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Skip Richter column: Help your landscape survive heat and drought

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The ongoing excessive summer heat and drought is taking a toll on our lawns and landscapes. We’ve now had 46 days at or above 100 degrees and only four-hundredths of one inch of rain at Easterwood Airport in the past 60 days. Both June and July were the hottest on record since at least 1889.

I don’t have to tell you, or the plants in our landscapes, that this heat and lack of rain is a brutal combination. Many turf areas and landscape trees and shrubs look to be past the point of recovery. Others may appear that way but will recover, assuming some relief arrives before too long.

Local water systems are being strained to the limits. Some have imposed restrictions while others may have to soon if the trajectory of usage rates doesn’t change. We are being asked to voluntarily follow our water system’s guidelines for conservation and reduction of water waste to avoid such restrictions. Everyone will benefit if such pleas are heeded.

Here are some things that we can all do to help avoid mandatory restrictions and to keep our landscape plants alive:

Check with your water provider

Go online to your water services department or special utility district whether it’s Bryan, College Station, Wellborn, Wickson Creek or wherever you live to know the specific recommendations and restrictions in place. Some offer tips for water conservation inside and outside the home. Your water provider also may offer an irrigation checkup to assess the efficiency of your system’s application. Most home irrigation systems have at least some inefficiencies that can be corrected.

Check Brazos Valley WaterSmart

Go to where you will find great tips on doing a checkup on your irrigation system and learn about efficient watering and irrigation basics in brief videos. There you can sign up for free emails with watering recommendations based on a weather station near you, no matter where you live in Brazos County.

These stations crunch the numbers 24/7 on things like temperature, wind speed, solar radiation and more to determine how much water your lawn needs based on a research-based formula provided by AgriLife Research and Extension studies on turfgrass water usage. Did I mention that this is free?

Spot water with rescue irrigation

Have you noticed that as the soil dries out in the days after an irrigation, some areas (typically in shadier spots) remain green while others receiving many hours of sun each day turn toasty? While your automatic system may water the entire area, you can use a hose end sprinkler or even hand watering in small areas to help sustain the turf until even the shady areas need water.

Consider the plant’s value and resilience

When restrictions remove our options for how, when and how much to water, it makes sense to do some triage when choosing where the allowed watering is applied. Plants are more resilient than we often expect them to be. Some, such as established cypress trees, may look like they are dying but usually bounce back despite their “swamp dweller” image.

Other trees can be a roll of the dice, such as with post oaks that grow wild in our region, but which can suddenly go brown for good during a drought. Our landscape watering practices often set them up for such a demise.

St. Augustine is among our most drought susceptible turf options, but it is also the most shade tolerant. Drive around town and notice that in sunny areas of an unwatered yard it may look dead while beneath the shade of a tree it is still impressively green.

Shift to thorough but infrequent irrigation

When you water, apply at least ½ to 1 inch of irrigation to turf in sunny areas. Trees benefit from a 1-inch soaking every couple of weeks in the absence of rain. Brief, frequent irrigation puts less water into the soil bank account and results in a greater percentage of that drinking water you paid for being lost to evaporation.

Most soils in our area cannot absorb an inch of irrigation at the rate put out by our typical sprinkler heads. Utilize the “cycle and soak” technique by watering until runoff is about to begin, then have the system shut off for about 40 or so minutes to allow the water to soak in well. Then repeat this cycle until the desired amount has been applied.

When you water this way, you won’t need to water again for up to a week or more depending on the amount of shade the area receives. Deep, infrequent watering allows for oxygen to reach deeper into the soil and promotes a deeper root system and more drought resistant turfgrass.

Consider upgrading your system

Misaligned sprinkler heads, excessive or insufficient pressure, broken heads and plant parts blocking sprinkler patterns are the first place to start in making your system more efficient.

Technology has come a long way since many systems were installed. Smarter irrigation system controllers, rain switches, more efficient irrigation heads and drip/microjet systems all reduce waste and give you the most plant benefits for your watering dollar. Do-it-yourself drip systems for gardens and landscape beds are a simple way to save plants without wasting water or promoting foliage diseases caused by frequent wetting.

Outdoor faucet timers are quite inexpensive. Some units can be set to water on specific days and times. These can prevent waste from hose end sprinklers or drip systems when we forget to turn off the water after an appropriate time. They might also disappoint the neighborhood kids who love playing in the curbside rivers we create when we forget we left the water running.

Plan and plant for future resilience

This year’s drought is no reason to start ordering cactus and gravel for the front yard, but it is a wake-up call. The way we design our landscapes, the plants we choose, the soil preparations we make and the watering systems we install can make the difference between high water bills and replacing wimpy plants, or having a resilient, beautiful landscape when temperatures rise and rainfall is scarce.

AgriLife Extension can provide information and advice on creating a more drought resistant landscape. Check out Aggie Horticulture’s Earth-Kind page at and contact your Brazos County Extension office for free, research-based information as you are considering landscape changes.

If you are interested in participating in this fall’s Master Gardener volunteer training course, contact the Brazos County Extension office for more information. Classes are on Wednesdays from Aug. 31 through Nov. 16.

Robert “Skip” Richter is the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension horticulture agent for Brazos County. For local gardening information and events, visit Gardening questions? Call Skip at 823-0129 or email

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