In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
April, 2007
Regional Report

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Help your garden survive drought by planning now.

Oh No! Not the "D" Word Again!

I heard on the news this morning that our rainfall is something like 10 inches below normal. Since we only get 33 inches in our short rainy season anyway, that means we are about two-thirds of normal. The dreaded "D" word was mentioned in the newscast.

Encouraging Deep Roots
April is the beginning of the irrigation season, and it's never too early to prepare your garden for drought conditions. If you have an automatic sprinkler system, turn it on and make sure all the nozzles and spray heads are free of debris and aimed in the right direction. How many times have you seen sprinklers watering the sidewalk? If the nozzles are plugged, it's relatively easy to unscrew the head, turn on the water, and blow out the obstructions. I find that those ugly earwigs like to overwinter in sprinkler heads. Use a toothpick or a twig to dislodge them from their winter quarters. Using wire or metal may change the spray pattern.

Years ago I was working for the Napa Parks Department, setting up the big percussion sprinklers at Shurtleff Park. Those are the big brass sprinklers that you plug into a quick coupler in the ground, the kind frequently used in baseball parks. The ground couplers are a little hard to find after an entire winter, but you can often feel them with your feet as you walk through the overgrown turf grass. Once you find the first one, the rest are easy because they are in a line along the ground. When the sprinklers are plugged in, you have to be quick to get out of the way before the cold water hits you in the back.

I found and plugged in the first sprinkler and as I twisted it home into the coupler, I felt the water surge. Then, nothing. I unplugged the thing from the ground and found a zillion tiny toads crowded into the brass pipe. To dislodge them, I blew into the nozzle end. The little toadies were very happy to be set free and hopped off in all directions.

But, I digress. When you set your sprinkler system, allow it to run for a longer period of time so the water penetrates deeply into the soil. Once you train the roots to grow deep, your plants will survive longer periods of drought and you won't have to water as frequently.

We still have the benefit of surface moisture and groundwater at the same level. If you looked at a cross section of earth right now, you would see that it is evenly moist all the way through. Later in the season, if you took the same cross section, you would see moisture near the surface, then a dry layer and finally, deep down, another layer of moisture. Ideally, you want the roots of your lawn (and all garden plants) to tap into that deep layer of moisture.

Mulch Goes a Long Way
Mulching should be mandatory in drought years. It prevents moisture from evaporating from the surface of the soil. If you look at a mighty oak tree growing in nature, you will see that over the years it has developed a deep layer of leaf litter under the canopy. If you simulate that type of environment in your garden, your plants will survive the long, dry summer.

In the 1980s we had mandatory water rationing, and brown lawns prevailed. Let's keep our fingers crossed that we don't have to "share a flush" again this year.


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