How to Pour It On, Prune It Right This Watering Season

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Native trees such as this Bauhinia lunarioides "orchid tree" flourish without supplemental water in the author's yard, which was co-winner of the 2004 San Antonio Water System Home Xeriscape Garden of the year.

Courtesy / Rachel Cywinski

Native trees such as this "orchid tree" flourish without supplemental water in the author's yard, which was co-winner of the 2004 San Antonio Water System Home Xeriscape Garden of the year.

The first official week of spring heralds the unofficial start of watering season, according to Mark Peterson, conservation projects coordinator of San Antonio Water System (SAWS). This is the time of year when property owners with turf grass often begin to spray or pour potable water onto their lawns.

SAWS customers accustomed to watering restrictions during drought are often confused about what restrictions are in place year-round in the absence of drought.

“The aquifer levels are excellent, and so only year-round water efficiency rules are in place,” said Karen Guz, director of conservation at SAWS. “Watering is allowed any day of the week before 11 a.m. and after 7 p.m.”

Peterson, a popular presenter at the Office of Historic Preservation‘s annual Historic Homeowners Fair, said that returning to using the native plants that historically were used in San Antonio yards significantly reduces the need for irrigation compared to exotic grass such as Bermuda and St. Augustine.

“Before WWII, American lawns were rarely limited to one species [of grass] as they often are today,” said Mike Pecen, a landscape architect specializing in San Antonio historic districts. “Most photographic evidence suggests that designers and gardeners were less fussy about flowers, forbs, and other low-growing broadleaf plants sharing the lawn. It is likely that, in our region, gardeners would have allowed native grasses and ‘weeds’ to coexist with their cultivated grasses.”

Pecen said his own lawn shows that Buffalograss, Curly Mesquite grass, and Blue grama grass can prosper in spots where Bermuda grass, Zoysia and St. Augustine do not.

“I think it’s almost a given the straggler daisy [horseherb] was a part of early San Antonio,” he said.

SAWS regularly offers coupon and rebate programs to encourage customers with exotic grass to remove the grass and replace it with more drought-tolerant plants or pavers. Conservation staff provide educational opportunities to property owners willing to install sustainable landscapes through presentations, electronic newsletters and articles, and plant giveaway events.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Peterson presented a workshop on the basics of watering and pruning to a gathering of church members, historic district homeowners, and members of area gardening and environmental groups at Laurel Heights United Methodist Church in north central San Antonio.

To assist homeowners in watering, Peterson has developed a “3-2-1” watering schedule for San Antonio area tree establishment. All plants need more frequent and shallow watering when first planted. This should be transitioned to less frequent and deeper watering to encourage root development as the plant grows.

He recommends watering a newly planted tree based on its trunk diameter. All trees should be measured. For each inch of trunk diameter, the tree needs 1-2 gallons, multiplied by the number of times it is watered each week. Watering must be reduced or eliminated during times of normal rainfall.

Peterson’s watering schedule for tree establishment is:

  • Month 1: Water three times per week over the root ball only in the absence of rain.
  • Month 2: Water two times per week over the root ball only in the absence of rain.
  • Month 3: Water once per week in the absence of rain.
  • Months 4-9: Water twice a month.
  • Water only once between late November and mid-March.
  • During the tree’s second year, water twice a month during March through October in the absence of rain.

“Watering and pruning are two of the most important simple activities that homeowners can do,” Peterson said. “But limited time in our hurried modern lives dictates that we use our time effectively and efficiently. Properly targeted watering and pruning saves time and resources to produce fabulous results.”

Peterson, a certified arborist whose first career was with the Texas Forest Service, said that improperly planting or pruning a tree can stunt its growth and lead to premature death.

Mark Peterson’s 10 Pruning Commandments

  1. This Quercus Buckleyi red oak in San Jose Burial Park was correctly pruned to remove a codominant trunk that had formed a "V" shape by pruning outside of all the supporting tissue but not so far out as to create a stub that would prevent the tree sealing over the wound.

    Courtesy / Rachel Cywinski

    This Quercus Buckleyi red oak in San Jose Burial Park was correctly pruned to remove a codominant trunk that had formed a “V” shape by pruning outside of all the supporting tissue but not so far out as to create a stub that would prevent the tree sealing over the wound.

    Always have a reason to prune; if in doubt, then don’t take it out.

  2. All pruning is done at a bud or branch regardless of whether you are shortening a branch, removing seeds, or reducing tree height.
  3. Prune to improve tree strength and safety. Reduce trunk and limb breakage by eliminating multiple trunks of equal size and narrow branch junctures that look like “V”s.
  4. Prune to improve tree health by removing the dead, diseased, and dying branches, and any branch where light or wind does not penetrate.
  5. Always maintain the upper two-thirds of the tree in branches and foliage.
  6. Never remove more than 25% of the canopy during one pruning cycle (4-6 years).
  7. Never top a tree.
  8. Never leave a stub or remove the branch collar by flush cut.
  9. Painting tree wounds is unnecessary except for oaks. Painting wounds on oaks must be done within 30 minutes of trimming.
  10. Always disinfect pruning tools after trimming a tree to prevent the spread of disease.

Wasting water is prohibited in all conditions. The 2014 Conservation Ordinance prohibits watering between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m., watering during or after a rainfall event, overspray of irrigation systems, and using so much water that it runs off the property. Such water waste can be reported at any time through an Water Waste Report Form. Complaints are investigated by trained SAWS employees and San Antonio Police Department officers.

At least two-thirds of the tree trunk should be shaded by canopy, as with these two native trees along the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River.

Courtesy / Rachel Cywinski

At least two-thirds of the tree trunk should be shaded by canopy, as with these two native trees along the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River.

A notice of water waste is followed by a summons to appear in San Antonio’s municipal environmental court. Water waste consequences may include fines, probation, assessment of court costs, or dismissal of case. SAWS offers many financial incentives to reduce irrigation watering and peak water demand during watering season.

SAWS offers timely advice on how much to water through its digital newsletter at GardenstyleSA.com.

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