The intent of this article is not to sell you an irrigation system, but rather help you decide if an automated, electrical controlled, irrigation system is right for you. Considering the upfront and continuing costs of a system, other approaches can be less expensive and get the job done almost as well.
If you want a healthy looking, fescue lawn that will stay green year round, even in dry summers and not go dormant turning a gray-green color, then an irrigation system will be needed, especially if the lawn is in full sun.
If you want a green lawn in winter, like fescue, but don’t mind a gray-green look in dry summers you can get by without an irrigation system. Helpful conditions…some shade, especially western, oak and maple trees don’t compete with turf, you have helped your lawn with some hand watering during the first summer, and you are willing to invest in major tilling of the subsoil before installation, which will promote a very beneficial deep root system.
If you don’t mind a tan colored, dormant lawn from November to April a warm weather grass like Bermuda, Zoysia or Saint Augustine will bring you a green lawn from May to October without an irrigation system, It important that you water the sod well after planting (best times to plant late April through October when the sod is actively growing) and after the first year you should be good to go, except in the driest of summers, Tilling the subsoil is beneficial but not as necessary as it is with fescue.
In general, Bermuda grass needs at least 8 hours of full sun a day, Fescue and Zoysia 6 hours and Saint Augustine 4 hours.
Do you want to irrigate just your lawn, just your plants, or both?
Do you prefer a cool weather grass like fescue which remains green in winter, tolerates shade, but struggles with the Triangle’s summer heat, humidity and direct sunlight?
Or do you prefer a warm weather grass like Zoysia or Bermuda which will remain green with minimal irrigation in summer, but will become dormant and turns a tan color in winter. These grasses are more heat tolerant, more creeping, need less irrigation, and can withstand more foot traffic than fescue. However they can be damaged in extremely cold winters if not maintained correctly nutrient wise, going into the winter.
Your budget? ….automated systems generally start at about $5,000.00
Who will monitor the system when it is operational?
Are you willing to spend the money to till your yard 4-6” deep before installing sod or seed?
Are you looking for a show piece, or a yard that is simply presentable?
Are there driveways and walkways that might have to be bored under?
Do you have hardwood trees; i.e. a lot of tree surface roots (oaks, maples, hickories, not pines) that might be competing for your lawn’s available rainfall or irrigation water?
If you are concerned about keeping your trees, shrubs, etc watered, a water conserving, affordable, drip irrigation that emits the water right at the base of the plant may be for you. See Drip Irrigation
It may not ever happen, but an automated irrigation system will eliminate the worry and keep your yard alive and green, if you’re away on a long vacation.
Some Important Facts
With a non-irrigated lawn if you can get a Fescue lawn through the first year without dying from lack of a water, the following summers should be a little easier watering because the root system has become established; especially if you have taken the time to till the soil 6-8” before planting, which allow the roots to really penetrate the soil.
In the second summer and the following, without an irrigation system a fescue lawn will go dormant meaning it will brown, but you shouldn’t lose it unless we enter a drought. Expect some reseeding in the fall.
Shade trees and lawns generally don’t mix very well. Beside the shade created by the tree, trees with dominant surface root system such as oaks and maples, rob water from the lawn. Consider removing a few trees, if you like.
Rainwater is better for your lawn than chlorinated city water, so really the reason you irrigate is to provide water to the lawn when rain fall is not adequate. Always install a rain sensor with an automatic irrigation system to avoid watering when the lawn is already moist.
Only licensed irrigation contractors can install systems other than you. I would not recommend installing yourself, because of the learning curve and plenty of unexpected trips to the irrigation or hardware store for parts.
Adjusting Your Irrigation Timer’s Run Times
An irrigation timer should not just be set up, times set, and forgotten. How often your system turns on, and how long each zone runs, relative to other zones, needs to be adjusted to soil moisture levels from different areas of your lawn. Zones will dry out at different rates depending on soil type, sprinkler head set up, sun influences, and naturally wet areas. Think of each of your zones as having different personalities; they need to be treated differently and work in harmony. The ideal time to irrigate is when the lawn begins to dries out, but not discolor. As the soil under the lawn begins to dry out the grass roots will go searching downward looking for moisture, this is a good thing, and is one of the reasons I advocate tilling your soil before seeding or sodding, so roots can penetrate 5 or 6 inches, getting you through droughts and saving money on your water bill. The bottom line…wait for a soaking rainstorm and watch your zones dry out and discolor at different rates; the zones that dry out faster need to have longer run times. You’ve paid good money for an irrigation system, so use it wisely and get the results you want…a green lawn and lower water bills. And if you may win yard of the month, you can always give credit to the wife. Life is good.