Updated: Jun 1, 2022
The preparation and design process took weeks, the installation took days (or hours), and now it's all done! Well, not yet... The care your garden receives after installation is critical to the long-term success of your new landscape!
The natural soil in southeast Florida is generally sandy and limestone-based, but much of the soil around newer homes is compacted construction fill. Fill dirt is devoid of organic matter and very well-draining; most of the time, it's full of rocks and sand. This means most soils in residential areas have a very low water-holding capacity. They dry out very quickly, especially in hot weather, and this can be detrimental to plants that haven't established their root systems yet. Even drought-tolerant native plants take time to become established. The following is a typical watering schedule I recommend after installation, and should be regarded as a general guide, and not "one size fits all":
For wildflowers, small perennial plants, small shrubs and trees (installed at 1 and 3 gallon sizes):
Water every day, or every other day, for the first two weeks (for plants with a large tap root, like coontie or dune sunflower, reduce to the first week)
Third and fourth weeks: Water every 3-5 days.
For large shrubs and trees (installed at 7 gallon size and up):
Follow the guidelines above for the first month.
After the first month, gradually decrease irrigation to once a week for three more months.
Regardless of the size of the plant, a shadier landscape will retain moisture longer, so irrigation may need to be reduced. During the first year, continue to monitor signs of stress during prolonged periods of drought (See "Signs of Water-Related Stress" below). Also note the actual watering technique: this is not a leaf sprinkle, but a soil drench! Therefore, I suggest to my clients to initially water by hand with a hose, instead of relying on a sprinkler system, to make sure they deeply soak the root zone. This encourages deep root growth from the beginning. I don't recommend heavily fertilizing or trimming plants during this establishment period either; let them concentrate on establishing their root systems!
Signs of Water-Related Stress:
Crispy, brown leaves or leaf tips, and/or loss of leaves
Drooping, wilted, folded, or curled leaves - this is an attempt by the plant to reduce evaporation and a clear sign of drought stress
If the plants are not exhibiting any stress, don't worry about it! Once plants are established, only water at the first signs of drought stress (sometimes, a little stress is a good thing). Stressing plants out a bit forces them to "stretch" their roots searching for water; again, encouraging a deeper root system - just don't overdo it with newly installed plants.
Over-watering (plant roots need oxygen too!):
Some of the same signs as above (so confusing, right?), except generally soft and mushy, not crunchy and crispy
Yellowing leaves that fall off
An abundance of snails and slugs
The presence of mold, mildew, fungal, and bacterial diseases (that's a whole other blog post...)
If the signs above are happening in your new landscape, it's time to take a step back and listen to your plants. Depending on the season, you may or may not have to water at all! Dig a little into the dirt to feel for moisture - if it's constantly moist or wet, but the plant is exhibiting signs of stress, you may be overwatering. See more tips below.
Installation During the Dry Season (Winter/Spring)
During the winter - or more aptly described as our dry season (from about the end of hurricane season on November 30th to the beginning of May) - the days are shorter, nights are cooler, and water evaporates much slower. This also means the growth rate of plants have slowed down; and native plants, in particular, can go dormant. The general watering schedule described above may be a bit too much; initially watering every other day, or every two to three days, for the first two weeks could be fine. While March and April are included in this dry season, temperatures can be very hot during those months. You may need to keep a closer eye out for signs of stress and increase the irrigation schedule during those months.
Installation During the Wet Season (Summer/Fall)
Florida is well-known for its afternoon thunderstorms in the summertime. Luckily for the newly installed landscape, this means less manual watering. However, we are still looking for a soil drench, not a sprinkle, during the critical first four months after installation. The wet season is also hurricane season, and many young plants will not be strong enough to endure high winds. High winds are not the only problem - some weaker storms can dump so much water on an area, that the ground becomes completely saturated for days; even mature plants in the landscape can drown. We can't control everything, but I do prefer to install a landscape during the dry season, so the plants have some time to grow stronger before having to deal with the realities of south Florida living.
Once Plants are Established...
That's it! Native plants are well adapted to growing in our region without our help (as long as we abided by the "right plant, right place" rule!). In fact, over-irrigating a native landscape is one of the most common maintenance issues I observe with my garden clients. Over-watering can lead to increased pest issues, slower growth, and other problems (or eventual death of the plant). So, sit back and enjoy watching all of the new wildlife in your yard.
If this post was thoroughly confusing, welcome to gardening in south Florida!