Garden Survival Strategies for Dry Times
It’s now official – more than half of the United States is in moderate to severe drought, and it will likely spread to other areas. The news is dominated by images of endangered crops, livestock without water or feed being sold off, wildlife without water or cover and, with the recent searing heat waves over much of the country, seemingly unceasing human misery. It’s heart wrenching to watch.
This has been on my mind a lot lately, not because I live in a part of the country that’s affected, but because I’m from California, the land of droughts, and worked for a large water utility during the catastrophic drought of 1976-77 as well as a number of less serious droughts over the years. In 1977, the shortage was so acute that rationing was instituted, only 50 gallons of water per person per day with all outdoor water use prohibited. It was a bleak and very confusing time; these were the days when high water users actually got a price break – the more you used, the less you paid – a concept that seems unthinkable now. Daily habits underwent a profound change.
My job was to drive my little Ford Maverick company car around the streets of Berkeley looking out for water waste and to offer support and assistance where I could. Water conservation was a new concept. We were quite ill-equipped to mount a sophisticated water savings campaign, and were mostly flying by the seats of our pants. We were still at the brick-in-the-toilet stage, and I recall keeping a supply of nickel-sized flow restrictors in my pocket to give out to customers to place in their faucets. We did eventually develop some useful strategies and, as reality sunk in, our customers contributed excellent ideas.
For municipal water suppliers, the biggest challenge of drought is to help residential customers drastically cut their water use, and landscape usage always tops the list. Short of leaks in indoor plumbing, watering the garden accounts for the largest amount of water use in individual homes. When a drought is severe enough, choices have to be made about what plants are saved and what are let go.
Check with your local water company for guidelines on lawn irrigation. You may be under alternate day watering regimes, but I can almost guarantee you that there will be some kind of limitations.
Saving Trees and Shrubs
If you have to choose between saving your lawn and established trees and shrubs, don’t despair. Lawn often rebounds when let go dry, but trees and shrubs, especially those that received the benefit of extra water from lawn irrigation, are at high risk of death. The loss of a large tree can have a significant impact on the landscape, especially if it’s a tree that provides shade for your home. It’s relatively easy and inexpensive to put in a new lawn, but replacing large, mature trees and shrubs will take years.
One of the most straightforward ways to save trees and shrubs is to provide a slow delivery of water deeply into the ground by using a soaker hose. Made of recycled tires, these are widely available in a variety of lengths, inexpensive and very effective. Coil the hose in concentric circles just inside, at and beyond the drip line of the plant. (The drip line is where the canopy of the tree ends.) If your soil is dry and rock hard, you may want to drill some 1 inch holes every two feet or so around the perimeter of the plant or gently rough up the soil with a garden fork. If you do drill holes, fill them with mulch. Cover the hose with a 3 inch layer of mulch, and let it run all night. The goal is to moisten the soil to root depth, approximately 2 feet. A soil probe is a good investment to make because it gives you a clear idea of just how moist or dry your soil is. You want to reach the first two feet of root mass, where the majority of feeder roots lie.
Be especially vigilant of shallow rooted shrubs like aAzaleas and r Rhododendrons as well as plants that grow around the perimeter of your lawn. They are particularly vulnerable during drought. Create basins around these plants and apply water very slowly to avoid runoff.
You’ve heard this from me before, but it bears repeating: mulch, mulch, mulch. Applying a 3 inch layer of mulch will work wonders. It’s best to apply it after the ground has been saturated. It can mean the difference between life and death for your landscape.
Container plants have special needs. Because of their limited space, the roots of these plants have nowhere to go to seek out water, and are thus completely dependent on us. The combination of limited water and extremely high temperatures can be a death warrant.
If they aren’t too big, consider dipping them in a large bucket of water until the root ball is saturated. You’ll be shocked to see how dry these root balls can be despite your efforts to water them regularly with a hose or can, even a drip system. Once they’re dipped, arrange all the containers in one place, with the smaller ones in the center and the larger ones, with more soil and mass, around the perimeter. Having them all together will not only markedly reduce evaporation but will also make it lots easier to monitor and take care of them. Once the drought eases, back they can go to their usual spots throughout the landscape.
Way back in the '70’s my customers came up with some novel, even ingenious ways to save by diverting water from household use. One of the most common is to keep buckets in bathtubs and showers to collect cold water before it heats up for bathing. This water can be hauled out into the garden to spot water any plants that may be under stress. Same goes for the kitchen sink. Think about the water used to wash vegetable and fruits. Think about rinsing greens in salad spinners. You could end up with several gallons of perfectly wonderful water that could keep plants right outside the kitchen door alive and healthy.
What ideas have you come up with to deal with the effects of drought on your own garden? Does your own water company have useful and effective strategies? We’d love to hear about them.
This time of year I can’t stay out of my garden. I guess I just don’t want to miss a thing that’s going on right now. Flowers swarming with native bees and other pollinators, visits by several species of butterflies, and the birds are everywhere. I look at this as my reward for keeping my garden toxin-free, a place where the needs of wildlife come first. I recall the words of a teacher from years back: when you garden naturally, you sustain the environment, sustain habitat, and in the process you sustain yourself.
It’s been quite warm recently, in the mid-70s, in my usually foggy neighborhood, and that’s when the insects are most active here. In the windy front garden, the flowers of the buckwheats, Eriogonum giganteum (St. Catherine’s Lace), Eriogonum fasciculatum (California buckwheat), and Eriogonum grande var. rubescens (red-flowered buckwheat) are covered with the most amazing array of native bees imaginable. California has over 1600 species of bees, with more than 65 of them right here in the Bay Area. Because they’re solitary creatures and have no territory to defend, they do not sting, and it’s possible to get up as close as you wish to watch their industrious extraction of nectar from the flowers.
The bees are also extraordinarily fond of Monardella villosa (coyote mint), and it’s the rather flashy and very entertaining bumblebees that dominate this plant. There are surely many more pollinator species such as wasps and flies on these and other plants. I like knowing that they’re providing sustenance to critters I can’t even see.
A pale swallowtail butterfly has been spending lots of time in both front and back gardens, and there are tiny skippers galore fluttering nearly everywhere I look. From the kitchen window overlooking the rear garden I see the swallowtail wafting from plant to plant, stopping at the Buddleja davidii ‘Lochinch’ (butterfly bush) before she drifts to the huge Sambucus Mexicana (western elderberry), heavy with cream-colored umbels and feasting insects. A huge Callistemon citrinus (bottle brush) that came with the house is in nearly perpetual bloom and an absolute favorite of untold numbers of insects and birds. Hummingbirds fight over its blossoms, and just the other day when it was close to 80 degrees back there, I watched a small flock of bushtits emerge from beneath a blanket of Vitis californica ‘Roger’s Red’ (California grape) that has managed to cover part of the plant. They were using it as a canopy to protect them from the warmth of the sun!
On warm afternoons I spray water on the plants I know the birds love, and they come in droves to bathe and preen. The bushtits also spend a great deal of time in an Abutilon ‘Nabob’ (flowering maple) just two feet from me under the kitchen window. Right behind and towering over the elderberry, a 30-foot Syzygium paniculatum (Australian brush cherry) that began life as a tidy hedge 60 years or so ago in my neighbor’s garden is now a massive scramble of impenetrable branches that creates the perfect habitat for untold numbers of birds. A young male mockingbird has been perched on the very top branch singing his heart out for many weeks. The northern towhees, always the first ones up and the last to turn in, also adore this spot and use it as a launching pad for their endless searching throughout the garden. Overlooking all of this activity is a phoebe, or flycatcher, with several favorite vantage points throughout the garden from which she surveys the area for her next insect meal. What a thoughtful guest!
For wildlife, though, the two stars of the garden are the huge Salvia mexicana ‘Limelight’ (Limelight sage) and the exuberant Verbena bonariensis beyond. I can sit at my front window and watch the hummers dive bomb one another to gain control of the salvia. If it’s warm, the blossoms it will be covered with bees. The real fun comes as the summer ends and flowers begin to fade.
In salvias, the flower has two parts called the calyx and the corolla. The calyx is the cup-like part that holds the seeds as well as the two-lipped corolla, or flower. When the flower dies, the seeds are visible at the bottom of the calyx. It’s these tiny seeds that draw flocks of goldfinches to the plant. I know they’ve arrived when I see the entire plant begin to shake as they endeavor to loosen those tasty morsels. It’s quite a sight to behold. By deadheading about half the faded flower heads I can keep the bloom going until past Thanksgiving and still have lots of seed heads. Much the same thing happens with the verbena, and as the flowers die and the seed heads ripen, goldfinches will feast on them throughout the winter, hanging on as the tall stems bend with the wind.
How did this wildlife garden evolve? When I first moved into my small cottage 7 years ago, my main interest was drought-tolerant plants. I was determined to get rid of the existing St. Augustine grass lawn by sheet mulching and replace it with what I imagined would be a stunning display of plants perfectly adapted to my neighborhood’s foggy, breezy, and quite cool climate. From the top of my block you look directly at the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge where, as a friend once observed, the wind blows straight in from China. In summer the days usually begin enveloped in fog, somewhere in the 50s. The fog will burn off, and it will warm up into the high 60s, even 70s, until the fog rolls in come evening.
As happens to many garden dreams, this one gradually changed as I became increasingly aware of the importance of natural gardening, planning and planting to attract beneficial wildlife. I no longer enjoyed having plants that didn’t meet that need. I developed an increasing interest in California native plants that are adapted to coastal conditions and found that I not only liked their look but also their strong relationship with insects.
You’ve heard me go on and on about giving up the indiscriminate toxins that destroy great varieties of insect populations, and I vowed never to use any kind of pesticide or herbicide here, a promise I’ve kept. If you choose to build a garden around the needs of wildlife, you do sacrifice a manicured look in exchange for a more natural one. Having a brush pile in a remote corner somewhere will provide shelter and food for birds. Providing water sources will multiply your wildlife population, but be careful – more birds, more cats. I spend a fair amount of time plotting to outwit a substantial population of neighborhood cats. They’re gradually learning to give the garden, and me, a wide berth. My own cat Sugar stays inside or lounges on the enclosed deck.
You do have to educate yourself about what plants attract what insects and birds in your area. It can be a complicated process, but well worth the effort. It will all begin to make much more sense to you after you gain confidence following one or two successful selections. For a practical guide, I frequently refer to The Xerces Society Guide Attracting Native Pollinators to find out more about these intimate relationships between insects and plants. Look to local sources of information for the most reliable plants.
Two books about wildlife and natural gardening have influenced me deeply and I recommend them as a starting point. Not surprisingly, they both chronicle personal gardening journeys. Noah’s Garden, by Sara Stein, is a pioneering book by a biologist who moved from city to country and had to fight against the accepted norms of heavy usage of pesticides and herbicides. In his wonderful book Bringing Nature Home, Douglas Tallamy makes a compelling case for gardening with native plants in order to attract native insects, which then of course attract birds.
My own garden contains about one-half California native plants and one-half Mediterranean natives, and about 80% of them attract something. Do you have a wildlife garden? Let us know about how you got started and what your favorite plants are.