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Posts Tagged ‘tips’

Heat Wave

by Charlene Burgi

The air temperatures in Marin have been pushing close to and into the 90s for more than a week now. The urge to increase our irrigation times seems natural to compensate for the heat, yet the Weekly Watering Schedule is saying to water less now than was suggested at the beginning of May. At that time, the evapotranspiration (ET) was 1.57 inches with a 106% Watering Index, compared to 0.97 inch with a 66% Watering Index this week.

You might ask why plants need more water in cooler spring than when the temperatures soar in early fall. The truth is air temperature only plays a small role in determining how much water our plants need.

CIMIS weather station

CIMIS weather station

But first, some background on how we determine the Weekly Watering Schedule: The California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS) is a network of weather stations throughout California. Our CIMIS weather station is located near Point San Pedro Road in San Rafael and collects data points throughout the day that determine plant irrigation needs. Besides recording air temperature, our CIMIS station has instruments that measure soil temperature, hours of solar radiation, wind speed and direction, humidity level, and rainfall. We use all the collected data to calculate how much water is evaporating from the soil and transpiring from plants. Those results are transposed into inches. This tells us how many inches of lost water we need to replace with irrigation to maintain the optimal health for our gardens.

The question still remains why we irrigated more in late spring/early summer than we are now in the heat of fall. By examining the data collected by CIMIS, you will find that solar radiation is the key difference. Daylight hours play a critical role in a plant’s growing conditions and cycle of growth. In short: Even with the warm autumn weather we’ve been having, shorter days mean your plants don’t need as much water this time of year. (Without further investigation, I suspect daylight hours play a role in our animals’ cycle of winter survival as well; I notice the horses’ and donkeys’ sleek coats are beginning to come in heavier right now, despite the continuing warm weather.)

If you are following the suggested irrigation runtimes but find that some of your plants are wilting during the fall heat spells, check the soil moisture level. Oft times, the soil has adequate water available to the plant, but the plant cannot draw the water up to the leaf fast enough (usually found in very large leaf plants). In this situation the plant will droop but recover by the following morning.

If you are uncertain how much water your plant is receiving, you can experiment by placing an empty low can (such as a tuna can) near your plant before you irrigate. After the station is complete, measure the amount of water in the can and multiply that times the number of days you irrigate in that area each week. Check that number with the given ET loss per week to see if you are replacing what the plant loses. For example, if the can collected 0.25 inch and you irrigated three times a week, you are replacing 0.75 inch. Last week the ET was 0.91 inch, so if you only applied 0.75 inch last week you are not applying enough water to sustain the health of the plant.

To really do this test correctly, it would be best to distribute several cans throughout the area being irrigated and total the number of inches in the cans and divide that number of inches by the number of cans you have placed out. That test is known as distribution uniformity and is getting into a whole different topic for next week’s blog!

Have a great weekend, and stay hydrated if you are working outdoors.

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Recovery

by Charlene Burgi

“Recovery” seemed to be the buzzword this week. Oddly, recovery had everything to do with the healing properties of water!

Jack and I left this past weekend anticipating the fun-filled events planned for my class reunion from dear ol’ San Rafael High School. Prior to leaving, I set out 12 pansies in their tiny containers on the edge of our west-facing covered deck to capture the predicted rainfall. When it rains or snows at our home in Lassen, the rain manages to drift in toward the planters along the deck edge. What I didn’t anticipate was the storm came in from the east instead of the west and watered the front deck planters instead, leaving my poor pansies lacking for any means of hydration. My arrival home found those babies laying on their side and crinkly and apparently beyond hope. Nonetheless, after soaking them thoroughly, I found the pansies in full recovery by the next morning and blooming within two days.

rose and vintage bottle

1964: A very good year

That wasn’t the only flower that recovered this weekend. Each female graduate was presented with a long-stemmed red or white rose at the reunion to commemorate our school colors. The long drive back to Lassen found this perfect rose looking a little worse for the wear. By the time we arrived home that night, it drooped its head as if to protest its long journey in a paper cup filled with water. I cut the bottom of the stem a few inches and placed the rose into a water-filled stem vase. The rose, like the pansies, fully recovered by the next morning.

Before our trip to Marin, I noticed the soil becoming more powder-like to a deeper depth each day. The horses and donkeys didn’t help as they traversed to and fro, contributing to the breakdown of earth with their sharp hooves in the pastures and corral that surround our home. Just before we left, the heavens opened up to glorious rain, settling the dust and replenishing moisture to a water-starved land. The wind no longer carries dust in all directions. And for a time, the soil has recovered some moisture.

The rains didn’t only fall in Lassen. As we drove along Highway 505, we noted black clouds to the west. The clouds opened up as we drove along Highway 80, and the rains came down almost obscuring our vision. The radio flashed a warning of quarter-sized hail expected in the surrounding area, and we were amazed at the rare sighting of lightning as we approached Marin. Rain! The parched land, streams, and lakes soaked up this precious commodity and moved toward recovery and restoration.

Water is life-sustaining, yet we tend to take that information in stride. We assume water is there, it has always been there, and it will always be there. Do we fail to recognize it may be here, but not in the form we desire or are able to use? If we waste water in any fashion, is that arrogance on our part? Will the restoring rain cause us to become lax in our thinking about water? These are questions to ponder!

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Four deer in the backyard

Backyard visitors

The tug of my heart found me traveling to Bend, Oregon, to see six grandchildren where they reside. The road trip was a surprise as I expected to see some fall color in the trees, but summer was holding on to various shades of green. Nonetheless, the scenery was delightful.

My son Randy and his family live on the south side of town in an area that reminds me so much of Lake Tahoe. Thick groves of aspen and pine trees grow in profusion. Sitting on the back deck surrounded by this woodland brought such peace. The twins, Grace and Chris, pointed out the new fence that replaced the 6-foot fence that once stood at the back property line. They were quick to let me know this fence was built much shorter to accommodate the deer trail through their yard. The gate between the two yards was constructed with a latch enabling the gate to remain open for deer access. What a concept!

Vine maple

Vine maple (Acer circinatum)

Living with deer requires a different kind of landscape and attitude. As I looked around my son’s yard, I noticed he uses plants that are not often browsed by the beautiful four-legged friends. Native plants such as Mahonia (Oregon grape) and Acer circinatum (vine maple) border the perimeter of the garden. I was told more than one doe used this area for birthing. I could envision the deer resting under the vine maples in a month or more when these plants would show their true color combination of reds, oranges, and yellows.

Randy and I walked around the garden in the morning and found a doe and her two fawns nestled under the big pine trees. I marveled that the deer didn’t browse on the annual color on the back deck. It was almost as if they respected the working relationship between man and beast. As we walked, we spoke of adding a small natural stone basin of water to quench the deer’s thirst. The basin could be positioned to easily capture the spray of water from the lawn irrigation system, eliminating the maintenance to keep it filled.

The concept of living with nature, instead of fighting it, made sense to me. Often we build high fences or spray our plants with repellent to discourage the deer in our midst. Randy and the children’s actions gave me pause for thought. Foraging rabbits and squirrels caused my own vegetable garden to fail this year. I fought their presence instead of providing what they really wanted in the drought-stricken land. As I lamented the frustration of lost vegetables, Jack would remind me that the night marauders were only hungry. It made me wonder how much of the garden would have been untouched had I provided feed for them. My trip to Bend taught me that the winning combination of living with wildlife is to provide shelter, food, and water for them to live in harmony with us.

How have you remedied the wildlife situation in your garden? Are you fighting a losing battle by keeping them at bay? Or do you employ various strategies to live with them?

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Autumn in the Air

by Charlene Burgi

There is a change in the air. The afternoon thermometer still registers in the 80s, but evening temperatures are rapidly dropping. The cooler evenings find me and Jack spending more time outside assessing what is needed in the garden before winter hits. And we pray it comes with abundant rain and snow here in Lassen County, just as that wish extends for ample water supplies for the entire West Coast.

Our evening assessments determined our first priority is to add more mulch to protect the plants’ root systems this winter. Refreshing organic mulch should be done every other year, if not annually. During the summer months, organic mulch seems to break down more rapidly than during the winter months. But that’s not a bad thing: The decomposed mulch adds nutrients to the soil that, in turn, further break down to feed the plants. Additionally, the cool blanket of mulch in the summer miraculously becomes a warm comforter to those same roots in the cold weather.

Dogs resting in garden mulch

Pups enjoying the mulch

We often use a metal probe to determine where more mulch is needed. We find the sunny gardens require more than the shade garden where the elements are not as harsh. In addition, with the pups using the sunny gardens as a personal playground, the mulch in those areas has a tendency to wander off. The differing depths of mulch needed in various areas can throw off our calculations. How do you figure out how much is needed?

Determining the quantity of mulch required for adequate coverage can be more specific than a wild guess about how many premeasured bags of bark to buy. A tape measure, paper, and a pencil are the only tools needed to come up with the cubic yardage. Once you know how many cubic yards are needed, you can purchase in bulk from the landscape materials yard, which may be more favorable to the pocketbook. Are you ready for this exercise?

  1. Measure the length and width of the planting area you need to mulch.
  2. Multiply those two numbers together to find the square footage of the area.
  3. Divide the square footage by 9 to convert to square yards (there are 9 square feet in a square yard).
  4. Determine the depth of mulch needed.
  5. Divide that number of inches needed into 36 (a yard equals 36 inches).
  6. Then divide that answer into the square yards to come up with the cubic yards of mulch needed.
Measuring mulch depth

Measuring mulch depth

Did I lose you? Here is an example. I know my shade garden is 20 feet by 30 feet, which equals 600 square feet. When I divide that number by 9, it equals 66.67 square yards. I want a thick 4-inch layer of mulch in the shade garden, but the mulch is already 2 inches deep, so I only need an additional 2 inches of mulch. I divide the 2 inches I need into 36 inches to come up with the number 18. I then divide 18 into the square yardage and find I need 3.7 cubic yards of mulch for my shade garden area. If I didn’t have any bark in the shade garden, but still wanted 4 inches of mulch, I would use the same formula but divide the 36 inches by 4. The answer of 9 is then divided into the 66.67 square yards equaling 7.4 cubic yards.

There are other ways to calculate this. I am certain many of you will be willing to share your formula with others facing this quandary but wishing to do the right thing for their plants. As with gardening, we all have our own ways of achieving the bottom line. Most of us work out problems in the fashion we were taught. Jack taught this method to me many years ago and it stuck. Does anyone have another formula that is easier? For gardeners who feel math-challenged, MMWD’s cubic calculator is another option!

Now might be a good time to go for an evening walk in the garden. What do you find on your list of things to do? Are the pruning tools sharpened? Are spring-blooming bulbs needed to fill in an empty space while requiring little water? Or is it just a pleasant night to take in the beauty?

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by Charlene Burgi

Low water at Shasta Lake

Shasta Lake on August 25, 2014, looking west from Pit River Bridge (California Department of Water Resources)

The email messages and news about drought conditions are flooding my inbox and my senses. Pictures of Lake Oroville and Folsom depict mere ribbons where large bodies of waters once resided. Driving by Shasta Lake and the Pit River, I experienced a shocking eyewitness view of the voids where water once lapped banks and rippled along the water course. All around are signs of extreme drought conditions.

MMWD is faring better than much of the state, with reservoirs at 92% of average storage for this time of year. Those numbers reflect the great job everyone in Marin is doing right this minute. What amazes me is that the district’s seven reservoirs are totally dependent on rainfall. They are not fed by large rivers or snowfall from afar. The water saved in those reservoirs is the direct result of local weather conditions and local water conservation. With that said, congratulations on the job you are doing!

And what are you doing to help others find tricks to employ in their homes? I know MMWD is offering a variety of resources from on-site water-use surveys, to rebates for water-saving devices, to free shutoff nozzles for garden hoses (pick up yours at the Corte Madera office). But my curiosity and thirst for knowledge want to get more personal. What are you doing? How are you educating your family about water conservation? What tips can you share that others can utilize?

I, for one, sadly let the vegetable garden go. Not only are we conserving water by eliminating the irrigation to that area, but the multitude of squirrels and rabbits have devoured every fruit and veggie that began to resemble something edible. The mild winters have made way for prolific garden predators looking for anything to eat. Except for the asparagus, no vegetation was spared from the night marauders. Chain-link gates across the greenhouse door (left open for ventilation) made a perfect ladder for visitors to gain entry to coveted tomatoes. Nothing was spared including the basil, parsley, and Swiss chard. Forgive my rant. Once again, I digress!

Peony before and after pruning

Peony before and after pruning

You might be interested in another conservation method that works. You can slightly stress perennial plants that will go dormant, such as peonies. Keep roots just moist enough, but cut back or thin out vegetation to minimize the irrigation needed to keep viable what little foliage is left. The remaining canopy will still provide shade for the roots and crown. The smaller canopy of the plant will reduce the water needed. (The Weekly Watering Schedule lists irrigation needs for different canopy sizes.) Be advised not to remove more than a third of any plant when pruning, and make your thinning cuts back to an outside bud.

Thanks for taking the time to share what led you to a successful conservation effort. Keep up the great work!

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by Charlene Burgi

Rumor has it that we are in for an El Niño winter. I am not certain what that means since every report comes up with various predictions that span from getting drenched to mild inclement weather to continued drought.

Predictions are something to approach with a discerning ear. The fall/winter season would be better met with preparedness. Preparedness comes with paying attention to the indicators that surround us and acting prior to an event.

For example, a friend reported attending the Ready Marin program. When the earthquake struck in the wee hours this past Sunday, she was prepared with flashlights and necessary tools at hand (if needed) to turn off gas and water supplies. Yet others reported they woke up in a half stupor and attempted to collect their thoughts as to where they would even find a flashlight.

This week the news reported a water main break in San Francisco. One gentleman was capturing this precious commodity by the bucketful before it disappeared into the cavernous storm drain. He was prepared with whatever collection method he could find and conserved as much as he could.

Conserving water is more than turning the faucet off while brushing your teeth and exchanging high-water-use for high-efficiency fixtures in the house. It is more than switching to a smart controller or adjusting your controller to reflect the current ET loss for the week. These steps are extremely important for saving the water in our reservoirs, but by being prepared and making the best use of the water sources at hand we can conserve even more.

Each winter we anticipate rainfall, but are we prepared to utilize the falling rain? If we live on any kind of slope, we can create multiple bioswales running across the length of the slope to slow down the runoff. A bioswale requires some trenching, compacting the lower edge of the bioswale for erosion, and backfilling with porous material, such as bark. Planting two of my favorite deep-rooted shrubs—Pacific ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus) and red osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera)—will help penetrate the clay soils above the swale and move the water deeper than the trenched bioswale.

Aster novae-angliae

Aster novae-angliae

Another idea is to collect the water from the downspout into trenches to carry water to a rain garden or meadow at least 10 feet away from the house foundation. Choose plant material that will thrive on the abundant rainwater that will collect there in the winter. Use rain garden plants such as Aster novae-anglaie or Lobelia cardinalis that attract butterflies and bees and provide nectar in the summer months.

Try designing a dry creek bed to capture the precious liquid from our rains. Wind the bed through the garden to deliver water to your trees or shrubs along the way. Tuck native grasses and wildflowers along the edges or plant some color into the dry creek bed. This task requires preparing now for winter.

These suggestions will take more than a shovel and wheel barrow. It will take planning and a list of equipment as follows:

Flowers in dry creek bed

Dry creek bed color (photo courtesy of Marie Shepard)

    • Soil, sand, clay, organic mulch
    • Building materials and construction (if built)
    • Organic compost
    • Tools (tractor, rakes, shovels, gloves, etc.)
    • Vegetation (seeds, plants, trees)
    • Gravel, rocks (large and small)

Are you prepared for the task at hand or will you watch the precious wet stuff disappear into the local storm drain this winter?

It is Labor Day weekend. Why not take a ride to the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed and glean ideas for imitating nature in your own garden?

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by Charlene Burgi

Over the years, many questions have popped up regarding the best way to irrigate. Some customers asked if it was best to irrigate a little every day, or every two days, etc. Others asked if it was best to irrigate in the morning, afternoon, or evening. Some wanted to know what irrigation method is best for hillside planting.

Overspray, an irrigation don't

Overspray: an irrigation don’t

And, over the years, many of you have heard me say to irrigate effectively as well as efficiently. To irrigate efficiently is to apply water to the root zone of the plant and replace just the amount of water lost due to evapotranspiration (ET). ET is the loss of water through transpiration from plants (we perspire, plants transpire) and through evaporation from soil. MMWD uses data from its weather stations to calculate the rate of ET and generate the Weekly Watering Schedule. Replacing just the amount of water lost keeps the plant and surrounding areas in balance, but this alone is not necessarily effective.

For example, suppose the ET loss for the week is one inch. A person could water a tiny bit daily, replacing just 1/7th inch of water each day to total one inch for the week. However, that tiny bit of water would barely wet the surface of the ground and evaporate quickly. Much better would be to apply a half inch twice a week or one inch of water weekly to get down to the root system of the plant. Water at that depth will take longer to evaporate—especially if there is a thick layer of mulch on top of the soil. That would be effective as well as efficient.

Another means of being more effective is to avoid irrigating when it’s windy or during the heat of the day. Typically, there is little wind during the evenings or early morning. If you set your controller to turn on after sunset or before sunrise, you’ll save water and comply with MMWD’s new daytime irrigation prohibition. Since your irrigation system will be in action while you sleep, do a quick monthly system check—running each station for a minute—to look for blown emitters or misaligned nozzles. During the month between system checks, simply look around in the morning. Do you see a puddle? Are the sidewalks wet? Are you finding dry spots or wilting plants? These are signs that adjustments or repairs may be needed.

Watering hillside plantings is a challenge in anyone’s book. There are steps that can be taken to make this irrigation challenge both effective and efficient. First, use very low-flow methods of irrigating such as drip emitters or MP rotators for overhead irrigation. Next, use multiple start and stop times on your controller. Some controllers call this the cycle/ soak program. Water for a brief time before you see any sign of runoff. At that time, program the controller to turn off. Let that water soak into the hillside for 20-30 minutes before setting the controller to start again. Continue the cycle/ soak until the water penetrates to the depth of the root system—but not until you find water run down the street!

Be water smart. A few moments to adjust your controller will yield water savings and happy plants. And please take a few minutes to become familiar with the current water conservation regulations.

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