Planting for Water Savings

Water Wise landscape

Spring will be here before we know it, which is very exciting for plant enthusiasts. We can get outside and do some cleanup once it starts to get warm. Don’t get too excited though, winter could still show up for a couple more months. One thing you can do now, though, is plan your garden.

Choose Well-Adapted Plants

When planning your garden, pay close attention to the growing requirements of the plants you choose. Select plants that are suited for your growing zone. Southeast Nebraska is in zone 5B. Also, utilize plants that have similar growing conditions for each area or garden in your landscape. For example, shade plants should be planted with other shade plants and water loving plants should not be planted with drought tolerant plants.

Be Water Wise

Nebraska often sees periods of drought through the hot part of the summer. For water saving options, look to drought tolerant plants. Some good choices for drought tolerant plants include

  • Yarrow, Achillea spp.
  • Russian sage, Perovskia atriplicifolia
  • Coneflower, Echinacea spp.
  • Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia hirta
  • Daylily, Hemerocallis spp.
  • Salvia, Salvia spp.
  • Viburnums, Viburnum spp.
  • Ninebark, Physocarpus opulifolius
  • Maidengrass, Miscanthus sinense
  • Big Bluestem, Andropogon gerardii
  • Little Bluestem, Schizachrium scoparium

These plants will grow well with no supplemental water in normal precipitation. There are also quite a few plants that need very low amounts of supplemental water, which are good choices as well, these include

  • Shrub Roses, Rosa spp.
  • Penstemon/Beardtongue, Penstemon spp.
  • Plumbago/Leadwort, Ceratostigma plumbaginoides
  • Coral Bells, Heuchera spp.
  • Butterfly Milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa
  • Lilies, Lilium spp.
  • Phlox, Phlox paniculata

Why does it matter if you use drought tolerant plants? These plants will survive better in our summer environment when it gets very hot and dry. Also, this will help reduce the amount of water we are applying to our landscapes. Water is limited in supply and costly to use. If we minimize the amount of water needed for irrigation, everyone will benefit.

When to Water

Remember, if you are utilizing plants that are more drought tolerant, only water when necessary. Plants will tell you when they need to be watered, they will begin to wilt and show signs of water stress before reaching the permanent wilting point from which they will not recover. Many times, too much water is used in low water-use landscapes due to the tendency of homeowners to overwater.

Take Control of Your Irrigation System

There is also a tendency to overwater with in-ground or automatic sprinkler systems. Many times people use the “set it and forget it” thought process for watering the lawn with an automatic system, but that will actually use more water than what is needed. According to the American Water Works Association Research Foundation, the research from 2000 shows that homes with in-ground sprinkler systems use 35% more water than those without an in-ground sprinkler system. Those who have automatic timers to control those in-ground sprinkler systems use 47% more water than those without timers. It is better to only turn on the sprinkler system when you need to water rather than having it run all season on certain days or times. Also, make sure that you turn the sprinklers off in the rain or just following a rain event, or purchase a water sensor for your landscape to avoid watering when the soil is wet.

Economic Benefits of Landscaping

These statements are not meant to deter people from having a nice landscape. In fact, landscapes can increase the value in your home, reduce crimes, increase the rate of healing at a hospital, provide oxygen, and decrease carbon dioxide in the environment. According to research done by Colorado State University, there are 25% fewer crimes in public housing with landscapes, children who spend time outdoors are better learners, and every $1 invested in a home landscape yields a $1.35 return on the investment.

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Starting Seeds Indoors

Starting Seeds Indoors Blog

We are now getting to the time of year where we can begin starting seeds indoors for transplants later this spring. Late February into March is the time of the year when transplants can be started inside our homes, spring will come eventually. Growing transplants from seed takes more work than just buying transplants, but purchasing seed rather than plants is less expensive and you are able to get the varieties you really want rather than just what is available in the nurseries.

It is best to wait until Mother’s Day to plant transplants of warm season crops into the garden. It takes about 8 weeks to grow tomatoes and peppers from seed, so count backward from Mother’s Day to determine when to start the plants indoors. Since Mother’s Day this year is on May 13th, the time to start tomatoes and peppers would be the middle of March. Don’t start your transplants too early or they will get too tall and spindly.

Good transplants begin with good care. Start with good quality seed and a sterile soil or soil-less mixture. For growing media, you can use a potting soil, or a soil-less mixture that contains vermiculite, perlite, and/or peat moss. Just make sure that the growing media is well-drained and has been moistened prior to planting into.

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You can start the seeds in seed trays or other types of containers. You can reuse pots or seed trays from previous years, just make sure all equipment has been cleaned thoroughly prior to reuse. To clean the pots, wash them in soap and then soak them for 10 minutes in a solution of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water. There are a lot of other, less expensive, materials that can be used to start seeds in. Newspapers can be reused to make a planting pot, look for methods of how to fold them online. You can also use paper or plastic cups, small yogurt, sour cream, or cottage cheese containers, soda or water bottles with the top cut off and small milk cartons. Just make sure that you make a few drainage holes in the bottom of these containers. If the container doesn’t have a drainage hole in it, the soil will not drain properly causing problems, including death, for your seedlings.

Transplants need to be grown in favorable environmental conditions. Plants should be grown in temperatures between 70 and 75 degrees. Too cold or too warm can reduce the rate of germination or the plants may grow leggy or improperly. Seedlings need 12-16 hours of light per day. This light should be kept about 1 inch above the plants, as they grow, this light should be moved up with the seedlings.  This light source can be as simple and inexpensive as a utility light or shop light with one cool and one warm fluorescent bulb. Fertilization can be applied weekly with a one-quarter strength, soluble fertilizer. Do not fertilize the seedlings if they were allowed to dry out. Replenish the moisture in the plants prior to applying fertilizer to avoid burning the seedlings.

Two weeks prior to planting outdoors in the garden, you will need to prepare the plants to outdoor conditions, this transition is called hardening off. Move the plants outdoors in the shade on non-windy days. Start out by placing the plants in sun for only an hour or two, gradually increase the length of time they are in the sun and the intensity of that sun. Be sure to still bring the plants indoors at night, especially if a frost is predicted. Also, keep them out of direct wind until they have hardened off.

Planting for Spring Color

Planning for spring color blog

If you are the type of person who always tends to get spring fever this time of the year, your landscape can help make it easier in the future. Plan your garden to incorporate different trees, shrubs, and perennial flowers that will bring you spring as soon as possible.

Cornelian Cherry Dogwood is one of the earliest plants to break from winter dormancy in Nebraska. There was one of these planted next to the Plant Science building on East Campus at UNL where I studied for many years. I always enjoyed to see it pop those small yellow buds in late February to early March to prove to me that winter wouldn’t last forever. Cornelian Cherry Dogwood can be grown as a large shrub or small tree, depending on how it is pruned.

Forsythia is a more commonly known early spring blooming shrub. This shrub blooms with bright yellow, finger-like flowers in March, typically. This is a shrub that is very easy to care for, but it can get overgrown, so it should be pruned often to maintain its size and shape. Every year, you can remove 1/3 of the largest branches from the shrub and prune them off at ground level to reduce the size and remove the oldest, least productive branches.

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Redbud in bloom in the spring

Redbud is one of my favorite plants for spring color. It typically blooms in April-May with beautiful violet to pink blooms all along the branches. There is also a white bud that is the same as redbud, but with white blooms instead of pink. This tree is best grown as an understory tree, so it does best with part shade. However, it will grow in full sun, as many are. After the blooming period, the tree has nice, green, heart-shaped leaves through the summer and into the fall when they turn golden yellow. Be careful with pesticides in the lawn around redbuds, however, as they are very sensitive to 2,4-D. The leaves will often cup up and develop an irregular leaf edge with dark and light green striping, as if the leaf was stretched out.

Magnolia is another amazing choice for a tree for spring color. There are a lot of varieties of magnolias, but not all of them do as well in our environment. A couple of the best suited for Nebraska include saucer magnolia and star magnolia. Saucer magnolia blooms with the pink blooms and star magnolia has white blooms. Magnolias should be in a location where they are a bit protected from winter winds. The blooms of magnolias are often destroyed by a late spring frost causing the flowers to shrivel up and turn brown soon after opening up.

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Crocus Blooming

There are a lot of great spring blooming bulbs that can be used in the lawn. Many of my favorites include tulips, daffodils, crocus, hyacinth, grape hyacinth, snowdrops, and scilla. A great collection of many varieties and species of these bulbs will bring season-long beauty and an assortment of color throughout the spring. These bulbs all bloom in the spring but they need to be planted in the fall. This causes a problem this time of the year, but it can help you begin to plan them out if you look at your landscape this spring to see where there are gaps amongst the other plants or areas where color is necessary throughout the spring.