Maintaining a WaterSmart Garden

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Just like any garden, a low water use landscape also requires maintenance. Below are some tips to help you keep your garden looking its best:

  1. Be careful not to overwater your new plants. If the ground stays soggy for too long, plant-damaging diseases can develop. Let the first few inches of soil dry out between waterings, but do not let the root ball dry out during the first 2-3 months of a plant’s establishment period.
  2. Adjust your irrigation controller as the weather changes. A deeper soaking is preferable to short, frequent watering to establish the deep root system that your low water use plants have. You many need to water your new plants 1-3 times a week if you plant in the summer until the root system has time to develop. 
  3. Rainwater alone is often enough to satisfy a California friendly plant in the winter. When possible, fall and winter is the best time to plant California native plants in order to get the benefit of that extra rainwater. If unseasonably hot weather persists, or there is a drought, supplemental irrigation may be needed.
  4. To retain moisture, use 2 – 3 inches of organic mulch around the plant, but not up against the stem or trunk. Mulch helps prevent evaporation, encourages the growth of beneficial organisms in the soil, and suppresses the growth of weeds.
  5. Email or show your landscape professional this Garden Care Checklist with the maintenance items you want performed checked off or use this DIY Irrigation Check-up to check your own irrigation system for leaks and breaks.
  6. If you maintain your landscape and irrigation system yourself, check out the Santa Rosa Tool Library and borrow tools for FREE! The library includes gardening tools, plumbing tools, power tools and more, all available to those who live or work in Sonoma County.”

Feed Your Soil

Organic matter improves the amount of water soil can hold (called the water holding capacity of soil). You can get organic matter from a wide variety of sources, including compost and mulch. Plants also manufacture their own soil-building organic matter by dropping leaves, blossoms, and other debris. Mulch, compost and compost tea can be applied to the surface of the soil and used as amendments during planting and soil preparation.

Excessive use of fertilizers can affect soil microbes, the microorganisms that aide in plant and soil health, by altering the soil’s composition and the productivity of these naturally occurring organisms. In turn, this could make plants lazy about attracting microbes to cycle nutrients; potentially diminishing the plants’ immune response and may compromise their resilience, particularly if they are put under stress from drought or pests. Additionally, fertilizers contain high levels of nitrogen, and this nitrogen often ends up running off into our creeks, creating harmful algal blooms and using up the oxygen fish need to live.

Zero Waste Sonoma offers a rebate of 10% of the cost of compost and mulch up to $25,000. LEARN MORE

Irrigation System Maintenance

An irrigation system must be maintained regularly, just like any system in a house or car. Without regular maintenance the system will degrade, wasting water and not providing essential water to your garden. 

Before you turn your sprinkler or drip system on for the summer, turn on each station and walk through your garden to look and listen for breaks. After you confirm that it’s working as it should at the beginning of the irrigation season, run your irrigation system again at least quarterly and perform the same exercise. Lines break, tubing pulls away from fittings, shovels make unknown cuts, dogs chew holes, and emitters plug, so look and listen for leaks, large wet areas, etc. Additionally, monitor the health of your plants by looking for signs of too little or too much water as an indication that your irrigation system may be malfunctioning. 

According to the Sonoma County Master Gardeners, “Annually, the system should be flushed, by uncapping the main lines, and running each station for a few minutes. Also, each emitter or bubbler or sprayer needs to be checked, and may need to be taken apart and cleaned (or, with the relatively low cost of individual items, simply replaced). Filters, if you install them, should be cleaned every couple of months, depending on the amount of debris in the water. During the growing season, periodically check and clean (or replace) emitters.” More helpful tips can be found here on the Master Gardener’s Drip Installation and Maintenance page

If you have a professional who helps in your garden, provide them with this handy maintenance guide.


You may need to thin and cut back certain types of plants in order to direct growth of the maturing plant. Pruning a plant often stresses the system but encourages new growth and flowering. It is not necessary to prune all plants. Some people like the appearance of a well-maintained, pruned garden, while others like a more natural look. Ask your local nursery if any of your plants require pruning and, if so, what time of year they should be pruned and by how much.


Pests are a normal part of a garden, including a low water use garden. The Master Gardeners suggest trying to manage pests with the least toxic methods first, such as using sticky insect barriers and traps or spraying a strong stream of water on the plant, before moving on to other methods of pest control such as spraying horticultural oils, applying diatomaceous earth, etc. Remember that insects are an important part of the food web for animals like birds, so the goal isn’t to get rid of them completely.

Long-term maintenance

The more effort you put into maintaining your landscape in its early stages, the less you will have to maintain it in the long run. Consider adding a couple of inches of organic mulch (preferably composted mulch) annually, and periodically weed your garden to avoid unwanted plants from getting established. It is especially important to remove weeds before they produce a new crop of weed seeds. It is also important to regularly check your irrigation system to ensure that it is running efficiently without any leaks.

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