By Debbie Roland and Emmy Ulmschneider, Master Gardeners
We both love natives! They can be challenging to find, easy to plant, require minimum water when established resulting in a plant that requires little care. However, there appears to be some question about how to water natives correctly. If you are watering native plants every day or even once a week, it may be too much.
Native plants “know” how to survive in their arid environment. Plants that are native to our area have evolved over time with the physical conditions of our ecoregions. For more on ecoregions and what kinds of native plants they support check out: https://www.wildflower.org/magazine/landscapes/natural-accents
The answer to the question about how to water natives, is starting with the conditions that they grow best in. The average rainfall in our area is about 13 inches a year which means we live in an arid land. Our average rainfall is almost twice as much as Reno, Nevada (7.39 inches) and about 4 inches more than the average rainfall Albuquerque, New Mexico (9 inches). All that means we can’t grow plants, grasses and trees that require 1” of water a week during the growing season.
Next, how do our plants tolerate drought? Although our native plants are adapted to dry conditions, they are not immune to a long drought. Plants use two basic strategies to deal with drought: they avoid drought by closing their stomata and shutting down photosynthesis which means less energy to live, or they tolerate drought by physical adaptations such as reduced leaf area to minimize the loss of water or a different pathway for photosynthesis. High temperatures resulting in heat stress during a drought can cause damage to a plant. And with this drought, that is what we are seeing.
So, how should we water our native plants? Although native plants require much less water than non-natives, how much water depends on the plant species, the soil type, the size of the plant, how well established the plant is, and the amount of rainfall your yard has received. Don't assume that if a little water is good, a lot of water will be better. Over-watering can damage your plants and increases your water bill.
Our natives, especially native grasses, have deep root systems which can pull water from deep in the soil. To help maintain adequate soil moisture for these deep-rooted natives:
· avoid shallow, frequent watering,
· water slowly and deeply,
· water in the morning,
· water close to the ground,
· water trees at the dripline not at the base of the trunk,
· use a temporary sunshade to avoid heat stress,
· use organic mulch to lessen evaporation.
If you have plants that are struggling, research that particular plant to see what the watering requirements really are. Don’t assume you need to flood it with water and fertilizer. That may not be the problem at all. Happy investigating!
If you have questions, call the AgriLife office in Odessa at 498-4071 or in Midland at 686-4700. Additional information, and our blog for access to past articles, is available at westtexasgardening.org. Click on “Resources”.