October 14, 2017

Knowing How Much to Water: #itsSTILLcomplicated

Question:
How much should I be watering my trees? 
-  Multiple Gardeners from All Over NM

Answer (Part 2):
In last week’s column, we learned about how the type of soil in your garden affects tree water requirements. Now we will focus on other considerations, such as rates of water movement, tree species, age, canopy size, and seasonal fluctuations in water needs.
Plants take water up from the soil through their roots all the way to the leaves where it is released into the air. Transpiration is the process by which a plant loses water, primarily through pores in the leaves called stomata. This is a necessary process that involves the use of about 90% of the water that enters the plant through the roots. The other 10% of the water is used in chemical reactions, like photosynthesis, and in plant tissues. Transpiration is necessary for mineral transport from the soil to the plant tissues, for the cooling of the plant through evaporation, for moving sugars and plant chemicals, and for the maintenance of turgor pressure. The amount of water lost from the plant depends on several environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, and wind or air movement.

Here's a video I found on YouTube that provides a helpful visual of transpiration in action. PLEASE NOTE: the cartoon depiction of the tree roots in this video are NOT accurately drawn!


Mary Irish and Judith Phillips include a simple table on how much and how often to water landscape plants in their book, “Arizona & New Mexico Getting Started Garden Guide.” In this table, trees in New Mexico are divided into two categories: cool desert-adapted and high water use. The recommended number of days between waterings differ depending on the time of year, partly because tree water needs increase when temperatures are higher. In winter they recommend watering established, cool desert adapted tree species once every 45-60 days. Intervals of 14-30 days between waterings are suggested in the spring and fall and shorter intervals of every 7-21 days in the summer. More water may be needed for trees that are newly planted (less than three years), especially in the hottest, driest times of the year.
Irrigation scheduling table from gardening book (see caption)
Irrigation scheduling table from "Arizona & New Mexico Getting Started Garden Guide" by Mary Irish and Judith Phillips, page 225.
Slow soaks at long intervals between irrigation events are best for tree root systems. Remember that for mature, happy trees the roots are more concentrated in the top two feet of soil depth and extend out beyond the canopy, even two to four times the height of the tree. So be sure to water deeply enough and not just at the base of the tree trunk. For younger or neglected trees, it is most important to apply water both where you know where the roots are and where you want them to grow.
Drip irrigation is a great method for watering trees, but the placement of emitters will need to change each year to accommodate root and canopy growth until the trees are established. Similarly, low berms of soil can be used to build a basin around the dripline of a young tree if watering with a hose, but these too will need to be expanded as the tree grows.
Certainly, some plant species are bigger water guzzlers than others. Here are some resources on recommended trees for New Mexico and how to grow them:

Shade Trees for New Mexico NMSU Extension Publication Guide H-326

Selecting Ornamental Trees for New Mexico NMSU Extension Publication Guide H-328

Fruits and Nuts for New Mexico Orchards NMSU Extension Publication Guide H-310

NMSU offers a wide selection of other helpful publications. Check them out here: http://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/

Several counties offer lists of recommended trees and other plants for their specific climates. If you know of another reference you think might be useful please share it in the comments section below (or on social media!).

More and more communities in New Mexico are adopting incentives for water-wise gardening, like rebates (aka “tree-bates”) for the inclusion of low water use plant species and installation of drip irrigation systems with controllers.

Cover image of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority Xeriscaping handout
The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority printed this great handout as a guide for converting to a water-wise gardening strategy and getting rebates on your water bill!

It is tricky to figure out when to water, how much, and how to deliver water to the trees in your garden. Try not to get discouraged. Selection of species that grow well in our climate with minimal extra water is an excellent first step. Mulches and groundcovers are also great tools for conserving soil moisture so that less water is evaporated directly from the soil into the air, but I will save those topics for another week.
Send gardening questions to Southwest Yard and Garden - Attn: Dr. Marisa Thompson at desertblooms@nmsu.edu, or at the Desert Blooms Facebook page (@NMDesertBlooms)
Please copy your County Extension Agent and indicate your county of residence when you submit your question!

For more gardening information, visit the NMSU Extension Horticulture page at Desert Blooms.

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