Laying Down That First Water: Please Do Not!

I’m gonna keep this short. Don’t. That’s right. Don’t. Keep this word and all of its negative¬†connotations in your head. When you are all excited, sitting at the central controller, ready to hit whatever form of on switch you have, remember my word—Don’t.

One of the biggest mistakes I see springtime turfgrass managers make is watering too much, too early. Here we are, spring springing all around us and it just seems like the thing to do, water a little bit. Just a little because it just feels better. I don’t know if it is a rite of passage, a trial of some sort or some kind of application of Tin Foil Mentality that says you’ll never get a dry spot if you water early. If I thought it was just some kind of occasional thing, I wouldn’t write about it, but it is almost universal. In fact, just to make it seem right, I did it too. I remember. That one windy spring day in Denver, where things started to turn a bit and after harassing my pump station, irrigation tech, computer setup and all the rest, we watered. Looking back, I can’t figure out why. As it turns out, a couple of isolation valves were closed and a couple holes didn’t get water for a few more days and guess what? That’s right. They didn’t die.

Are there exceptions? Yes. They are rare. Emerging Bermuda needs not to dry out as it gets going. I think most Bermuda Jockeys know this on some level. And one of things that USGA greens appreciate is a decent early season flush. That’s more to do with air in the rootzone.

As Spring springs, plant energies go into full swing. As does soil biological activity. Cool nights and warm days are just that. And in many parts of the country, some kind of rainfall is around the corner. It’s a great time to let roots go looking for water. It’s a great time not to impede natural evaporative cooling. It’s a great time to condition the plant that it is going to have to toughen up. Pre-Stress Conditioning is one of those highly overlooked things that great Turfheads do well.

For many places, Irrigation Water Quality is a challenge and so being in a hurry to add more salt to your soils just lacks common sense. There again, Don’t becomes the operative word.

To prove this point, I had one of my more irrigation trigger-happy friends purchase a soil moisture meter. He was astounded at the degree of change from morning to afternoon. Yet even more astounded at how much moisture was back after the overnight rise in relative humidity (the ratio of the amount of water vapor in the air at a specific temperature to the maximum amount that the air could hold at that temperature, expressed as a percentage). So at dawn, when the rH is at it’s highest, there was plenty of soil moisture and he didn’t have to add a drop of water. ET? Sure. It’s a factor, but when ET’s are low, it isn’t always the best idea to just trickle out some water.

For many places, Irrigation Water Quality is a challenge and so being in a hurry to add more salt to your soils just lacks common sense. There again, Don’t becomes the operative word.

So just a tip. When you think you want to water this spring. Think. Think hard. Don’t just make an easy choice. But at the same time, when it is time, it is time and that’s part of the Art of what we do. Everyone knows you have sprinklers under there. Don’t rush to use them.

7 Responses to “Laying Down That First Water: Please Do Not!”

  • Dave, you have never said more eloquent words. All of this talk about water conservation would be easy if more managers would just stick their probe in the ground and feel the soil. Yes, sensors do this more accurately and weather stations compute and project, but just squeeze the soil more often and you will save water and turf. I love to ask the question when I visit a superintendent “Do you have a soil probe handy?”. And when the mechanic brings it out to us from God knows where in the back corners of the shop, I always enjoy shining the rust off from it the rest of the day. The next time I ask it is in the cart……..

  • Jason Goss:

    Well said Dave. I always want to water too early until I start probing around. I found so much moisture yesterday that I would kill for in July, I cant believe I was about to start throwing water!

  • Andy Slack:


    I agree! You can never keep it off long enough, or turn it down enough in my belief! Most guys want to start watering too early in the spring, and don’t turn it down quickly enough in the fall when the weather changes and the shade becomes a factor.

  • Dave Wilber:

    Dave, you have never said more eloquent words.

    Eloquent? Me? Thanks for that Jon. I think. Words like Subtle and Eloquent are not always my usual descriptives.

    And I couldn’t agree more on the dangers of the rusty soil probe.

  • Jeff Johnson:

    I try to do the same thing, but when poa is wilting on the 25th of March, no rain in sight and the irrigation system isn’t pressurized it hard not to think that I need to irrigate our greens. When we do get the system up and running, deep and infrequent will be our goal. I hate thinking that I need water right now. Just another reason I hate poa and covering our greens to protect poa from winter.

  • Richard Lavine:

    Hi Dave,

    Glad to see you’re up and feeling better.

    While I agree with your basic premise, I have to respectfully disagree with you, or at least add some more exceptions to your advice.
    First off, on a previous course, I had a REALLY bad irrigation system, and very heavy clay soil. Our water, at that time was amongst the most expensive in the state. A decision to water, or not, could be a $1,000 decision, so early on, I would choose to wait; surely a spring time storm was only a few days away. But as I came to learn, rewetting that dry clay soil was difficult. In the areas lacking decent irrigation, this approach only started my summer dry spot area sooner. So, I learned to apply water judiciously, to keep the soil moist, and prevent the drying effect.
    The other issue at another course was water quality. We had high bicarbs and salt issues. Yea, the winter rains did drive the salts down, but the drying effects, and shorter rooting would cause wilting much sooner than one would expect. So here too, moisture, even with poorer quality water was a necessary choice.

    So all in all, your advice is good. But, each of us have our own conditions, and as I’m sure all would agree, a ‘one size fits all’ approach is not always the best approach.

  • Dave Wilber:

    While I agree with your basic premise, I have to respectfully disagree with you, or at least add some more exceptions to your advice.

    Now Rich, didn’t I say there are exceptions? There are. There always are. The situations you describe are common in your area. And as you well know, there are methods, techniques, products and practices to address the symptoms and the problems. Your comments are inspiration (thank you!) for a blog post about floculation and defloculation of soils, so…watch for that.

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