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Drought & Water Wise Gardening


Master Gardener Tim-The Waterwise Gardener shares his thoughts on 


lawn sprinkler
Drip irrigation, in my opinion, has been the most important technological advancement for the California farmer in my lifetime. As an agricultural appraiser, I saw thousands of acres converted from flood irrigation to drip. Land that was traditionally difficult to farm because of topography and soil conditions became some of the most productive farmland in the valley. The reason is quite simple: drip irrigation effectively locates water to the root zone of plants. In addition, the slow application rates allow for better infiltration. Wasted water can almost be eliminated.

Having said that, should the home gardener convert to drip irrigation? Definitely maybe. I have taught irrigation classes for almost ten years and there seems to be a common theme to my audiences. Gardeners want a simple fix to irrigation. People just don’t want to take the time to learn about irrigation products and they especially don’t want to deal with irrigation math. If you are going to convert to drip irrigation, you will have to do both. If you are not willing to do your research, you are probably wasting money and will be frustrated with your drip system. As an agricultural appraiser I was taught a well managed flood irrigation system was more efficient than a poorly managed drip system. Absolutely true.

There are basically two types of drip irrigation systems for the home gardener: point source and in-line emitters. A point source system has a main distribution tube(usually ½ inch) and smaller tubing(usually ¼ inch) that is punched into the main line. The emitter is attached to the smaller tubing and the emitter is located next to the plant. The in-line emitter system has emitters punched into the ½ inch tubing and the tubing is placed in the garden in a grid system or is snaked around existing plants. Of the UC lectures on irrigation I have attended, the lecturers have generally recommended the in-line system because water is distributed better throughout the entire rooting zone. Plants are able to establish roots in a much larger area. I have used both and I would recommend the in-line system for the above reason. The one advantage of a point source system, I have found, is in establishing new plants. You can place the emitter right on the root ball of your new plants to get them established. Point source systems also work better for container gardens since you can place emitters in individual pots.

Whatever system you choose, you will have to do irrigation math and determine an application rate. Run times are set based on evapotranspiration rates(water need) and the application rate of your system. If you don’t have an application rate estimate, you can’t determine a run time. Most manufacturers have tables that help you determine application rates. You will have to size your system based on your soil type; that is, determine what size emitters to use.(e.g. .4 or .6 gallons/hour)

Sound confusing? It can be and in my dealings with many home gardeners they are completely overwhelmed with irrigation and are enormously frustrated.

The Master Gardener program is here to help with your drip irrigation research. Before the COVID lockdown, irrigation classes were offered often. Hopefully, these classes will be offered again soon. For now, the best thing I believe you can do is go to the major drip manufacturer’s websites and go through instructional how-to videos and articles. Many of these videos and articles are excellent sources of information

I have converted the majority of my home garden to drip and have never looked back. The efficiency is so much better than my old spray system. No longer do I see water pouring off my yard and going down the gutter. Although I test my system often, rarely do I have to spend much time on irrigation issues.

Here is the bottom line. Drip irrigation is more efficient, but you will have to commit your time and resources to learn how to install and operate your new system.

I hope you make the decision to take the time to learn about drip irrigation. Tim

The Waterwise Gardener



sprinker in summer
Our nation’s birthday is July 4th. It also happens to be my wife’s birthday! My wife is a military brat and has a twin brother who served as a drill sergeant in the Marine Corps. For her father, who was a Colonel in the Air Force and served in three wars, July was the most important month of the year.
But July is also the most important month of the year for irrigation. All irrigation decisions are based on the month of July. July is the highest water use month of the year. Other months are set as a percentage of July. I recommend you go to the CIMIS website and learn about the evapotranspiration curve. CIMIS stands for California Irrigation Management Information System. It is a joint project between the Department of Water Resources and UC Davis and the project monitors water demand in the state from weather stations set up throughout the different regions of California. What a great educational resource!
Hopefully, you have learned to use the season adjust feature on your sprinkler controller. You set your controller to the July run times and then just move up and down the year as a percentage of July---a great and effective time saver. It is important to test your sprinklers often, I recommend weekly, during the hot summer days.A broken sprinkler head in the summer can result in dead plants. So, learn to go out and enjoy our balmy summer evenings and check your sprinklers at the same time. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of mulching during the summer. Although I seem to be fighting a losing battle on this issue, I will not give up. Culturally, Fresno gardeners like that sanitized garden look with no mulch and bare soil. Unfortunately, your plants’ roots are struggling without the protection of a nice thick layer of mulch. Mulch, mulch mulch.

Monticello garden
I recently went to the Monticello website. Monticello was the estate and home of Thomas Jefferson, one of our founding fathers. It is a truly beautiful estate and garden in Virginia. The site emphasized the extensive use of mulch in the same garden that Thomas Jefferson farmed in early America. Thomas Jefferson did not have modern pesticides and recognized the importance of organic matter. I had the opportunity to visit Monticello and it is a very moving place for an American and a gardener.
I will leave you with a quote from Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s third president and most prolific organic gardener: “I am an old man, but a young gardener.”

Stress Free Irrigation This Spring

watering lawn

With all the stress in our lives going on right now, the last thing we need is to stress about our garden’s irrigation. As we are being confined to our homes this spring because of the coronavirus, this is a great opportunity to get our irrigation systems in great working order. Before you know it, outdoor temperatures will be over 100 degrees and our plants will be demanding attention.

Here is a checklist of things to do now so this summer you can kick back and enjoy your garden:

  1. Learn how to use the test program with your controller.

Most controllers have a test feature that runs each zone for three to five minutes. You can walk around your garden and see very quickly where there is a problem. In the springtime you should test your sprinklers at least once a month. In the summer, I recommend you test your sprinklers once a week. In the summer heat,  a broken sprinkler will destroy plants very quickly. How about a Sunday evening wine walk in the garden checking the irrigation? If you know how to use the test feature it's easy. 

  1. Use a probe to test how deep the water goes after irrigation.

The morning after you irrigate use a long handled screwdriver to test how deep the water has penetrated. Your probe will easily go through wet soil. UC Guidelines are as follows:

  1. 6”  turf
  2. 12-18” perennials and shrubs
  3. 24” trees

There is a debate concerning how deep to irrigate various plants within UC, but the estimates above are good estimates. You probably aren’t irrigating deep enough. Deep roots make plants drought resistant and able to survive our summer heat. If you aren’t irrigating deeply, you will have to lengthen your run times. For example, in the summer if you irrigate your lawn 20 minutes three times a week, you may wish to irrigate your lawn 30 minutes twice a week in order to irrigate deeply. You may have to cycle and soak to avoid runoff.

      3. Clean your system

If you have a regular spray system, go to the end of each line and remove the sprayhead and blow out your line by running the line for about five minutes. You will probably be amazed at the dirt that is blown out. Overtime dirt can get sucked into the system. It just happens. Replace the sprayhead and your system will be cleaned out.

If you have a drip system, clean the filter and open the flush valve at the end of the line.(You added a flush valve, right?) Run the line for about five minutes  to clean the system. Then, close the flush valve and you will be good to go.

flush valve

4.. Mulch and Grasscycle this year. No excuses.

Effective irrigation is all about soil. The most expensive irrigation system will not work well if your soil is compacted and like a brick. Mulch is the best  thing you can do for your garden. Most people think mulch is just for cosmetic reasons, but they are wrong. Mulch conserves water, helps control weeds and most importantly helps activate the biology that opens up the soil. 

pine needle mulch

Most Fresno  gardeners love to rake up leaf litter in garden beds in order to make their flower beds look “clean”. They are depriving their gardens of valuable organic material. There are more microorganisms in a handful of healthy soil than there are people who populate the entire earth! 

You can buy mulch but you can use ordinary yard waste. I have pine trees in my yard and I use the fallen pine needles for free. I noticed online that a company was selling pine needles . Be creative. We all have yard waste. You can look into a shredder if you like. 

Grasscycling is just like mulching your lawn. Instead of bagging the clippings, leave them on the lawn. Follow the mowing height recommendations from the website “UC Guide to Healthy Lawns” and you shouldn’t have a problem with matting.

For some reason, we generally don’t mulch and grasscycle here in Fresno.  As I practice social distancing in walks around my neighborhood I have noticed just a handful of homeowners mulch and/or grasscycle. This practice needs to change. And it is less work! 

Here’s to our nation’s health, our state’s health, our county's health, our city’s health, your health and your garden’s health!

Until next time


The Waterwise Gardener

Waterwise New Year's Resolutions

water feb
Although we have recently received a fair amount of rain this winter, don’t relax and think the water situation in California has dramatically changed. In Fresno, we are on water meters and there is talk of raising water rates. The days of paying a flat fee for water, regardless of usage, are over.

I have three water resolutions for gardeners in 2020:

  1. Study your water bill to learn about your water use

In Fresno, our water consumption is measured in Hundred Cubic Feet or HCF. There are 748 gallons per HCF. Currently, our consumption charge is $1.74 per HCF. You can then calculate how much any price increase will affect your monthly cost. Average price per household is a statistic that is widely reported but understanding your consumption will give you a better understanding of how much you are paying for water. In addition to a consumption, you are charged a flat fee based on the size of pipe you use to bring water to your property.

Homeowners may not realize that it costs a lot of money to pressurize the city water system. A big change in energy costs could have a dramatic effect on this charge.

  1. Finally learn how to use your sprinkler system

Dig out your manual and learn about all the bells and whistles. In particular, learn about the season adjust feature that most timers have. Season adjust works like this: Enter your water run times for July(the highest water use month), then season adjust that number for the time of year. For example, let's say you irrigate your lawn for twenty minutes three times a week in July. April uses 60% of the water used in July. You set your timer for twenty minutes and then enter 60% Season Adjust. No more constant fiddling with your timer

Here is a table of Season Adjust Features for Fresno that I have calculated from CIMIS(California Irrigation Management Information System):







Jun      Jul            Aug










100% 100% 90%






You can always adjust the run times if necessary. For December, January and February you usually can turn your controller off because of rainfall. And of course, be aware of Fresno water restrictions.

Better yet, look into getting a wifi controller that automatically season adjusts your sprinklers based on historical water use information and weather information.


  1. Learn how to do simple sprinkler repairs

The internet has some great videos on how to fix sprinklers from broken heads to misaligned heads. Almost all the major manufacturers have videos about this subject.

As I walk around Fresno, I think the major reason for water waste is broken sprinkler heads. Even in December it is not uncommon for me to see water pouring down the gutters.



DW 1
I recently went to a convention near Disney World in Florida and observed the amazing gardens there. I do not believe I have every seen more beautiful commercial gardens. There are over 7000 acres of development at Disney World and the majority of those acres are beautifully manicured gardens.

The climate in Orlando is obviously different than California and there were several rainstorms during my time at the convention. Yet, it was clear that

the garden staff managing the gardens knew about water wise gardening techniques. Almost all of the flower beds were mulched deeply with organic materials. There are many pine trees in Florida and most of the mulch I saw contained pine needles. But other commercial mulches appeared also to be used.In addition, the turf at Disney World is mowed high. The majority of turf is St. Augustine grass and it is mowed to no less than three inches. I noticed very little weed activity in the flower beds or turf. I believe this is because of the deep mulch and high mowing height.

Surprisingly, I noticed very little drip irrigation. The most common method of irrigation is pop-up sprayers with standard spray heads.. Disney world uses pop-up sprayers by several manufacturers. There were very few areas with microsprayers(MP Rotators).

The staff at Disney appears to be saving water through biology and not irrigation technology. Mulch and mowing high effects soil health. Healthy soil uses water more efficiently.

So if you want your garden to look like the gardens at Disney World: Mulch and Mow High.

I went to the new Star Wars Land at Hollywood Studios! There I encountered Darth Vader. I will leave you with this final thought:

Don’t be tempted by the power of the dark side of the Force.



The Water Wise Gardener