Sustainable Landscapes: Sprinkler Systems in the Landscape

By Gregg O’Connor

Diminishing resources and client demands have made Sustainable Landscapes extremely important. Water-wise (or Xeriscape) native plant material, best management practices and water-efficient irrigation systems are crucial components of sustainability. If irrigation systems are not designed to be efficient, they can waste water and cause many plant and lawn problems. By following some basic guidelines, property owners and landscape maintenance personnel can be more successful in keeping the lawnscape healthy and attractive.

Typical causes of problems when using automatic irrigation systems

  • Over watering — too often and too shallow.
  • Failure to measure actual amounts of water applied in a unit of time.
  • Poor water quality including pH, salinity, mineral matter.
  • Operation at undesirable times of day such as late afternoon to night will give the landscape more water and less evaporation.
  • Using the system to water-in new plants, which require more water than established plants.
  • Watering too little, too often, not often enough, unevenly is insufficient (best management practices include reevaluating water usage periodically).
  • Failure to maintain components and perform inspections for proper operation, which results in inadequate coverage of the target areas.

Problems caused by over watering

  • Plant diseases — root rot, stem rot, leafspot, nutritional deficiencies and others.
  • Weed invasion — dollarweed, nutsedge and others.
  • Washout — mulch, soil, fertilizer, weed killers, insecticides, and fungicides.
  • Plantings and turf that have very little drought resistance or tolerance of other stresses.
  • Excessive thatch accumulation in turfgrass.
  • Waste of a precious resource.
  • High water bills.
  • Runoff of fertilizer and pesticide products into surface waters.
  • Leaching of these products into ground water.

General lawn and landscape irrigation recommendations

  • Water the lawn only when it shows signs of slight drought stress.
  • Water new plugs, sod or plants separately from established areas.
  • Water as infrequently as possible, but deeply when you do — perhaps one inch of water.
  • Use water quantity as your guide, not units of time.
  • Water even less frequently in the cool season, but just as deeply.
  • Use only 1/4 inch of water when watering for the sole purpose of activating granular fertilizer or other products.
  • Water between midnight and sunrise, when wind velocity is lowest. Watering during this time period also helps prevent fungus development.
  • Install an automatic shut-off device so watering doesn’t occur when it rains.
  • Turfgrass and landscape plant zones must be separate so that each receives proper amounts.

Because over watering of lawns and plants is the most common problem with automatic sprinkler systems, take some simple steps to ensure that your watering regime is as recommended and your lawnscape may appear vastly better before too long.

In shade and/or during the cooler season, plant and lawn problems caused by over watering tend to be more severe. Conversely, during hot/dry times, new plants and trees are stressed because they can’t uptake water as quickly as it is pulled from their leaves into the air. As a result, they desiccate.

Gregg O’Connor is project manager — landscape for Charlotte County Public Works. He holds an A.A.S. in Ornamental Horticulture from S.U.N.Y. Alfred, and a B.S. in Vocational-Technical Education/Agricultural Subjects from S.U.N.Y. Oswego. He has formerly served as Cornell University extension agent — horticulture, Charlotte Technical Center instructor — horticulture, technical director for a pest management company, and grounds superintendent for an upscale retirement community. 

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