Save Our Water and Our Trees!

by Renee Roth, Rainscape Designs

Image from City of Santa Barbara Tree Watering Guidelines

According to City of Ojai’s 
Community Forest Management Plan, trees clean air and water, reduce stormwater runoff and conserve energy. They also improve public health and increase property values. Therefore, during drought conditions, our trees should be the top priority to receive landscape water. 

The amount and frequency of water a tree needs depends upon many things, including the tree species, size of the tree, soil type, climate zone and weather.  As the climate warms with less rainfall and warmer temperatures, we need to better understand how to manage the water our trees get to keep them alive.

For more info visit the State of CA Save Our Water and Our Trees website For your specific tree’s specific needs, learn more about each tree species  at To learn about planting and watering trees in the Ojai Valley, visit and Ojai Trees for information on tree care and how to water your trees.  To understand the impact of climate on plant water needs, see this website under Climate and Plant Water Needs

TIP: Water mature trees 1-2 time per month with a deep and slow soak using a simple soaker hose or in-line drip system toward the edge of the tree canopy – NOT at the base of the tree. Use a hose faucet timer (found at hardware stores) to prevent overwatering. And add 4 – 6 inches of mulch to save water! To learn about how water young trees, check out youtube video from Save Our Water:  To learn about watering your trees as you let your lawn go gold during the summer, check out

See the City of Ojai website for information on the Community Forest Management Plan and ordinances related to tree removal etc. and Ojai Trees to volunteer for upcoming  tree planting or tree watering days.

Determine how much water your irrigation system is applying

Follow these steps:
1. Check your meter before running your irrigation system.  Make sure you are using either a soaker hose or inline drip to water the area around your tree’s drip line. See the diagram above.  Record the number on the meter. For your measurement to be accurate, make sure no other water is running in your household.

2. Turn on your irrigation for 30 minutes.   Make sure you are using either a soaker hose or inline drip to water the area around your tree’s drip line.

3. After 30 minutes, use a soil probe or a long handled screwdriver to dig down to test the soil. For a mature tree, the water should reach 18 inches deep. Based on how deep the water reached after 30 minutes, you can estimate the time required for you to effectively water your tree.

Example: If you test the soil and find it is dry deeper than 6 inches, then you know that your tree is only getting one-third to one-half of its water requirement. Based on this, you will need to water your tree for 90 minutes total. This can be done all at once over a 24 hour period or over a few days.

4. Check your meter again after running the irrigation for 30 minutes and record the new number. Subtract the first number you recorded from this new number to get the difference. Your meter measures water in cubic feet. One cubic foot is equal to 7.48 gallons of water, so multiply the difference by 7.48 to determine how many gallons of water were used in 30 minutes.

Example: If the difference that you calculate is 50 cubic feet, simply multiply 50 by 7.48 to get the number of gallons used (50 x 7.48 = 374 gallons). If you need to water for 90 minutes total, then this will require 374 x 3 = 1,122 gallons of water total, or 1.5 HCF billing units (1 HCF = 748 gallons).

Example of HOW TO CALCULATE Water Needs for Trees/Shrubs

To help determine landscape water requirements for trees,  the University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources Landscape Water Conservation and Irrigation management system website is helpful.   The Tree & Shrub Water Demand Calculator can be used selected determine how much water to apply, based on the tree size.  There are two ways to calculate the size of landscaped area for trees:  1. either by diameter of canopy cover or 2. square feet of area covered. Below are two examples (see website calculations below) assuming daily of ETo of .23″  and formula for area is based on radius or diameter:

Area = π (Pi=3.14) times the Radius squared: A = π r2
or, when you know the DiameterA = (π/4) × D2

1. Tree/shrub canopy with a radius of 10 feet covers landscape area of 314 feet (canopy  [(3.14 x  r2) with r=10]) requires 22.52 gallons/ day  or 158 gallons /week or 632 gallons/month.

2. Tree/shrub has canopy diameter of 20 feet, the gallons water/week (3.14/4 x 202=314sf) x (.23x 7=1.61)ETo x .623 x .5 PF= 158 gallons /week or 632 gallons/month.

To estimate the amount of water a fruit tree needs, see the [PDF] Water Management Guide for Temperate Fruit Trees, with reference ETo rates and tree size references.  For more variable and detailed information see

A great reference is also found at UC AG & Natural Resources on how to water trees.  See

See [PDF] links below for more irrigation and water management information from the UC AG & Natural Resources and Master Gardeners program.

NEW!Keeping Landscape Plantings Alive under Drought or Water Restrictions

Jim Downer is a horticulture specialist with the University of California Cooperative Extension in Ventura County, California. Mr. Downer can be contacted at more info here He teaches the UC Master Gardener classes and does tree care classes for the community in January.  His last class was

Tree Care 101:  All about Trees
January 27, 2018 8:00am – 12:15pm

Below is an article he wrote that explains the best practices for tree care.

Article: Drought, “Water Wise” Gardens and Saving Water in Landscapes.

By James Downer, Horticulture Specialist, University of California Cooperative Extension

Tune up the irrigation system!

Probably the single most important water conserving practice you can do is to maximize the distribution uniformity of your irrigation system. This sounds major but it’s not. It is amazing, but many people never see their irrigation system running because it is on a valve controller, and it runs while they are away or asleep. The first thing to do is to manually turn on the system and see where the water is going. Commercial maintenance contractors should also undertake this procedure, even if it is not within the duties of the job, because irrigation greatly affects everything in the landscape. Seek permission to audit the irrigation system. It is a necessary part of good landscape management. If water is evenly applied where you want it, great! But most of the time this is not the case. There will be plugged emitters, emitters throwing water the wrong direction or onto hard surfaces, breaks in lines, or even lost emitters with water geysers. Just becoming aware of what your water distribution system is doing is critical to saving water. Fix the obvious problems, and you will save water. Further refinement of the irrigation system involves measurement of emitter output, pressures, and distribution uniformity, which is not within the scope of this article. There are many on-line resources that can help get you started on that.

Pay attention to the time of the year!

The most important driving force in plant water use is sunlight. Sunlight (day length) varies following a bell shaped curve over the entire year. The most sunlight occurs in mid-summer and the least in mid-winter. These are the corresponding high and low water using times of the year. Water should be applied with durations that follow the amount of sunlight plants receive. Also, since we are in a climate when most rainfall comes in the winter, there is often little or no need to irrigate after the start of the first rains. An inch of rainfall that occurs in the fall or winter months may give three to four weeks of water supply to a typical landscape. I recommend that you turn off timers (sprinkler valve controllers) in the winter starting in November until the rainfall stops. If we get a sudden warming trend, wind event, or other circumstance that dries the landscape, then irrigate manually to address that issue. You will save a lot of water since you are not automatically watering an already wet landscape.

Water when the plants tell you to!

Plants are the best indicator of drought stress. The most obvious symptom that everyone recognizes is wilt. Physiological wilt occurs when there is not enough water in the plant and the soil to keep the plant turgid. If a plant stays in this condition for long, it may reach the permanent wilting point from which it cannot recover. Before a plant goes into wilt, there are often other signs that it is in drought stress. Also, some plants, like Coast Live Oak, don’t show “wilting” symptoms because their leaves are very sclerified or rigid and can’t actually become flaccid. Before wilting, some plants lose their bright color. Instead of bright green, they may look blue green or grey green. This dulling of color is the first sign of water stress. Some plants, like bamboo and other grasses, will roll their leaves as they dry out to slow water loss. Trees with flexible leaves may show a cupped shape when they begin to dry or may drop their leaves all together (Shammel or Mexican Ash does this). Another indicator of drought stress is reduced growth. This may be ok if plant quality is acceptable because then there is less clipping, but if you notice that plants are not growing as much as you desire or they are not meeting your expectations for general appearance, you may not be watering enough and need to apply more. One of the problems with plants is that although they can tell you symptomatically when they are dry, plants are not very good about telling you when they are wet! Until diseases kill roots or stems, many plants will just grow in wet soils. Sometimes nutrients are not as available in wet soils so some deficiency symptoms may begin to show. Under wet conditions, micronutrients are reduced and become unavailable and macronutrients may leach so yellowing leaves may tell you that soils are too wet. Often however, diseases of root systems occur in wet soils and complicate the diagnosis. If diseases are present, and watering schedules are corrected, the drying soils may stress the diseased plants more and precipitate a rapid decline. Thus it seems that watering appropriately killed the plant. Diseases always complicate this situation.

Understand the “age” of your landscape and the implications on water use!

Newly planted landscapes use a certain amount of water, usually less than what is applied. Often landscapes are overwatered at first to make sure that root balls stay moist as they are trying to root into their new “native” soil. This establishment phase of irrigation should be very short, just a few weeks to a month—then the watering system is adjusted back to a schedule that reflects plant needs, the demands of the climate, and the holding capacity of the soil. This is somewhat of an art. As the landscape grows, irrigation times, emitter placement, and emitter number all begin to (or should) change. More water may be needed in a growing and maturing landscape. The mature landscape water needs should remain constant for any given time of year from year to year (except when we have hot, blowing wind—an anomaly of the weather). The watering schedule should increase and decrease to reflect the increase and decrease of solar radiation throughout the year. Know where you are in this scheme of things, and then consider increasing or decreasing water applications appropriately. Also consider retrofitting your irrigation system to place water where it is needed (farther from tree trunks) and increase the number or type of emitters for larger plants.

Mulch bare soils!

For newly planted landscapes, mulch is an excellent mechanism for saving water. Numerous studies have shown that young plants that are mulched can skip every other irrigation (50% water savings) as compared to unmulched plants. Also, mulches inhibit the germination of annual weeds that will also use water that could be saved in the soil for the intended landscape plants. Be careful where you obtain mulch because urban yardwaste products are often contaminated with noxious weed propagules. Bark or wood chip mulches obtained from tree trimmers are the best mulches for landscapes. They last a long time and are usually not contaminated with noxious weeds. Remember that mulches may hold water, so each irrigation must apply enough water to saturate the mulch and wet the soil beneath to the desired depth. Monitor soil moisture! One of the most disastrous errors of landscape management is not understanding the water content of soils. There are many ways to know if your soil is wet or dry, but few are as good as digging with a shovel and checking the “feel” of the moisture content in the soil. Many landscapes I have inspected were bogs of mud because they were so overwatered. In some cases, water stands all the time in low lying areas. However, in mulched landscapes you may not know how much water is under the mulch. Visual evaluations are very misleading. Probing with a soil tube or even a screwdriver will tell you if the soil is dry. As soils dry they become “tight” and will resist penetration, while wet soils are easily penetrated. Soil moisture

meters can tell you if soils are wet or dry but are not accurate in the middle measurements. Expensive soil moisture monitoring systems, such as tensiometers, capacitance meters, and others, are more accurate throughout the range of moistures in which plants grow, but are also more expensive, may not be portable, and will vary by soil texture and sometimes soil salinity. Digging the soil and feeling it with your hands is one of the best ways to assess soil moisture. It is completely empirical, but rarely are you very wrong about your assessment.

Group plants that use more or less water

One of the most common problems I see is that plants are not grouped according to their water needs. Plants are flexible and will grow on the dry side or the wet side and so most landscapes achieve this odd blend of birches and agaves, but usually one partner or the other suffers. For optimum performance, low-water-using plants should be grouped together as should high-water- using plants. Be sure that turf areas are irrigated by their own irrigation valves. How do we know how much water plants actually use? There is some information on this subject but because studies have been difficult to do for ornamental plants, there is no researched water use information for all the ornamentals we grow in California gardens. We have some data, but very little compared to the thousands of ornamentals that are available for our gardens. The best suggestion I have is to group plants by their climate of origin. Match the climate zones of the plants origin with the microclimates in your yard. There are many resources to find plant origins. Group plants that come from dry or Mediterranean areas together. Stream loving (riparian) plants, or shade, tropical, or other water-loving plants can go together in their own special areas of the landscape. This makes irrigation much easier, more efficient, and the plants ultimately receive the proper amount of water necessary for their growth or maintenance. The biggest advantage is that you or your client will save money on the landscape water budgets and the plants will grow and look better!

Jim Downer is a horticulture specialist with the University of California Cooperative Extension in Ventura County, California. Mr. Downer can be contacted at