and multiply it by four to get the total amount of irrigation water that is applied within an hours’ time, otherwise known as the “current application rate”. If you’re still with me, that’s good, because the hard part is over! For those of us who need a bit more clarity, no worries, UF/IFAS has a helpful online irrigation application worksheet on hand; all you have to do is click the link here.

Newly Sodded Lawn? No Problem

I know when we get new sod we want to water it like crazy to make sure that it doesn’t die, I mean who wants to spend a bunch of money to watch grass die in their front yard? But high amounts of water on freshly laid sod can actually cause more harm than good. The sweet spot here is a ¼ inch of water twice a day throughout the first week. This ratio allows for the sod to remain hydrated while also not wasting water that would just run off of the root system (due to the underdeveloped root system). The regulation set by the Southwest Florida Water Management District allows for daily watering before 10:00 am and after 4:00 pm on newly planted landscapes.

Once week two sets in, your lawns can receive a ¼ inch of water daily and as you move into week three you can change that amount to ½ inch of water every other day. And finally, when week four comes around you can water your lawn on an as needed basis with 1/2 to ¾ inch of water.

Of course, when it comes to actually applying these recommendations it may take longer than average due to which grass species you’re planting, soil type, shade presence and time of year. One trick to help ensure that your lawn is developing well is to regularly peer under your sod to check for root growth. If you happen to have a seeded lawn the watering requirements will be different but you are more than welcome to check out UF/IFAS publication #ENH-03, Establishing your Florida lawn for more information.  

Irrigation Timer

Irrigation Timer. Photo credit: Anne Yasalonis, UF/IFAS Extension

But What If My Lawn Is Already Established?

So you’re the proud owner of a healthy lawn, you want to keep it that way right? Well for starters it helps to apply ½ to ¾ inch of irrigation when your grass is at the “time to water” stage.  I know what you may be asking yourself, “Yeah that sounds great, but how am I supposed to know when my grass is at the “I need water” stage? Signs to look out for are: large amounts of leaf blades folded in half, dry soil samples taken from the root zone, your lawn taking on a blue-gray color and finally footprints or tire tracks remaining on the lawn for a long duration of time after they were made.

If you happen to notice that your grasses leaf blades are completely folded over or experiencing a drought stage then it the damage may be irreversible. In this case, there is more hope for Bahaigrass but if your lawn is home to St. Augustinegrass then you may be in trouble.

The entire root zone of most grasses can grow to 12 inches which when receiving ½ to ¾ inches of water.  When you irrigate any more than that you are actually wasting water and your hard earned money because it will only runoff as excess and wash away fertilizers and chemicals. And of course, just as you do not want to use too much water, you also want to stay away from too little, being that less than ½ inch of rainfall can cause root growth to be too close to the surface making your lawn more prone to drought damage.

As always, be sure to keep an eye on the weather and regulate your irrigation system based upon the rain- no need to pay for what nature does for free! Aside from that irrigating your yard should really only take place once or twice a week if needed during the summer and as for the winter only every 14-25 days. That being said, if you are a homeowner who has St. Augustinegrass and is living within the central ridge in northern Polk County or other deep sandy soils there is a good chance that you may need to water more often or better yet choose a grass more suited for your soil type.

We’ve all seen it, that one section of lawn that is not looking too hot, it’s not the biggest but it’s there. Feel free to use a hand-held hose to water those rough spots any day of the week.

Give Your Lawn Some Stamina!

Just as you can train yourself to have endurance on a long distance run with no water and more energy, grass can do the same! Well sorta…I mean it’s not going to sign up for the next marathon. Lame plant jokes aside, by simply applying ½- ¾ inches of water per application and changing the frequency of application seasonally, you can create a stronger, better and more established root system. It is common practice for people to rely on their automatic sprinkler systems to apply small amounts of water many times per week to their lawns in order to help them when in reality they are actually doing the opposite. This leads to a shallow root system that needs more water and has a weaker than average drought stress tolerance.

Alternative Lawn Options

Growing up I can remember my dad trying everything in the book to give our poor sand ridden lawn some decent grass. He would lay sod, spread seeds, set up sprinkler systems, lay sod, fertilize, till and did I mention lay sod? Nothing would work, it took years to finally get something decent going. If you want to save yourself the hassle of an uphill battle you can always try the nice alternative of using an ornamental plant as a ground cover. “Right Plant Right Place” is the principle and mantra of Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ and it couldn’t be truer. If you have a heavily shaded lawn or find yourself constantly fussing with your yard it might very well be time to give a groundcover a try or look into a grass that is more functional for your location and soil type. We know that there are a lot of options out there so if you need some guidance please contact your local UF/IFAS Extension Service.

Use a groundcover, such as Asiatic jasmine as a lawn alternative

Use a groundcover, such as Asiatic jasmine as a lawn alternative. Photo credit: Anne Yasalonis, UF/IFAS Extension

Just A Little Off the Top (Mowing)

Another helpful step to lawn greatness is proper mowing. This might sound strange but it is a key element in improving your lawns drought tolerance. If your lawn is St. Augustinegrass, be sure to mow it 3 ½ to 4 inches and as for Bahaigrass, you need to ensure that your mower is set to 3 to 4 inches. There are dwarf and semi-dwarf cultivars of St. Augustinegrass that are to be mowed at 2 to 2 ½ inches and the same measurement applies to Zoysiagrass. How will these measurements help my lawn become more drought resistant? The answer is that there are higher levels of stored carbohydrates in taller blades of grass.

When mowing always use a sharp mower blade because dull blades can create a jagged cut which then increases the surface area of the cut end of the leaf blade causing greater water loss and an altogether weaker, less drought tolerant lawn.

Fertilize Just Enough

When it comes to fertilizing, less is more. If you over-fertilize your lawn with nitrogen it will eventually increase leaf growth…but root growth will be reduced. Also, make sure to read the fertilizer label and never use more fertilizer than is allowed at once. Remember that the label is the law!

You Got This!

You now have all you need to know about watering your lawn and the steps that you can take in order to ensure that your lawn is happy, healthy and drought-tolerant! This is just one of the many aspects of lawn care so if you have any other questions or want to look into related topics click here.

Whether you’re in the process of buying sod or have the lawn of your dreams I hope these tips were helpful, happy gardening!

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This blog post was written by Horticulture Program intern, Evangelon James  under supervision of the Master Gardener Coordinator and Residential Horticulture Agent Anne Yasalonis.

For more information, contact UF/IFAS Extension Polk County at (863) 519-1041 or visit us online at http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/polk.  The Plant Clinic is open Monday-Friday, 9:00 am-4:00 pm to answer your gardening and landscaping questions. Visit us in person, give us a call, or email us at polkmg@ifas.ufl.edu.

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2 Comments on “Save Your Lawn and Your Water Bill with These Easy Steps

  1. I am new to the county. Are there specific days that we can water our lawns?

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