"Winter Watering During a Drought"
IT IS SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO DRY IN TEXAS THAT:
The cows are giving evaporated milk.
The trees are whistling for the dogs.
It is so dry that people who are down on their
luck are lining up to
sell their spit.
A bucket of water is worth more than the horse
that drank it.
Weather people are being hung.
Neighbors are fighting over dew.
Wheels are being put on boats.
We are irrigating with eyedroppers.
Nobody cries- they can't afford to.
People don't have to make jerky - beef just comes
Powdered milk comes right out of the cow.
The trees are picking up their roots and leaving.
Humps on camels are shrinking.
People are going fishing with rakes.
Most people are hoarding their water in thimbles.
If you have a fire, you have to use sand to put
it out because your
water is worth more than your house.
Some folks are so thirsty they are trying to squeeze
the juice out of
Folks are having to prime their mouths before
they can spit.
Fish are growing legs.
Days, and now months, have passed without measurable
rain, i.e., less than a quarter of an inch, in many areas. Some
parts of Texas have not had such a rain since March, 2005. A
few areas have recently received some rain, but for the most
part the drought continues. Does the average homeowner or gardener
really understand how much weather affects the plants in their
garden or landscape? Let's recap the fall of 2004 and the spring
of 2005. Most areas received ample if not too much rain in 2004
followed by a wet fall and winter of 2004 and 2005. Hence, crops
and trees started the spring of 2005 with a full soil water
profile. Trees and plants sprouted out and grew well due to
the stored moisture in the soil. However, once the rains shut
off, the plants used the available water in the soil and became
stressed if no water was applied. Most gardeners applied water
during the remaining summer months and the plants did well.
Some did not apply this irrigation water and their plants suffered
from leaf loss, leaf color change and poor fruit quality. However,
once the cool weather arrived and plants began to lose their
leaves, most folks forgot about their plants. This is okay in
a normal year, but the winter of 2005 - 2006 has been anything
Notice the dull green color of the hedge on the right
of the opening in the center. This is caused by lack of
Drought-stressed plants turn a dull, pale green color
(right) rather than dark, shiny green (left).
Notice the dark green, watered Rosemary in the front compared
to the dull, green foliage in the back of the planting.
Even drought-tolerant Rosemary greens up after a drink.
To have a better understanding of how plants are potentially
in danger from extreme water stress we need to examine plant
dormancy in detail.
Plants go dormant in the fall due to changes in the day length
and temperature as well as the production of growth inhibiting
hormones. As the days get shorter and cooler in fall, many plants
begin producing a growth-inhibiting hormone known as abscisic
acid. This growth inhibitor causes plant growth to cease and
is typical of plants, which have a chilling requirement like
fruit trees. Then over the cool winter months the growth inhibitors
are broken down and growth promoters are formed. Once favorable
weather conditions return, the plants will again begin growth.
Realize though that even though these plants are dormant they
still need water. True they don't need water for turgor pressure
as the plants are not growing, but water is necessary for the
movement of potassium and carbohydrates. The key of course is
that carbohydrates are complex sugars, so the higher the concentration
of carbohydrates in the cell, the lower the freezing point and
the less damage that will occur from severe cold. So if water
is lacking the transfer of carbohydrates is not as efficient
and freeze damage could be severe. In reality though the extent
of the freeze damage was created and aggravated by the lack
of water. Other plants such as ornamental shrubs do not have
a chilling requirement and go dormant due to unfavorable growing
conditions, i.e. cool weather and moisture stress. However,
make no mistake about it, the leaves are necessary for plants
to go dormant. So one would never want to stress their plants
excessively from lack of water to make them go dormant.
The undamaged Primrose Jasmine on the left received run-off
from the drive-way. The damaged plants start where the
The watered Primrose Jasmine easily survived the cold
temperatures yet the drought-damaged plants were damaged.
Notice the obvious line of demarcation between green,
Primrose Jasmine and dry, cold-damaged plants.
Where the water stops, the damage begins.
Watered-before-a-freeze Primrose Jasmine on the left and
damaged, not-watered-before-a-freeze plants to the right.
A major symptom of drought-damaged plants is lack of bloom.
The section of Primrose Jasmine receiving water before
drought blooms as normal.
Freeze damage can be much worse on drought-stressed plants.
The other thing you have to remember about water
has to do with heat transfer. A moist soil will take in more
heat during the day and radiate out more heat at night then
a dry soil. So irrigation prior to a freeze assists with heat
movement out of soil, which may be just enough to save your
plants. The saving grace has been the relatively mild winter.
To convince yourself that dormant plants indeed
have water, cut a branch off one of your trees and compare it
to one which has been on the ground for several months. The
fresh one will definitely be heavier. Note also the photo of
the tree associated with a wheat field. The tree is indeed dormant,
but note how the crop is dead surrounding the tree. No doubt
the tree is harvesting the water in the soil leaving the crop
A brush line can rob all available water and nutrients
from grass in a severe drought. Thus, you should water
grass under the tree just as much, if not more, than you
water grass in the sun.
Grass roots cannot compete with the massive root system
trees during droughts without supplemental irrigation
so the grass
declines and can die.
It is easier to associate water with evergreen
trees and shrubs because the leaves are still present. They
are not growing but the plants must have water to keep the leaves
respiring and also prevent desiccation. Note the dead crop surrounding
the live oak.
Competition for water even with evergreen trees such as
Oak results in death or thinning for grass with a smaller
unable to compete.
People have not watered during the winter because of two reasons:
(1) Most people don't realize plants need water in the winter
when folks think the plants are "dead" or dormant.
(2) The San Antonio Water System (SAWS) bases its year-round
sewer charges on an average of water use between November 15
March 15, when customers aren't normally watering their yards
so folks want to lower their yearly water bill.
A Roddy Stinson column of Thursday, February
9, 2006, got a clarification of this situation and stated that:
"City Hall also gets a cut of San Antonio Water System
revenue-- 2.7 cents of every dollar a ratepayer forks out for
water and sewer service."
"That cut will likely be more impressive in 2006 than it
was in 2005.
Here's why (as described in an e-mail from a complaining SAWS
customer): "Roddy, as you probably know, SAWS bases its
year-round sewer charges on an average of water use between
November 15 March 15, when customers aren't watering their yards".
"During times of normal rainfall, this is fair. But with
the severe drought conditions we've been experiencing, most
San Antonians have had to use extra water for outdoor irrigation
and to protect their house foundations. That means their sewer
charges will be abnormally high for the remainder of the year
producing windfall revenues for SAWS.
"It would be more fair for SAWS to use the 2005 winter
for 2006 sewer billings."
Another complaining customer suggested a different way for
SAWS to avoid a windfall:
"On its Web site, SAWS advocates that I water my yard once
Since this water is not going down the sewer but down the cracks
yard, it seems reasonable for SAWS to reduce the winter water-use
calculation by the number of gallons needed to water the average
once a month."
Ain't gonna happen.
In a lengthy statement sent to the Express-News on Wednesday,
February 8, 2006, SAWS officials responded to customers' concerns
"Rather than use more water during these (dry) conditions,
ratepayers should be using less. SAWS will not reward those
contribute most to a drop in the aquifer level"
**A NOTE: Concerning this totally absurd and irresponsible
comment: This is from the Seasonal Irrigation Program (SIP)
from the SAWS webpage at: http://saws.org/conservation/SIP/
"But how do you know how much it takes to keep the lawn
healthy? Just follow the "Seasonal Irrigation Program"
or SIP advice each week. The weekly SIP of water for your lawn
is based on a concept called "Evapotranspiration"
or "ET" for short. It's a way of measuring the amount
of moisture a plant loses through its leaves and soil. This
measurement determines how much water a plant actually needs
to thrive. It is calculated from weather data each day and adjusted
for your type of grass and sun exposure. The ET/SIP concept
has been thoroughly tested in San Antonio and has been proven
to save water and money for participants. In fact, the average
homeowner saves over 5,000 gallons a month.
How do you know how much water it takes to keep
your lawn healthy? SIP advice is available many ways. It is
printed each Saturday in the Home & Garden section of the
San Antonio Express-News."-- THE FACT IS that this information
HAS NOT been printed in the Home & Garden section of the
San Antonio Express-News for months and notice the present entry
is dated February 13, only 4 days after the Stinson column appeared.
This information comes from the Bexar County Cooperative Extension
Office which has been sending information to SAWS during this
winter drought but no notification that watering is needed has
appeared in the Express-News because "it usually rains
during the winter". Well, this winter is not a "usually".
So I will blame this oversight on an uninformed decision rather
than an intentional effort to save water and damage grass and
shrubs. The SIP report should have been used to alert homeowners
that supplemental water is needed during a winter drought and
adjustments made on the year-round sewer charges. A similar
system is also used in El Paso ALL YEAR ROUND and they recommend
watering during the winter. The sample grass they use is a dormant
Bermuda--so much for the ridiculous statement: "Rather
than use more water during these (dry) conditions, ratepayers
should be using less. SAWS will not reward those who contribute
most to a drop in the aquifer level"
Four days after the Stinson column, this was posted on the SIP
SIP watering advice for Monday, February 13, 2006,
0.5 in. Bermuda (Full Sun)
0 in. Buffalo (Full Sun)
0.5 in. St. Augustine (Full Sun)
0 in. St. Augustine (Shade)
0 in. Zoysia (Full Sun)
0 in. Zoysia (Shade)
NOTE: They got some of it right but obviously
do not understand the difference between summer watering (when
trees have leaves which provide shade) and winter watering when
grass roots are in competition with tree roots for available
moisture. Also, a compensation-for-the-non-watering-period should
be made for the first watering.
The SIP report concludes with "During winter
months, cooler soils and dormant plants need watering no more
than once per month. If your landscape has received no rain
in the past month, use these amounts to water after 8 p.m. or
before 10 a.m."
"(The current policy) will remain in effect until it is
evaluated as part of the next comprehensive rate design process
A NOTE: I don't know about you but I am counting the days until
"the next comprehensive rate design process in 2008"
so we can remedy this travesty of water use for landscape health
and maintenance!! The old saying is: "Fool me once, shame
on you; Fool me twice, shame on me!!"
"Dry weather typically results in higher
use and higher
revenue. When this occurs, additional revenues are placed in
account and used to offset years when there are revenue short-falls."
"To (change the current policy) would result in a
complicated adjustment program ... the costs of which would
be borne by customers.'
Bottom line: SAWS customers will not get a break on their bill.
Ratepayers who water their bone-dry yards between November 15
and March 15 will be hit with higher sewer charges. And both
SAWS and City Hall will enjoy "higher revenue." Fortunately
the SAWS windfall will be considerably smaller than the CPS
Energy windfall. So City Hallers will do well to purchase one
high-tech toilet, support two avant-garde artistes and provide
legal representation for North Side trees whose names begin
with a vowel.
Regardless of this heartless and ill-conceived
approach SAWS has chosen to take concerning landscape maintenance
and the extra money it may cost you, you need to make it a point
to water your landscape plants every four to six weeks during
the winter months when rain (less than 2 inches) is not received.
On average a typical soil profile will store enough water to
last a plant about two to three weeks during the growing season.
During the winter, plants are using much less water, but it
is still critical, so the stored water will carry the plant
much farther. Normally we will get rain and/or drizzle during
the winter which will add up to an inch or two during the winter
months, so normally we don't worry about water. This has not
been true during the winter of 2005-2006.
THE PLAN: So if you have not received on your
property at least a one-inch rain in the last month you need
to water your landscape NOW. This water will be critical for
the growth and survival of your plants. It is even more critical
prior to a really hard freeze because freezing is a desiccating
process, which pulls water out of the cells. The key when you
water your landscape in that you remember your trees and shrubs.
Most yards are equipped with sprinkler systems to water the
grass, but in most cases this does not help the shrubs because
the systems are installed outside the shrubs so it distributes
the water out onto the lawn area. Your shrubs should have a
soaker hose with enough pressure to squirt water at least 3
inches high from all orifices (openings in the hose). The soaker
hose should then be inverted in the area between the foundation
of the house and the base of the shrubs. Three or four inches
of mulch should be applied on top of the hose and around the
shrubs, being sure to keep the mulch at least 12 inches from
the house foundation to attracting termites into the house.
This system should be operated four hours a day every two weeks
in lieu of an inch or more of rainfall. This will also prevent
foundation cracks. In times of severe stress it may be necessary
to apply additional water by using this same system at the drip
line of trees to insure they are getting adequate water. Most
trees, shrubs and grass would like to have an inch of water
a week. Soil holds enough water for two to three weeks, so you
need to water at least every three weeks during the growing
season unless rain is received.
Dying Hollies are a surefire indication of a severe drought.
Installation of most sprinkler system are in front of
and does not adequately water the shrubs.
It is too late to stop the demise of a plant with dead
Weak individual plants and limbs of those weakened plants
first as severe drought damage begins to appear.
Water should be applied so as to push the water to at least
a foot to eighteen inches. So water less often, but for longer
periods of time at a slow rate. The most ideal system would
be to apply the amount of water that the crop lost every day.
However, you must remember that when you attempt to do this,
your plants will become totally dependent on you and when you
stop watering the plants will die.
The biggest question remains as to the type and amount of damage
we will see on our landscape plants this spring due to the lack
of water. I would not be surprised to see trees which are slow
to leaf out and have sparse, reduced-in-size foliage. If the
trees are not watered or it does not rain prior to the spring
push, they may not leaf out at all. New roots must be initiated
in order for the plants to take up water. Without water the
new roots cannot develop and water and nutrients cannot be absorbed.
Logically then, growth will not occur.
The good news with drought stricken plants is
that they typically die back to what the root system can support.
This may be only the main trunk. However, as long as adequate
water is received the root system will re-generate and the plants
will re-grow. So what we need to do is wait to see where the
strongest shoots are and cut back to that point. If the drought
continues it will be critical to conserve water with heavy mulching.
Remember, no matter how much mulch is applied, if adequate moisture
is not applied or received under the mulch into the soil profile,
all the mulch in the world will not save your landscape plants.
Also remember that the number of leaves a tree has determines
how much water it needs and uses. So pruning limbs and reducing
the number of leaves will reduce the amount of water required
to maintain a plant in a healthy state.
Also, the good news is that native and permitted
exotic trees can survive without supplemental water according
to Mark A. Peterson, Regional Community Forester - Alamo Region,
Texas Forest Service. Mark writes: "I have yet to see the
elves and pixies watering trees in the native forest. Granted,
humans continue to "muck up" the native soil and ecosystem
and to eliminate roots and root space, thereby necessitating
the need for supplemental water. And, of course, trees in islands
and confined root spaces should be treated differently. However,
established native trees, with adequate soil volume [i.e, more
than 2 cubic feet per one square foot canopy area, Bassuk et
al], can survive without supplemental water."
Unadapted, water-loving trees such as Magnolia are the
die during a drought.
Even watering this victim-of-drought Magnolia will not
Even some large, well-established trees fall victim to
"Of course, all trees, particularly evergreens prior to
winter fronts followed by sunny days, benefit from a single,
thorough, watering. My own choice is Groundhog day, although
I have been known to do it on Martin Luther King Day or even
on Valentine's Day."
"As for the other plants, I have neither the ability nor
the inclination to comment on their survival rate without supplemental
water. Turf, on the other hand, could and should expire with
extreme prejudice. But then, I am an advocate of trees."
Mr. Peterson admitted on radio that even though
the trees would survive, they will have sparse foliage, small
leaves, minimal growth and reduced flowering.
Lastly, remember that the effects of this drought
will linger for several years. Damage may not be readily apparent
in the spring, but come summer your plants will be in a world
of hurt. It will take two to three years for all the ugly symptoms
of this drought to come and go and that is only if you water
or timely rains have been received.
Bamboo suffers in drought but unfortunately will not be
Winter Honeysuckle damaged by a light freeze during drought
Ligustrum drought damage in the center compared to native
Oaks in the background.
Ligustrum drought damage is obvious.
Ligustrum drought damage.
Ligustrum and Mountain Laurel drought damage stands out
Ligustrum in the center and Mountain Laurel on the right
displaying drought damage.
Mountain Laurel drought damage.