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Researchers Study Smart Water Use Through New Garden

Last summer, Waco went on a record-setting 49 days without any rain. That’s not too uncommon in Texas, where areas of the state have been under drought-like conditions for years. Little to no rainfall can stress plant life, and that can lead to worried gardeners over watering their plants - which during a drought might not be the best idea. But as KWBU’s Carlos Morales reports, a new research site by the Texas Agrilife Extension Service and local master gardeners looks to study smart water use - and how gardeners can benefit from this research. 

Out by the Texas State Technical College airport, Louie McDaniel, a master gardener of 10 years, is surveying three plant beds. Each 40-by-40-foot bed, McDaniel is looking at, is a mirror of itself; one half has the same plants as the other.  But there’s one key difference between them: One section of plants will receive half the amount of water as the other. The goal of all of this, McDaniel explains, is to see how little water plants can be given before they begin to show signs of stress or wilt and die.

“We hope to, at the end of these trials”, McDaniel says, “to be able to make recommendations to landscapers and home owners based on what we find. So they can go back and say, ‘this plant really doesn’t need as much water as we’ve been giving it’, and water is the biggest issue in Texas.”  

The three plant beds represent 3 distinct types of plants: There are native Texas plants, like the Purple Cone Flower and Red Yucca. Then there are the so-called functional plants; these are herbs like Rosemary and Thyme, or fruit-bearing trees like a redskin peach tree.  The third section is reserved for container plants, which McDaniel says, generally need to be watered more than their in-ground counterparts.

“That’s why the containers, even though the plants are going to be the basically the same in the functional and the container, one’s in the ground and one’s not”, McDaniel says. “So it gives you the idea, the same plant in the ground and the same plant in a container, how’s it going to differ from the amount of water it needs. So we’re covered on all bases on that.

Weather metrics, like rainfall, temperature and wind speed will determine the amount of water these plants receive. Offsite, these factors are collected through a radar tower at Cottonwood Creek golf course in Waco. Researchers will use this data and then water the plants though a drip irrigation system, which was designed by Charles Swanson. Swanson, an Agrilife extension program specialist, says he hopes the research will be a guide, not just for homeowners, but for cities too.

“We’ve learned that, you know, we don’t always have all the water we need”, Swanson says. “So it’s important to really conserve water, and landscape irrigation can be a large part of municipal water use in the summer. So if we can help municipalities conserve water through watering their landscape plants correctly then that prolongs our water supplies for you and me to drink with.”

In 2011 – the state’s driest year on record – the average daily residential water use per person was 101 gallons, according to the Texas Water Development Board’s annual statewide water use report. By 2013, that number dropped to 84 gallons. Despite these recent drops in water usage, McDaniel says more needs to be done, like community education on smart water use. That’s why he and other McLennan County master gardeners host youth gardening classes.  

“One thing they, you ask them, “what’s a plant need?” First thing they’ll tell you is water. And they got that down, and they don’t mind giving them lots of water. So teaching them at an early age well maybe this plant doesn’t need as much water as its given”, McDaniel says.

Over watering is a persistent problem, says Meng Meng Gu, an associate professor and extension specialist in horticultural sciences at College Station.

“We have to keep in mind that a lot of our landscape plants are not aquatic plants. Does that make sense? They’re not aquatic plants. So they do need water, but not in the way, the more the merrier”, Gu says.

Gu will monitor the status of the plants throughout the long-term project. She’ll determine whether any plant stress is the result of reduced watering, or other factors. She’s also careful to note that successful research, that is plants that have performed well under reduced watering, won’t necessarily be plants that have grown wildly.

“We’re not necessarily looking at the growth of the plants”, Gu says, “because sometimes it’s not the absolute growth that matters in the landscape. A lot of times, in the landscape, you want the plants to survive and perform well, not be a giant”

Researchers expect their study to officially begin this fall.