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Notes from the Valley Landscape: Not all watering created equal
Better infrequent and deep than frequent and shallow
Kim Bock

Having lived in the El Jebel area for 30 years this November, I have gotten accustomed to the oddities and frustrations that our mountain climate and weather dish out. I’m not saying that I like it, but for the most part I can now shrug it off when the last spring frost nails the tender veggies or annual flowers I put in the ground a tad early. Who can resist planting in the Mid-Valley before the average last frost date of May 15? Our friends at the local nurseries tolerate (and probably appreciate) our premature planting mindsets, as they pack a replacement flat or two of baby plants into our cars. Job security, right? 

We are at the time of year when our gardening juices start flowing full throttle. Tired of relishing fresh snowfall, our seed and plant catalogs are dog-eared and crumpled from page flipping and a bit of gardener’s drool. We are grateful for the spring equinox and delight at the high sun angle and warmth. But if you are fairly new to the valley or to high-desert gardening in general, springtime can be a confusing and painful time of year. During my first spring, I was dumbfounded that the aspens didn’t break bud until late April or the first week in May. From where I moved, May was the time when your March-planted vegetable garden (as well as the gardener) starts to fail from heat stress!

I have been involved professionally with tree care and garden coaching for 25 years. Many discussions with friends, neighbors and clients revolve around the climate differences here in the valley compared to where they previously resided. Our soils are also wildly different, but that is another topic for later. In a nutshell, our native and/or introduced plant palette is somewhat narrow not because of altitude or cold, but because of the lack of appreciable precipitation during our short growing season. Information sources vary a bit, but the Roaring Fork Valley gets on average 14 inches of water per year. Much of this, however, is in the form of winter snow. Depending on the water content of a given snow event, the rule of thumb is 10 to 12 inches of snow equals one inch of rain. 

During the summer, a “rainy day” can give us as much as a half inch or as little as a trace of rain. Using a rain gauge measuring to the 100th inch, it’s more common to record a far lower amount than people assume. Rarely do we receive more than one-half inch in 24 hours, and if we do, I’m a happy camper.

There are a few places on earth where it rains every day — tropical rainforests and the Roaring Fork Valley (smh). I see so many landscapes where the sprinklers run every day or every other day, I nearly lose my sh!t. What I hear is, “but that’s what my irrigation guy set it at.” Or: “I like to see the water spraying so I know it’s working.” Or: “It’s only running for a few minutes, so I know I’m being efficient and saving money.” Ugh, people!

As we are poised to launch springtime in earnest, let’s talk about proper watering. Most of our urban and suburban landscape plantings exist only because of artificial irrigation. We love our lilacs, flowers and lush trees, which are native to wetter climes or different elevations. Whether you have an underground system supplied by city water or an irrigation ditch, or you move hoses and sprinklers around your yard, we are augmenting the meager water that Mother Nature provides. Using water effectively helps save money and can be better for your landscape, horticulturally speaking.

The best way to water plants is deeply and infrequently. Houseplants? Most of us know that once a week is probably fine. Landscape plants? Probably once per week is also fine, if done deeply. What is deeply? Average plantings can thrive on a half-inch to one inch per week if applied at one time. Caveat — new plants need additional hand watering more frequently until they become established. 

Soak the soil down to at least one foot below the surface. This encourages strong and resilient roots of trees, turf, perennial flowers and even veggies. Strong and deep root systems help plants endure dry summer heat. For example, if your sprinkler zones run daily for 10 minutes and only deliver 1/8 inch each time, you are essentially wetting the leaves and humidifying the air for a few minutes. Conversely, if you run each sprinkler zone for 60 minutes once a week, the output would be almost an inch, effectively soaking the soil many inches down. Your plants will appreciate it. Look at it a different way — when your body is hot and thirsty, you’ll chug a whole bottle of water, not sip daintily on a shot glass.

Start the spring out right by watering deeply and infrequently!

Kim Bock has studied landscape architecture, worked in city planning, and has been a practicing arborist for 20 years. Living in the El Jebel area since 1989, she has been an active member and officer in the Pardon My Garden Club and spent 19 years as a member and chair of the Roaring Fork Planning Commission. Besides flower and vegetable gardening at her home, she loves hiking with her dogs and husband.