What's your Water Retention Trick!

Jocque(z5ON)August 27, 2002

Hi everyone,

I have a home on a corner lot and it gets intense sun all day. Even with good watering at night, there are brown patches in several areas, especially near the trees and street curb. My husband and I have topdressed two springs in a row and have aerated. There is a lot of clay in the soil, which is part of the problem, but after topdressing, it still hasn't been fixed (although some areas have improved)

What have you all done to improve these drought problems in the grass. I am thinking about putting in a couple small gardens with drought tolerant bushes. I've also heard about the "bog building technique" where you put plastic bags below the dirt (with holes) to help hold the water.


Jocque in Ontario

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Several thoughts:

1. Mow with the mower set to a higher level so the grass can shade the soil better.

2. Keep top dressing! It takes a lot of organic stuff to make clay absorb water.

3. Water in several short periods during the night so the water has a chance to soak in instead of running off. For clay soil, 3 periods of 1/2 hour each with an hour in between will get more water deeper into the dirt than on session of 1.5 hours.

    Bookmark   August 28, 2002 at 9:51AM
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I read this thing about diapers, how they were the same absorbent crystals that are sold (mostly cheaply on the net, I understand). Haven't tried it yet, but tempted. Mostly tho I just don't get how the water gets back out of the diaper. I've never seen a diaper dry up again. I'll stick one in the sun for a few days (downwind) and see how it goes.

Another trick: Water the roots. Use pvc pipe with holes drilled in, filled with stone, buried right to the roots. Or old plastic soda/water bottles with a hole or two in the bottom/side.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2002 at 11:33PM
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PMS. :)-

    Bookmark   August 30, 2002 at 10:24AM
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Diapers and PMS...very creative guys! I look forward to further responses!

P.S. To follow the idea of PMS, maybe a dose of estrogen would be of benefit???

    Bookmark   August 30, 2002 at 11:23AM
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"Old habits are hard to break" they say.

During the Summer we have always washed up in a plastic bowl sitting in the kitchen sink and the dishwater is usually taken straight out the back door and shot onto anything in one of the vegie patches in the backyard that looks in need.

Also, I have always preferred a semi-automatic washer because it gives me time to shift the 'hose' (that is attached to the outlet pipe and run up the back yard), before and during each spin and empty. That way not too much of the soapy water goes on each plant and it doesn't take as much water to get down to the roots., as I try to coincide washday with my weekly deep watetering day. By that I mean that after I shift the washer hose, I put the sprinkler on low to water in, as well as water-down or dilute, the soapy water, other wise the soil seems to become too alkaline.

It was better when I had the old weatherboard wash house because we just drilled a hole straight through the wall at the back of the washer and poked the big hose through and joined it to the washer hose. Now the hose hangs out of the window because we have brick walls, but it runs out quicker, so that's something.

I also put the plug in the bath, after shampooing, and use it to supplementry-water the indoor plants., and always through water restrictions, I save all the shower water in the same matter and then bucket it into the cistern - one bucket per a No.1 flush - any heavier flushing is done normally.

I don't like to waste water on the leaves of the plants, except for those that may enjoy it more humid, so I always water low, even with the sprinkler - I have it on just enough so it barely turns. The birds still manage to have their showers. I put out a pot tray near the sprinkler close enough to catch the water and they just love their shower over the bath unit.

And to keep all that good moisture in the soil, I use whatever type of mulch I can lay my hands, laid on as thickly as is practical.. . . Granny

    Bookmark   August 30, 2002 at 12:00PM
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animas(z5-SW Colo)

The topdressing is a great idea. Keep it up. I would forget about the "bog" trick, though.

Water and clay are tricky. Plants in clay will suffocate with too much water. Clay holds water in the soil so well that even constantly damp clay can cut off oxygen to roots. I have killed many plants by trying to save them with water. The best advice ever about soils: It's much easier and far less expensive to choose plants that are appropriate for the soil than it is to change the soil for the plants.

Clay has some good nutrients in it. The problem is that the roots have a hard time getting at the stuff. The best way to deal with clay is to add organic matter to your soil: well-cured composts is best. Don't use liquid fertizer; it adds salts into the soil and clay already has enough alkalinity.

My curse is construction-compacted, backfill subsoil composed of reddish clay and highway infill. This is nasty, nasty stuff. If dry, it turns to concrete. If soaked, it's slippery and mucky. I've tamed the soil somewhat by adding organic cotton boll compost. It comes in a bag like peatmoss. It's the leftover stuff from the milling process, and it's much better than peatmoss, which is strip-mined. Manure works well, too. Don't use too much, and make sure it's well aged.

What ever you do, don't add sand to clay soils. The result is adobe. I ruined a bed by trying to improve drainage with sand. I mixed a couple bags of sand into a flowerbed, tilled it well and watered it -- and then I planted wildflower seeds and kept the bed moist as the seeds germinated. Then I left town for a week in the middle of summer. The flowers, I thought, would be able to tough it out for six days without water. ("After all, the are WILD flowers.) When I returned, the once-moist sandy/clay soil was bone dry. My dirt had baked in sunny, record heat, and now my "flower bed" was the world's longest adobe brick decorated with pathetic dying stalks. It resembled a huge earthen birthday cake with thousands of erect twig candles. More compost, a pick-ax and 8 bags of topsoil fixed the problem. I also learned which flowers can withstand abuse and neglect. (Mexican Hat - Ratibida columnaris - is the clear winner of the Great Adobe Brick Garden Experiment. Blue flax does well, too, for an early display.)

I like the idea of water-wise bushes on parched areas. If grass isn't growing now, it's not likely to grow any time soon given current conditions.

You could also try Buffalo grass, a warm season grass that actually prefers clay and requires hot and dry to live. It's amazing stuff. Two inches of water per month. It grows short, so we mow it three, maybe four, times a YEAR! I'm zone 5, too, and it works well. It thrives in a crappy, barren, sunbaked area.

One last thing about crystals. They work pretty well, but can be a bit expensive. Forget about the diaper thing. Look for hydro-crystals at your garden center or on the net. When dry, they look like white "GrapeNuts" cerial granuals. You add water and let 'em sit overnight. They puff up to the size of large jelly beans and feel like Jello. You mix the puffed-up crystals into your soil, much like adding a soil amendment. What happens is the roots "tap into" this source of water, extracting H20 as needed. When rainwater or snows soak into the soil, the crystal recharges. I've found that crystals, because they swell and shrink as water is taken or added, will aerate the soil in the process. It's cool stuff. I've used crystals in planting some juniper seedlings on a southern-exposed hill with no irrigation. I only lost six out of 24 seedinglings this year -- and this is the worst drought in a decade here in Colorado.

Happy planting and don't skimp on the mulch!

    Bookmark   August 30, 2002 at 12:27PM
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We use swales to keep the water in place so it can sink in and mulch to slow evaporation. See the Permaculture board here on GW for more info.

The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry's cheek is plumper,
The rose is out of town. - Emily Dickinson

    Bookmark   September 5, 2002 at 2:04PM
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Due to a broken sprinkler head a corner of my lawn died. One edge also never looked any good because that side of the lawn sloped and the water ran off. We solved the problem by taking the redtangular lawn (bordered on 2 sides by concrete driveway, another by a stone planter box, and the fourth by an unedged planting area) and making it into an oval shape. We dug out the old grass and edged the new shape with 5 x 8" cement pavers. We added bark mulch to the perimeter and around the existing plants. I added a couple Junipers and a few Nepetas (neither should require any supplemental irrigation) to the new planting area.

Now our entire lawn looks better than it ever has, partly due to the contrast of the mulch. An added benefit is that you can rest one wheel of the lawn mower on the rocks--no more edging.

    Bookmark   September 7, 2002 at 9:02PM
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Shag(z4 MT)

I've been using the hydro-crystals for a couple of years. I started using them just in containers plantings, because I was always so frustrated by how quickly the containers dried out (some had to be watered every day in the heat of our summers!) Since I started using the crystals in the containers I only have to water maybe once or twice a week! It's amazing.

And I LOVE the reference above, to diapers! I never made that connection, Clipper! LOL

This year I mixed some of the hydro crystals a few of our planting beds, and it worked really well! It's a tremendous water saver especially for raised beds. If you can handle the expense (think about the expense of so much watering, if you pay for your water where you live) I think it's one of the best water conserving techno-innovations to come along in a while. Even using the hydro crystals in a small part of your garden (at least to begin with) will conserve SOME water. I agree also that a side benefit of the crystals is soil aeration, but I don't know of any studies proving this. Just my own experience.

All the other methods mentioned are also good: using drought tolerant plants (or grass species, in the case of lawns), Xeriscaping methods (which can be put to use even in a garden that has thirsty plants) swales, organic material in the soil to retain water, drip irrigation, when you water, how deep you water, etc, and OF COURSE, the funniest suggestion of all, which had me literally gagging with snorts and chuckles --- PMS! omigod, Dawnstorm, YOU are a gardener after my own heart (or hormones, heh-heh) It's always helpful to keep a good sense of humor, and perspective.


    Bookmark   September 11, 2002 at 12:26PM
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smittyct6(Z6 CT)

Less lawn..

America has got to stop its love affair with all this lawn.
Half of the problems with water pollution have been traced directly back to this lawn lust. Plant more native plants and let some areas of those big lawns go back to meadows. We are all connected to this earth from the smallest bacteria in the soil to the largest whale in the sea.
We as humans need to stop fouling our nest. Smitty

    Bookmark   September 13, 2002 at 7:46AM
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Hi! I have used water retention crystals (superabsorbents) for several years in a variety of applications, from indoor houseplants to our lawn and garden. Since we already had established grass, I found the best way to get the crystals in the soil was to spread right after plugging. If you are doing a new yard or garden where you can till the crystals in deeper, then the results are even better. Case in point was our tomato garden last summer. We had water keep crystals worked throughly in the soil and were growing nice plants despite having the worst drought in NC history. We went out of town for three weeks at the end of June/early July and upon return, found the tomato plants still growing well. When we dug the plants up in the fall, the root base was adhered to lots of swollen crystals. The crystals do need to be in the ground as sunlight will break them down over time.

You can find these crystals in some stores but they don't seem to be marketed well yet (and a bit pricey...) A better deal can be had with an online search for water retention crystals or water crystals and looking at some of the companies there.

One note: follow the application instructions and don't overapply! This stuff really swells and can make a mess if you use too much.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2003 at 4:44PM
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ElaineW(z5 MA)

I have been using the crystals myself. I used them for the first time last year and was glad I did with the low rainfall. They helped some of the moisture loving plants that would have died. I have a shallow well and have not collected water in rainbarrels as I planned.
I saw them just recently at the Wholesale Club in a large container (of course) for a very low price. And a little does seem to go a long way.
I spilled what I guess was about a half teaspoon on the ground while I was potting. After the rain I found it accidentally when I slipped in the Jello-like MOUND. Next time I use it I'll be a little less sloppy!

    Bookmark   May 26, 2003 at 9:22AM
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canadian_pond_guy(3a AB)

Sometimes you do have to adapt. Either try deep root watering in the lawn and get a good sub soil moisture level established and if that doesn't work, yes then maybe you have to adapt and go with the new flower/shrub beds. They are easier to keep moisture in by mulching. I use a lot of pea gravel or shreaded cedar bark. Both work very well.

    Bookmark   September 30, 2003 at 1:57AM
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What marvelous information about the water retention crytstals. I have only seen them in small bags suggested for use in houseplants. What a great idea to put them in the flower and veggie gardens! I do have to ask..if using them in the veggie garden, are there any known ill effects? Is it an organic composition?

    Bookmark   October 10, 2003 at 10:26AM
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Tommyc(Mich 5-6)

Starting in spring, besides my 2 barrel system to collect water from my gutters, I always keep a gallon jug next to the sink. I have found that it takes one gallon of water to flow before it gets hot. When I need to use the hot water, I always fill up the empty plastic milk bottle and then take it out to the garden rain barrels and replenish them. I just hate giving money to all the Utility companies. Everyone has their hands in my pockets. Now, there's a small mouse trap in them reminding those people to watch who they are stealing from.

    Bookmark   February 8, 2004 at 8:24PM
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I buy cheap disposable diapers, cut them into small squares to use as bottom liner in hanging baskets. Has really cut number of times plants must be watered, plus seeds sown in these baskets really pop up quick!

    Bookmark   April 3, 2004 at 8:15PM
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well i been doing this for three years now, peoples think that i am nut for hawling all the fall leaves in my neighboor. i get as much as three to four truck load of fall leave and the dump them out on the ground, check and remove all the metal debrid if their any. chopp the leaves up by run the mower over, then spread them out to the garded. leaves mulch are very good for water retention and also retart weed, so far my garden is about 2" of leaves mulch covered. we are lucky enought to have a moderate rain fall this year in texas and i did not use a drop of water of my gardenng hose yet. my garden seem to grow well, and i will collect fall leave again this year...happy gardening to you all, th

Here is a link that might be useful: my garden pics

    Bookmark   June 12, 2004 at 2:11PM
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: ) every year, I steal another square foot or so from the lawn, and put it under responsible cultivation. my 'lawn' is not a monoculture, nor is it mostly grass- there's ajuna and chamomille and clover and mint... things that will grow just fine on their own (though the mint does prefer it closer to the rainbarrel, since it's a thirsty little invasive!)

when I was living in the east bay, I mulched with anything I could drag home on my bike, and took cuttings from the massive highway expanses of ice plant, figuring that if it would grow along 580, it would grow in the hellstrip alongside the parking lot.

thankfully, I now live in much damper PA, and the only time I needed to pull out the hose was when I was putting in this spring's perennials. and herbs. since then, the rain barrel's been enough-

though the idea of using the graywater from the kitchen sink tickles me- I'd need a pump to get the water out the window.

    Bookmark   June 16, 2004 at 2:43PM
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Hi, I just found this "hydro crystals" underneath of my dwerf citric plant, which I just mailed ordered. I did some research on watering/citric tree, and found that citric plant doesn't like wetfeet. I know hydro crystals was probably added to retent moist during the shipping, but I'm not sure whether I should keep the hydro crystals when I transplant it to the pot. So I just wonder has anybody try hydro crystals with citric trees? Or any of you had experience with hydro crystals think about this?

    Bookmark   August 6, 2004 at 1:04PM
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Judeth(Z8 B.C. Can)

-Many years ago, I had a wringer washer and had to rinse the baby cloths in a tub on the Kitchen table. I used a syphone hose to empty the tub/washing machine. When I got modern and bought a Automatic Washing Machine, I hated to pour ALL that water down the drain. I pumped it into a utility tub (only holds a medium load) and syphoned it out onto the garden. Now I live on a well and my 45 year old syphoning hose gave up. I purchased from Lee Valley in Vancouver, B.C. a small black plastic syphoner. It works beautifully. I only use the washing machine water on the flowers and fruit trees. When it is really dry, I put the sump pump into the utility tub and it ran the oscating sprinkler enough to keep the lawn nice --- until I got a digging dog (she's another story)

    Bookmark   August 8, 2004 at 10:34AM
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jason_in_austin(8 Austin)

i agree with the flower bed solutions. on a blank sheet of paper, draw out your yard and where your house sits. sketch out a nicely shaped flower bed. do a little research (unless you already know) and find out what are the prettiest native plants in your area. there are also tons of gorgeous flowers and small shrubs that need very little water. check with your local recycling center or yard refuse collection center (usually maintained by the city, or neighboring town) for mulch, cuz that's usually free by the truckload if you load it yourself. also, consider the right size and type of tree for your area. look around your area at the trees, shrubs and flowers grown in the business parks. business complexes use landscaping companies "who have already done their homework" on what grows best with little water and maintenance. if you don't know what kind it is, snag a leaf, twig or flower and take it to your local nursery to find out.

    Bookmark   November 12, 2004 at 10:39AM
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cherylnsw(NSW Aust)

Lately whenever I put a new plant in I dig a hole big enough for the plant and the pot it came in to sit side by side. After back filling and watering in I fill the pot with water and let it seep into the underground through the drainage holes. It's watering right where the roots are at. With the drought here I was losing just about every plant I had until I started doing this. Even saved an almost dead Lilypily. I rarely water the surface any more, just fill the pots up a couple of times a week or less.

    Bookmark   November 27, 2004 at 5:05AM
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rcnaylor(z7 Tex)

Many good ideas above. But, here is what I would suggest if you don't make major changes. Try soaker hoses. First, you can lay them out in the shape of the areas that dry faster than the rest of the lawn so you can stretch the watering of the other areas. Second, it can let you water your soil s-l-o-w-l-y. That let's you get your subsoil watered.

Taken together you can then cut your grass high, water infrequently and deeply which will get your grass to send roots deeper. The more you do that the less you have to water. Fescue, in particular can grow roots many feet deep into the soil on clay soils. It can take a year or two to see get fescue roots down deep, but it helps the soil and the grass eventually.

I think you will see that you can start stretching the periods between waterings longer and longer when you start this approach.

Also helps to leave the grass clippings on the yard as a mulch.

    Bookmark   March 17, 2005 at 10:53AM
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cherylnsw(NSW Aust)

i haven't read all of the messages so this may be a repeat of what has been said.

You say that the brown spots are near the curb and around trees. It's possible that the type of watering these area get that may be the problem. Years ago my father was having problems in his yard, brown spots would appear even though he watered it well. One day my grandmother came out and found the kids from across the road, peeing in our yard. After a word to their parents it never happened again and the spots greened up. Peeing animals would have the same effect - brown spots.

In drought times I let my lawn go brown, I can't warrant wasting water on something that is basically only for looks and not a food crop. In fact I haven't watered my yard in a couple of years - we are in a major drought, so it only gets rain water and you know what? It's lovely and green because it's roots go deeper to find water underground, instead of being shallow root because of hand watering, which means it's more drought tolerant.

    Bookmark   March 26, 2005 at 9:13PM
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aes123(Z6 OH)

I don't know about Canadian snow removal methods, but in Ohio, brown spots near the curb are often the result of salt damage. Look at the rest of the street; are there areas that clearly get less direct sun that have the same types of brown spots?

    Bookmark   June 8, 2005 at 1:56PM
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Hi Everyone,
Thank you so much for your advise. This forum is wonderful in that everyone has different experiences and we can all benefit from them. With regards to my water problem...I ended up putting in a couple of flower beds in the burned grass area and added drought tolerant plants. Along with mulch and along some other beds...it seems to have helped immensely. It looks nice too!

The water crystals are a great invention too as I have used them in my pots. I must say that I have also come to use good garden soil versus the light potting soil ...it seems to hold the moisture better. If I have a big pot, I fill it 1/2 full with styrophome first, add a layer of landscape material then top with the dirt...seems to work for me and I use 1/2 the sold for the big pots.

Anyway, just wanted to thank everyone for their ideas. We're having another heat wave in Canada now and these tricks will come in handy....time to topdress again!!!

Happy Gardening
Always a labour of love!

    Bookmark   June 8, 2005 at 3:00PM
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tinamcg(Z5b Kansas City)

A word of caution about water retention crystals. If you live in an area that is sometimes deluged with way too much rain (like Chicago), you cannot remove those crystals from the soil and you might be sorry you used them. That's what keeps me from using them anywhere but containers.

I have to let the lawn go brown. It will come back when we get rain. Other plants won't, so I focus on them.

I constructed several screens for my young hydrangeas this week. They were wilting horribly from the 1-2 hours of sun they get. In cooler temps, they do fine, but when it gets into the mid-90s, a plant loses more fluids through transpiration than it can possibly take in and transport to its tissues. That's why plants wilt even when the soil is cool and moist under the mulch. So if anything, I give them a good misting when they're heat stressed. That perks them up a little, but the screens seem to really be helping the young hydrangeas. The screens look stupid, but the plants appreciate them.

I water the beds at night, directly at the root level. Night temperatures and darkness enable them to begin taking up nutrients again. It seems to take forever to manually water every individual plant, but I keep telling myself this will pass once we get a bit of rain and the temps drop to normal levels.

    Bookmark   June 24, 2005 at 5:22PM
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Baby G (Z10, 300?CH, SoCal-LA)(10)

I have a one year old.
Urine is great for compost.
Suzi cuts up clean diapers for potting plants.
Bicycle puts the same crystals in tomato beds.
I have a one year old...
Do you see where I am going with this?

    Bookmark   August 6, 2014 at 9:30PM
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Do you have any small trees on the plot, or are there any broad leaf plants, or dandilions?

Jon H.

    Bookmark   August 17, 2014 at 1:41PM
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well, I line/plant my plants in a mixture of peat, sphagnum moss(dried) and a little dirt(1 :4:2) and it seem to work well, in singapore, there are certain times in which the sun is blazing and there are no rain for some days, the mixture seem to have held in the moisture os the last one.
p.s. sphagnum moss is awesome , it retains water!

    Bookmark   September 6, 2014 at 8:12PM
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