Did You Know? You Can Let Your Fescue Lawn Go Dormant

Well, the time of the year has arrived in the Mid-Atlantic gardening region where cool season lawns like fescue are doing their best to turn brown. The heat has arrived, the rains are becoming less frequent…and the fescue is doing its best to rest. As a cool season grass, it thrives in the cooler temperatures from September through May. It wants so badly to rest during the summer but many gardeners are adamant about keeping it green through the summer.

Before I continue further, I need to explain to readers that aren’t from the Mid-Atlantic that Virginia is considered a “transition zone” when it comes to turf. It’s purgatory for a turf manager. We are too warm for the cool season grasses to flourish through the summer and too cool for many of the warm season grasses to make it through the winter. Bermuda and zoysia do well here but that’s about it. Back to fescue…

Fescue can certainly be coddled enough during the summer to keep it lush and green. It just takes an extreme amount of water to do so. Fescue needs an inch of water per week, whether that be from you or God. To put that into perspective, if you have an acre of fescue lawn, you need to apply 27,154 gallons of water to equal 1″ of rain. Whew…that’s a lot of agua. To avoid getting on my soapbox, check out this Wikipedia link regarding the Ogallala Aquifer. No, it’s not the aquifer that feeds the Mid-Atlantic but it is enlightening to think how quickly that fossil aquifer is being depleted. Don’t believe me? Check out this link about the ghost towns that are cropping up on the outskirts of the aquifer where the water has disappeared.

OK, so what can you do if you have a fescue lawn and don’t want to apply over 100,000 gallons of water per month to keep it green? Stop watering. Let nature takes its course. Yes, your fescue lawn will turn brown. No, you won’t have the prettiest lawn on the block. The fescue will enter dormancy to preserve itself. In horticultural terms, dormancy equals brown. Unless we enter into a drought reminescent of 2010, your fescue will survive. There are summer thunderstorms that provide enough water to sustain your lawn. When the rains return in the fall, your fescue will green up and welcome the refreshing drink of water. But until then, consider turning off the spigot or irrigation system and enjoy not stressing over whether your lawn is receiving enough water. Enjoy your cheaper water bill. And most importantly, enjoy the seasonality of your garden. Your garden doesn’t have to look like something out of a magazine. Chances are, those magazine gardens have a season to them too.

So what are your thoughts on letting your fescue lawn turn brown? Is it something you regularly do? If not, are you considering it this year? Let me and other Mid-Atlantic Gardening readers know your experience. Leave me a comment below or e-mail me. If you enjoy being part of the Mid-Atlantic Gardening community, join our e-mail list (upper right hand corner of this page), become a fan on Facebook and follow me on Twitter. Happy gardening!

Did You Know? Collecting Rainwater for Your Garden

Collecting rainwater for your garden…it’s sounds pretty simple doesn’t it? Well, it can as simple or as complex as you make it with a little planning. One-third of all of the water used in the United States goes to irrigation. Now I don’t mean just the water that you use to water your lawn and garden; much of the irrigation water goes to agricultural production. And that’s important, right? Well, you could grow some of your own food to reduce your dependence on industrial agriculture but that’s not the topic of today’s post.

So how can you collect rainwater for your garden? There are all sorts of ways but let’s start with the simplest: the rain barrel. Rain barrels are an excellent way to capture some of the rainwater that is generated from your roof during a storm or shower. They’re scaleable as you can add bunches of them together so that you can keep collecting rainwater well beyond the typical 55 gallons that each holds. They can be attractive if you’re the artsy type…boy I wish was!

free water for your garden
Photo courtesy of www.prwd.org


So how much rainwater can a typical roof capture in a single rain storm? What’s your guess? 100 gallons? 1000 gallons? 10,000 gallons? Pull out your calculator (or your cell phone) and let’s do the math. My small rancher has a typical A-frame roof and each side of the roof is approximately 60′ x 20′. That’s 2400 square feet of roof surface area. Let’s say that we receive 1″ of rain. One inch of rain falling on one square foot of roof yields 0.6 gallons of water. So….2400 x 0.6 = 1440 gallons of rainwater. You would need 26 rain barrels just to catch the rain from a single 1″ rain event. In Virginia, we receive around 43″ of rainfall each year. That’s 61,920 gallons of water that you could be catching from your roof each year. That’s a lot of free water for your garden!

So what can you do if you don’t have enough room at your house for 1126 rain barrels (that’s how many you would need to collect all 61,920 gallons)? There are underground cisterns that can be installed to capture your roof runoff.

free water for your garden
Photo courtesy of www.chesapeakestormwater.net


These are systems that you need do some serious math for as well as figure out how you’re going to get all of that rainwater out of the tank. The beauty of rain barrels is that you use gravity to get the water out of the barrel and into your garden. With cistern based systems, you have to use a pump to get the water to your plants. But the cost of the water that is saved by capturing your roof runoff can more than offset the cost of operating the pump.

free water for your gardenWhat are some other ways to capture free rainwater for your garden if you don’t have access to an underground cistern? How about the tanks that everyone seems to have for sale these days? Check your local Craigslist for great deals. What about 5 gallon buckets to start with? Put one under each downspout to catch rainwater that you can use to water your garden. How about a kiddie pool? You can pick them up for under $10 at your local big box store. Any rainwater that you can catch is water that you don’t have to buy or pull from the depths of the ground to provide your plants with moisture.

What ideas have you used to capture rainwater for your garden? Leave me a comment below or e-mail me at stacey@midatlanticgardening.com. If you enjoy being part of the Mid-Atlantic Gardening community, join our e-mail list (upper right hand corner of this page), become a fan on Facebook and follow me at Twitter. Happy gardening!

Did You Know? ET-Based Irrigation Controllers

et-based irrigation controllersET-based irrigation controllers? When you hear that you may think back to the early 80’s when E.T. was all the rage. But the ET I’m referring to has nothing to do with phoning home. ET stands for evapotranspiration. Evapotranspiration, as defined by the Irrigation Association, is the loss of water from the earth’s surface through the combined processes of evaporation from soil and plant surfaces, and plant transpiration. So what does all of this have to do with your irrigation system? Simply put…everything.

If you have an irrigation system in your garden you should be concerned with evapotranspiration. When you set your irrigation timer to water Monday, Wednesday and Friday for 30 minutes on each zone, your system will water the same whether the temperature is 70 or 90 degrees, whether there is a light breeze or 20 mph wind, whether the humidity is 40% or 90%. Unless you have a rain sensor on your system (which you should…they can be installed by a professional for less than $100), your system will water for 30 minutes if it rained 1/10″ or 2″ earlier in the day. What if you could have a controller that would take all of that into account and then water based on your plants’ needs. You can with an ET-based irrigation controller.

Hunter makes a very nice ET-based irrigation controller that I have personal experience with. Other irrigation manufacturers, including Toro, Rainbird and Irritrol, make ET-based irrigation controllers but I can’t speak to the quality of those controllers since I don’t have any experience with them. With the Hunter ET-based irrigation controller, you have your own weather station that records real-time data and converts all of that information so that your plants receive the water that they need. Here’s what it looks like:

hunter ET-based irrigation controller

It has a rain gauge, an anemometer that measures wind speed and a thermometer to determine the temperature at your specific site. When setting up the controller, you enter the following data that helps the computer determine when and how long to water:

  • Soil type
  • Slope
  • Crop being grown
  • Age of crop (new vs. established)
  • Sun exposure


This information is critical and the ET-based irrigation controller is only as good as the information that is entered at this stage. It is very handy to be able to enter different information for different zones according to their site conditions. Most landscapes have some sun and some shade, some turf and some landscape beds and some new plantings intermingled with the older ones. By entering and updating the information as conditions change, the controller is able to adjust the watering times and durations accordingly. Pretty cool huh?

So what does all of this cost? Well, that depends. If you already own an irrigation controller that is compatible with the ET-module, the cost is very reasonable…you can buy the module without the anemometer for the Hunter ET-based irrigation controller for $239.07 online. The anemometer is about the same price…so maybe you take baby steps in converting your existing system over….the choice is yours. While the upfront cost may turn you off initially, you should do the math to see how long the payback takes. Many localities are now charging a higher rate for water usage over a certain limit, aimed at users with irrigation systems. If you live in suburbia and have to pay sewer charges, the payback will likely take far less time unless you have a separate meter for your irrigation system. Also, consider the benefit of set-it-and-forget-it. No more adjusting your watering program when the temperatures soar to 95 degrees…the ET-based irrigation controller will adjust the watering times for you…yeah!

Of course, if you’re like me, my irrigation system is in the sky and it is completely at God’s will. If the rain doesn’t fall on my landscape, the plants don’t get watered. They’ll either live or die trying. My only exceptions to that rule are newly transplanted plants and vegetables. Since I don’t have a veggie garden at my house due to the abundance of shade, I don’t have that concern for now. Consider hugelkultur if you will be installing new beds in the future. It’s a way to garden without watering at all. That’s my kind of garden!

Let me know your thoughts about ET-based irrigation controllers…leave me a comment below or e-mail me at stacey@midatlanticgardening.com. Happy gardening!

Friday Free For All: Using Water Wisely

Well, it’s happening already. The Mid-Atlantic gardening region is dry. Granted, we have 1″-2″ of rain expected this weekend but the rain has been pretty negligible in central Virginia since the middle of March. I hope that this isn’t a sign of things to come this summer. My mind has been churning about how much water we use. Not just my family or community but as a nation…as a world. Water is a renewable resource but that doesn’t mean that we can use it with reckless abandon. Let’s delve deeper to look at how we can use water more wisely in our gardens.

  1. Hugelkultur – if you’ve been reading my posts for a while, you know that I am big fan of hugelkultur. It just makes sense…use wood that nature has provided for us to help plants through the dry spells. Check out the link for more information if you’re unfamiliar with the practice of hugelkultur.
  2. Reduce your plants dependence on irrigation – while it is vitally important to make sure that newly transplanted plants are watered until they can get their roots in the ground, it is generally not necessary to water them for the rest of their lives. We had an extreme drought in 2010 here in central Virginia and emergency water restrictions were put in place; those restrictions meant that you couldn’t water…at all. One of the reservoirs that feed our public water supply, Lake Chesdin, was all but reduced to a pond. It was truly an amazing sight to see. During that drought, guess how many times I watered, even before the emergency water restrictions were in place. Zero. Zip. Nada. I am of the mindset that my plants will either live or die trying. I don’t have the desire or time to water them regularly. So do you know what they do to compensate for my lack of interest? They send their roots further into the ground to search for their own water. For the record, I didn’t lose one plant during the drought either.

    using water wisely

    Lake Chesdin 2010 Photo courtesy of Richard MacDonald

  3. Water wisely – for those newly transplanted plants, get creative with your watering. For trees, water slowly and deeply to make sure that the rootball is being wet thoroughly. You can accomplish this in several ways. One way is by using a treegator. These are available in either donut shapes for multi-stemmed trees or upright bags that zip shut around the tree trunk. You fill them with water and the water drips out slowly and wets the rootball. If you want to make your own cheap tree gator, get a few 5-gallon buckets and drill tiny holes in the bottom. Set them around the base of the tree and fill them with water. The water will trickle out slowly and water the rootball. You can also just let the hose run at a trickle for a half hour or so at the base of the tree.using water wisely
  4. Mulch – mulching your garden will help to reduce evaporation and regulate soil temperature, both of which will reduce your plants need for water. Mulch should be applied 2″-4″ thick. If you apply it thicker, you will reduce the amount of oxygen that is penetrating into the soil and that will impair the plants’ root growth. For heaven’s sake, don’t end up with mulch volcanoes around your trees!
  5. Apply compost – this is such an important part of using water wisely. By adding compost, you are improving soil structure. By improving your soil structure, your sandy soil is able to hold more moisture and your clay soil begins to open up to allow water in. Adding compost is the magic ingredient that makes all of the other items we discussed today possible.


So what will you do in your garden to use water wisely this summer? There are many other ways to reduce your water usage and I’d love to hear what you are doing. Leave me a comment below or e-mail me at stacey@midatlanticgardening.com. Happy Friday and happy gardening!