Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Hot Days and Dry Nights: A Florida Summer '16 Tale

The City of Clermont, FL, is lovely this time of year. And by lovely I mean oppressively hot and, oddly enough for summer, exceedingly dry. I know because I traveled there recently at the request of UF/IFAS Extension Agent Brooke Moffis. Ms. Moffis required technical assistance with some residential irrigation systems and such matters, as part of the Dukes research group, are my specialty.

green on green on green in Clermont, FL.
Situation: Dying Turf
Residential Horticulture Agent Moffis wears many hats in Lake County. In this instance, she elected to assist a handful of homeowners in a verdant, sprawling Clermont community beset by failing, distressed turfgrass. There are many reasons why turf might fail in the landscape: poor soil, fungus, pests, insufficient irrigation, etc. On that day my task was to assess the latter, while Agent Moffis gathered soil samples to ascertain the status of the former.

A Thing or Two about Residential Irrigation
If you own an automated irrigation system, what is the one thing you should do at least once a month to stay on top of system malfunctions? A wet-check!

What follows is the irrigation assessment procedure I executed in Clermont:
  • Note the irrigation programming (does it make sense/abide by area watering restrictions?)
  • Note the presence and functionality of a rain shut-off device
  • Turn on each zone and walk through looking for breaks, leaks, obstructions, and coverage quality
  • Note plant life and/or sprinkler head type mixing within zones
Proper irrigation scheduling is critical to water-use efficiency and landscape health
Life is full of surprises. And these five systems I evaluated that day had several in store. Namely, someone took the time to design the zones by plant type (turf and ornamentals kept separate) and the mixing of sprinkler types within zones was non-existent! Both of these design factors allow for precise scheduling of irrigation run times and frequency.

Backyard in extreme distress
One Piece of the Puzzle
In Clermont, however, irrigation was only one part of the story. As I mentioned above many variables can lead to dead or unhealthy turfgrass. At some of these locations the culprit was clear: summer. In a typical year, summer in Florida is considered the rainy season. Temperatures peak but rainfall does as well. This has not been the case for summer 2016. 
A glimpse at monthly averages from a weather station in Lake County (courtesy UF/IFAS FAWN)
July was especially cruel in Lake County - temperatures consistently in the 90s with minimal rain in between. Couple this with scant shade and poor irrigation coverage in the landscape and the result is dry, wilting turf. For the locations where insufficient moisture was the driving factor, sizable early August rain events were already having a positive impact.

On the mend: turf hot-spots filling in following consistent rain events
Expanding the Agent Toolkit
In addition to a newfound appreciation for residential irrigation in Clermont, that day I also discovered that there is eagerness among Extension Agents for basic irrigation system auditing skills. Agent Moffit expressed interest and I am pleased to report that there are plans in motion to develop such trainings.

UF/IFAS Miami-Dade's Morgan Hopkins in action 
“The idea is to create an irrigation assessment toolbox so that when an agent steps on a property they can identify major issues like poor coverage, timer scheduling or no rain sensor shut-off,” said Miami-Dade FYN Agent Morgan Hopkins (part of a group developing an irrigation In-Service Training (IST)). “They should have the resources and correct information with which to assess an irrigation system.”    

Serving the public: UF/IFAS Extension Agent Brooke Moffis with soil samples 
Watch this space for news on the developing irrigation IST. Keep up with Brooke Moffis' work in Central FL via her newspaper column or UF/IFAS Lake County Extension calendar.

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