Trees are incredibly valuable and provide a wide array of benefits, from increasing home values to improving mental health. Unfortunately, Albuquerque has suffered large losses of trees in the past decade. It’s more important now than ever to take care of your existing trees.

A common sight on spring evenings is seeing people with their thumb on the hose, spraying the trunk of a tree. While it’s great to see people caring for their trees, there is a better way to water them.

Trees have several different types of roots that serve different functions. Fine hair feeder roots are responsible for taking up water. Because these feeder roots are generally located near the tree’s canopy edge, this is where you want to apply water: a little inside and a little outside of the canopy edge.


1. Hand watering

Turn your hose to a low flow or fast drip, so the water soaks into the soil before running off (try a hose end shut off valve). Set a timer and move the hose to different locations every 20 minutes starting 5 feet from the trunk to just outside the canopy edge. Small to medium trees will require watering at between 12 and 20 locations. Larger trees may need to be watered in sections over a few days.

2. Drip irrigation on desert friendly xeriscape

Growing healthy trees in a desert friendly xeriscape is possible using drip irrigation such as flag emitters. As trees grow, they require more resources in the form of soil rooting space and water. That means that as trees become established, drip irrigation emitters need to be shifted away from the original rootball (at the time of planting) out to the edge of the tree’s canopy. Additionally, the number and size (volume) of emitters needs to be increased as the tree grows. Most people don’t make these adjustments. Consider these strategies instead:

  • Plant an understory of groundcovers or flowering perennials within and beyond the tree’s canopy. The emitters used to water the groundcover plants will, in turn, water the tree. As the tree becomes larger it may eventually shade out the groundcovers, but the emitters should be kept in place to continue watering the tree.
  • Consider supplemental watering by hand in dry areas of your yard that are not covered by the drip irrigation system.
  • A similar strategy is to use professional landscape drip line (often referred to as netafim) in a grid or spirals in and outside of the tree’s canopy. This irrigation material requires less frequent maintenance and can be installed under mulch. As the tree matures, the drip line can be expanded and shifted to support the increasing needs of the tree. Understory plantings can also be used with this type of irrigation material.

3. Using sprinkler irrigation to water trees in a grass lawn

Most lawns in our area require nearly 40 inches of yearly irrigation to look good. So, it makes sense to plant a tree in the lawn to take advantage of all that water. Most of the large, beneficial trees in our city parks are grown like this. However, some species (like cottonwoods) respond to the shallow and frequent lawn irrigation by making shallow roots that protrude above the surface. These surface roots create tripping hazards. Damage to the tree can result from lawn mowers, too. Shallow roots also make the tree more susceptible to drought stress. Encourage tree roots to go deeper by occasionally (one-two times per month) running the lawn sprinklers for three or more cycles for a longer period. This will help to get water down deep, where it will remain in the soil longer and encourage roots to move deeper. Occasional deep watering in lawns also has the added benefit of flushing out salts accumulated from hard water and fertilizer.

Example of exposed surface roots.
Author: Amos Arber, ASLA, ISA Xeriscape Incentive Inspector with the Water Resources Division for the Water Authority. Have a question about the article