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.