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Get water wise

“What gives it power makes it change its mind

At each extreme, and lean its rising rain

Down low, first one and then the other way;

In which exchange humility and pride

Reverse, forgive, arise, and die again,

Wherefore it holds at both ends of the day

The rainbow in its scattering grains of spray.”

— Howard Nemerov, “The Beautiful Lawn Sprinkler,” 1973

Why, come to think of it, lawn sprinklers are beautiful. All around the neighborhood, rotating sprinkler heads make the quintessential staccato sounds of summertime. Water droplets form on plant leaves and glisten in the sunshine. Children laugh and play in the refreshing streams of water, backlit by sprinkler-inspired rainbows.

What’s not to like about lawn sprinklers?

Well, there are a number of reasons to be a sprinkler skeptic, starting with the fact they use up lots of water. On average, Americans use about 7 billion gallons of water per day on landscape irrigation, and about 50 percent of that water goes to waste due to evaporation, faulty systems, runoff and over-watering.

Whenever I see lawn sprinklers on in the middle of a rainstorm, I envision all those sprinkler heads are tiny lighthouses beaming the message, “These folks are not paying attention.”

When it comes to gardening, I believe paying attention is Rule #1, and nowhere does this maxim apply more aptly than when watering the garden (not the sidewalks or the side of the house). Spring is the time to re-energize our watering systems, including the most important watering system — our own watchful attention to the changing needs of our plants throughout the spring and summer.

Based on recommendations from the Medford Water Commission, here are a number of matters that need our attention when it comes to “water-wising” our gardens and landscapes.

1. Check your irrigation system to make sure it’s running properly. The MWC provides spring start-up steps for re-activating automatic or manual sprinkler systems at www.medfordwater.org.

Inspect the controller to see if it’s operating properly: secure valve wires, replace alkaline batteries, re-program irrigation start times and watering days.

Test the water supply: locate the shut-off valve, control valves and drain valves; open the valve farthest from where the main sprinkler line branches off from the pipeline that supplies water to the house (called the point of connection); partially open the shut-off valve to allow water to slowly enter the system and allow air to escape through the open valve, then close all open valves and fully open the main shut-off valve.

Test the electric control valves, irrigation lines and sprinkler attachments: run each zone set on the controller for a few minutes and make adjustments as needed. Sprinkler heads need to be cleaned and repositioned so they are not leaning over or next to obstructions that block the water spray from reaching plants. Look for shooting water from broken or missing heads or misting water, which indicates your water pressure is too high for the sprinkler system.

2. Ensure that your watering devices match your watering needs.

For larger areas, switch to rotating nozzles that emit finger sprays, or rotor sprinkler heads, both which have slower application rates. Use drip irrigation lines and/or bubbler emitters for beds and flower/shrub borders.

3. Follow a watering schedule, but be flexible. Set automatic irrigation to run between midnight and 6 a.m. to avoid water loss from evaporation and wind, and to avoid times of high water usage. Plants benefit from less frequent but deep watering, so set up an initial conservative watering schedule of two to three times a week and make adjustments as needed.

On watering days, divide the watering times into two or three short cycles per zone that are only an hour or two apart (not morning and evening); this will allow the water to soak more deeply into the soil and promote healthy plant roots.

Although watering schedules should be consistent, they should also be flexible, and this is where paying attention is important. If you are not so already, become a weather watcher. If it’s going to rain, turn off the automatic sprinkler system. If temperatures are going to soar into triple digits, add an extra watering day to the schedule.

Keep in mind that more plants succumb to over-watering than lack of water; a wilting plant isn’t necessarily crying out for more water. Before watering more, check to see if the soil is dry by using a moisture meter or your finger to probe the soil a few inches below the surface. Provide extra water to especially thirsty plants by hand-watering them, rather than adding more automatic watering time to the entire zone.

Although the weather becomes considerably warmer in April, the soil beneath the top few inches is probably still moist, so grass and established plants can usually wait until May for automatic watering to begin. Hand water newly set plants in the garden, though, and drip irrigation may begin earlier for raised beds.

4. Replace plants with high water needs. Some landscape plants guzzle water. Consider replacing those plants with low-water, drought-tolerant and xeric plants. Use native plants or non-natives that thrive in similar weather conditions, such as those originating in Mediterranean regions.

The MWC provides an extensive list of ornamental plants for water-wising the garden, including low-maintenance and drought-tolerant ground covers, shrubs and trees, and low-water perennials.

Some vegetable plants require a lot more water, too: lettuce, celery, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and corn. Consider growing crops that need less water: Swiss chard, artichoke, sweet potatoes, eggplant, peppers, mustard greens and legumes. Always use mulch to retain moisture.

For more about water-wising your garden and lawn, be sure to attend Sundays in Spring at Hanley Farm May 19 when the Medford Water Commission’s David Searcy will be there to offer helpful tips. The Southern Oregon Historical Society and the Family Nurturing Center’s Farm and Food Program will offer free, family-fun gardening activities from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 7, April 14, May 5 and May 19. I’ll be there to show folks around the Shakespeare Garden, so come by and say hello.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com or visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.