Lush green lawns and manicured landscaping take work, and with Mother Nature’s unpredictability, many lake homeowners turn to manmade solutions.
“If you want a green lawn all summer long, you’re going to need an automatic irrigation system,” said Galen Layman of Seven Oaks Landscape - Hardscape. “Most lake lawns are simply too large to be kept wet enough by drag-the-hose hand-watering.”
Lake homes typically have sod installed instead of grass planted from seed. “Getting new sod established is especially water-demanding,” said Brad Austin, a Seven Oaks project manager. “Seed will wait for water to germinate; sod must be kept continuously moist for weeks beginning the day it goes down.”
The story is not as clear-cut with landscape plantings, Layman said. “Most shrubs, perennials and decorative trees, once established, can survive on the annual 45 inches of rainfall typical to our area. Getting new plantings established will require more, but that may be manageable by a resident homeowner willing to commit time to hand-watering. But if you don’t live here full time, you’ll need automatic shrub watering in July and August.”
If beds are watered automatically, the system should be designed for zoned, programmed variation of watering frequency and time. “Shrubs planted in this area’s poor-draining, clay soils can easily be drowned by the amounts of water lawn grass requires,” Layman said. “They need to be watered on a separate schedule.”
Drip watering systems for beds are water-efficient, but it may not be readily apparent whether they are running properly. Should they fail, it may not be discovered until plants are withering and dying. Other considerations are sloped beds that drain excess water away downhill while level areas can be prone to oversaturation. Also, southern, western and unshaded exposures need more water than others.
Yet even with lawns, over-watering often happens, said Shannon Wray, a Seven Oaks landscape designer. “Lake homeowners typically irrigate with free lake water and really like to see the system they’ve purchased soaking their grass. But the ‘off’ setting is your lawn’s friend. With daily high temperatures under 90 degrees, two waterings a week (totaling about 1 inch) will be sufficient.”
Seven Oaks offers a full landscape maintenance service that will make sure proper watering is being delivered to each area and recommends that a system’s controls be mounted where they’re always accessible to a visiting technician.
Those details typically fall to system installers such as Westlake Turf & Irrigation. George Kerr, the company’s president, said he often works closely with landscape designers to install the proper irrigating pipes and control hardware after a property has been graded and just before plants go in.
“It’s important that things are done in the right order,” Kerr said. “Final grading of a construction site will affect where water needs to be delivered and can disturb previously installed underground pipes.”
About half of the firm’s installations are for new construction; the rest are for customers who discover they can’t keep their landscape lush and healthy without help.
A system’s design should be for the long term, Kerr said, since watering needs will increase as plants mature. “Designers should envision watering needs 10 years out and allow for water delivery to be reprogrammed over time.”
According to Kerr, the cost for irrigating a typical ¾-acre lot starts at about $10,000, but will vary based on slope, exposure, complexity and technology chosen.
“Multiple watering zones will help adjust delivery to grass with different sun exposures and to beds versus lawn areas,” he said. “Technology now allows for wireless rain gauges to trigger system shutdowns and restarts as weather patterns change, and for homeowners to adjust watering by smartphone or tablet. Wi-Fi-enabled systems can even adapt to weather forecasts, but in our area the closest station may be an hour away, and rainfall sometimes varies significantly from one part of the lake to another.”
The pump’s location is another system design consideration. Pumps work best at the 800-foot level, but the shoreline management plan’s size restrictions on enclosures discourage taking up boathouse space for pumps and pipes, Kerr said. Pump wiring must follow local electrical codes, which specify ground-fault protection. There’s no chance of electric current leakage harming swimmers since only non-conductive water piping is used for plumbing that reaches the water.
Most irrigation systems also require winterization. “There are always low areas in the pipes and pumps that must be blown clear with compressed air,” Kerr said. “Pumps that are on-shore will freeze up before those that are over the water or protected in a dock house or attic.”
Both landscaper and irrigation system installers emphasize one key point: while automatic watering may be essential to attractive landscaping, using it sparingly is essential as well. Over-watering destroys far more landscaping than under-watering.