Ask Burton: Q: I have a sprinkler system in my yard and I need to know what to set it for so I can put the yard out of my mind all winter. How long should I water, and how often during the winter once the temperatures really cool down?

A: Any hard and fast number to set your sprinkler on all winter long would automatically be wrong, but here are some rules to work by:

  1. Trees, shrubs, and lawn don’t need frequent watering in a normal winter. Established trees and shrubs are likely fine without much irrigation for the winter. Water established plantings the day before a hard freeze or ice storm, and make sure your shrub beds are getting water from rain or sprinkler at least every ten to fourteen days in colder weather. We recommend automatic lawn sprinklers be turned to manual and run only as needed.
  2. New plantings still need more water, but not all that often. If in doubt, poke your finger in the ground and check. If the soil is moist to the touch, leave it alone – if it’s cool and dry to the touch, soak the bed.
  3. Bedding plants need a bit more yet. The water your cool season color, such as pansies, require will vary quite a bit depending upon the temperature. You’re likely to need to water a pansy bed anywhere from twice a week in warmer winter weather, to as infrequently as every week to ten days during cold spells. Again, check the soil for moisture, and soak thoroughly if the soil is dry, or before extended freezing weather. To avoid disease issues, it’s better to run your pansies a little on the dry side if you’ve any question whether they need water.

Other than the flowerbeds, just keep an eye on the weather, because you’re not likely to need to water all that much on anything established – typically, we only need to run a sprinkler system two or three times across the course of a normal winter, unless the winter is unusually dry from lack of rainfall.

Burton specializes in diagnosing and solving plant problems. If you have a question for Burton, please email him at and include photos showing the problem.