Even in a normal year, Georgia has long, dry spells. Water usage soars, and so do those water bills. Some estimates show that half of the water a typical family uses is for landscape purposes.
Not only that, but University of Georgia Extension Service agents and specialists report seeing more plants dead of drowning during dry spells than during wet weather.
Do Your Plants Need Water?
Learn how to tell if your plants need water. Many plants wilt in the afternoon sun but spring back in the cool of the evening. If we rush for the hose as soon as we get home from work, we may be giving the plant too much.
When in doubt, use the "finger test." Simply poke your finger a few inches into the soil and see if it's moist. If it is, don't water.
Our lawns will tell us they need water by getting a bit dull or bluish. You can double-check with the "foot test." If your footsteps spring back up soon after you walk across, your lawn is fine. You don't need to water.
Next, check out different ways to get water to your plants. Soaker hoses and drip systems put water at the roots, where it's needed. Add drip emitters to your regular irrigation system, or lay inexpensive soaker hoses in flower and shrub beds and cover them with mulch.
Wise Use of Sprinklers
If you do need to use sprinklers:
Don't water on hot, windy afternoons. You'll lose more than half of your water to evaporation. Early-morning watering lets the water soak into the soil. It allows the plants to dry off fast once the sun rises, helping prevent diseases in your garden.
Aim your sprinklers properly. Water your plants, not the street, sidewalk and driveway. If an area in your garden always stays damp, close off the sprinkler there.
Stop when water starts to run off. You may have to turn it off and on a few times, but water and your money won't be running down the drain.
Improve your soil quality. Aerating or adding organic matter can prevent runoff, too.
Get a rain gauge. Most Georgia soils need only an inch of water per week. If it rains, subtract that amount from your total application.
Water deeply. As the landscape matures, soak the soil 6 to 8 inches deep to encourage deep roots. Then don't water again until the plants need it -- once a week or less.
Add a moisture sensor. This soil probe tells the sprinkler system when the soil is wet or dry and will turn it on and off for you.
Don't forget to mulch. Mulching helps keep the soil cool and moist while suppressing water-stealing weeds and reducing your garden work. Mulch a wide area around your plants (but not next to the stem or trunk).
Add lime if the soil needs it. Georgia soils typically run slightly acid. You may find, especially in a mature landscape, that you need little or no fertilizer.
Don't overfertilize. Actively growing plants use more water. Overfertilizing leads to a landscape that will be a water hog. A soil test from your Extension Service office or a private lab will tell you the soil's fertilizer and lime requirements.
If you do need fertilizer, consider using a slow-release type. These deliver a little fertilizer over a long time, so they don't stimulate fast, thirsty growth. Over the long run, slow-release fertilizers can be more cost-efficient. You don't need to apply them as often.
Summer annuals or roses, though, do best with light, frequent fertilizing. Usually, one application per month with a standard granular fertilizer will keep these plants perky. To encourage new flowers, pick off the old blooms as they fade.
(Bob Westerfield is a Cooperative Extension horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)