In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
July, 2008
Regional Report

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This courtyard provides privacy and a place to relax amidst water-thrifty plants.

Helping Plants Weather the Drought

It's been a hot summer. Heat wave after heat wave has rolled through the Bay area, the first one in April. We should have known then that it was going to be a bad year for both fires and drought. The few inches of rain we did receive over the winter was not enough to quench the thirsty ground.

The fire season started months earlier than in past years. Usually we don't see these kinds of fires until September or October. As of this writing in mid July, over 1,000 fires have raged through Napa, Solano, Yuba, and counties throughout our arid state. My heart goes out to people who have lost their homes and to the countless wild creatures that lost their lives as the continuous conflagrations rage out of control.

There is nothing I can do about the fire situation, but I can advise you on how to care for your garden during these periods of drought. Actually, the local governments are making water prohibitively expensive, so that alone will cut down on water usage. But if you want your good garden plants to survive, you need to follow a few tips.

Water Early or Late
First, it's very important to water in the early morning or late afternoon. The reason for this is that the water does not evaporate like it does during the heat of the day. I can't tell you how many times I have seen sprinklers running in the afternoon, or when the wind is blowing. Sometimes you have no choice but to water when it's windy, but usually the wind doesn't pick up until the afternoon. If you water in the early morning, you will avoid losing water to evaporation and wind.

Water Deeply
Secondly, it' s very important to water deeply but infrequently. Roots only grow where the soil is moist. If you train the roots of trees, shrubs, and even lawns to grow deep into the soil, you will not lose them when the county tells you that you have to cut back on watering. I like soaker hoses and use them to water trees and shrubs. For a more permanent installation for soaker hoses, cover them with mulch to protect them from the sun.

Use a watering wand for plants not covered by an irrigation system. Sometimes plants need the foliage washed to remove dust, but most of the time it's best to water the soil and avoid the foliage.

Cover Soil With Mulch
Another way to save water is to mulch. A 4-inch layer will keep the soil moist for days after watering. It's helpful to mulch the surface of container plants, too. Another way to prevent your containers from drying out quickly is to place an existing container inside a larger one, then stuff the void with newspaper. This does provide a haven for earwigs, so be on the lookout.

Hold the Fertilizer
Another way to help your plants during times of drought is to cut back on fertilizing. Plants that have been fertilized grow faster and therefore use more water. When you do fertilize, use organic fertilizers, such as liquid fish or cottonseed meal, that don't spur rapid growth.

Remember: It's not a sin to have a brown lawn if it means saving your trees. And it will rain again, so keep the faith.


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