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New drought motto: Stress lawn, save trees

Water providers launch campaign to raise awareness, lower use

Billboard mockup
The Regional Water Authority's new campaign focuses on caring for the region's trees during the current drought. (Courtesy the Regional Water Authority)

“Stress your lawn; save your trees!” That slogan is the theme of a new campaign, launched this week by area water providers.

Appearing on billboards as well as TV and online (plus radio spots, too), the slogan underlines a basic of drought resilience. Although they may turn brown or die back, lawns can cope with dry times and less water. But depriving trees of needed irrigation can cause irreparable harm.

“We know that reducing lawn watering is the fastest way to cutting overall water use during a drought and to achieving the 15% reduction requested by Gov. Newsom,” said Amy Talbot, Water Efficiency Program Manager for the Regional Water Authority, the umbrella organization over the Sacramento region’s 20 water providers. “But reductions shouldn’t come at the expense of trees—that’s a major lesson we learned during the last drought.”

Droughts in the past 10 years have killed countless trees in Sacramento’s urban forest as well as throughout the state.

“While healthy trees can recover from short periods of drought stress, prolonged periods without water will eventually kill the tree, and it may take years before the tree finally succumbs,” said Stephanie Robinson, Sacramento Tree Foundation’s communication manager. “Unfortunately, it will take decades to replace the mature trees we lost during the last drought.”

Artwork depicting a happy tree and stressed lawn
Artwork is part of the RWA's new campaign.
(Courtesy the Regional Water Authority

Sacramento trees most likely to show drought stress right now include coastal redwoods, birches, red maples and tulip trees.

Talbot suggests that people try skipping one lawn watering cycle per week while giving trees an extra drink with the “
bucket method ,” a soaker hose fitted with a timer, or drip irrigation.

“The good news is that fall is here, and with it comes shorter and cooler days. This means your lawn doesn’t need as much water,” Talbot said.

Most local water providers will request customers cut back to only one day per week of sprinkler use, starting Nov. 1. In Sacramento, residents will be able to water either Saturday or Sunday.

Learn the bucket method

How do you water a tree with a bucket? It’s simple, says Pamela Frickmann Sanchez, Education Program Manager for the Sacramento Tree Foundation.

During very dry conditions, young trees of all kinds are most at risk, particularly under 5 years old. Those same saplings benefit most from bucket watering – even if they’re growing in the middle of a lawn.

“The first few years, trees need about 10 to 15 gallons extra water a week, preferably split into two times a week,” Sanchez explained. “If you do have lawn, water from the lawn sprinklers is not adequate to get trees established. They need their own thorough soak. A 5-gallon bucket is a really easy way to make sure trees are getting enough water.”

Sacramento’s heavy soils need slow water application to allow moisture to soak in. “Don’t leave the hose running,” Sanchez said. “If you just dump five gallons on your tree, water runs off too quickly. Using the bucket method, you know exactly how much your tree is getting.”

SacTree staff experimented and found a single 1/8-inch hole – located on the bucket’s side about 1 inch above the bottom – was most effective. On the bottom, the hole got clogged with dirt. Multiple or bigger holes, the water drained too fast.

Cover the hole with tape, fill the bucket, put in place, then remove the tape.

Place the bucket close, within a foot of the trunk, to newly planted trees; their root ball still hasn’t spread out. Alternate sides with each bucket application. As the tree grows, move the bucket farther away from the trunk. The feeder roots that need the extra water most are located along the dripline at the edges of a tree’s canopy.

The bucket method can get the whole family involved in helping trees and saving water.

“We’ve worked with lots of schools, using buckets to water trees,” Sanchez said. “Classrooms adopt a tree, decorate a bucket, take it out on a wagon. It’s just the cutest thing!”

For more tree tips: .

For more water-saving tips:


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 19:

Spring will start a bit soggy, but there’s still plenty to do between showers:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Watch out for aphids. Wash off plants with strong blast from the hose.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to fight blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees as they start to blossom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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