In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
January, 2012
Regional Report

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Take steps now to help your garden survive a drought.

Prepare for Drought

The forecasters are predicting another serious drought for the 2012 season. December and January were the driest ever recorded since experts have been keeping these kinds of statistics. No measurable rain and no snow pack in the Sierras means that we will have water rationing down the line. At the very least it means we will have to pay more for the water we use.

The drought in the '80's encouraged people to rethink their gardening practices. Smaller lawns, planting drought resistant varieties, more effective irrigation systems, and mulching are all techniques used to utilize and preserve our precious water resources.

Here are some steps you can take now to help your garden survive a year or more of drought conditions.

Mulch, Your First Line of Defense
The very first thing you should plan on doing is to lay down a deep layer of mulch. It doesn't make any difference what kind of mulch you use; thick pads of newspaper, ground bark, tree chippings, even old carpets will help conserve the moisture in the ground. This one simple step will do more to conserve water than all the other tricks combined.

Mulch shades and protects the surface of the soil and will prevent weeds from growing. Weeds rob vital moisture from desirable plants.
Mulch also prevents water from evaporating from the soil surface. By keeping the soil shaded and cool, the water you do use will go directly to where it is needed -- to the roots.

Winter Watering to Drive Roots Deep into the Soil
Shrubs and trees are the backbone of your garden. Protect them by encouraging the roots to grow deeply into the soil. It is very important to water now, during winter, when rain would normally provide ample moisture and soak the soil. Roots do not grow in dry soil but will follow water as it travels down through the ground. By watering deeply now the roots will grow down into the ground and join the natural water table. (The water table is the upper surface of groundwater.) During years of drought the water table goes deeper into the soil leaving roots stranded in the dry zone.

I like to use soaker hoses to deeply water trees and shrubs. Place the hoses around the drip line and allow water to run overnight to achieve deep penetration. This method of watering will make up for the lack of natural rainfall. It may seem silly, but watering while it is raining is the most effective way to get supplemental water to penetrate deeper into the ground.

Container plants will need special care. Double potting will prevent the soil from drying too quickly. When planting, select two pots of consecutive sizes, planting in the smaller of the two. Wrap the small pot with burlap or newspaper, then place inside the larger pot. The liner will act as an insulator and prevent moisture from evaporating through the porous material. Top dress pots with a thick layer of mulch. Plastic pots are more effective in preserving moisture than terra cotta.

Rethink and Tweak Irrigation Systems
Automatic irrigation is a blessing and a curse. When everything is working correctly it is fantastic. However, you need to keep an eye out for things like blocked heads and sprinkler direction to get the most out of automatic irrigation during a drought. Set it and forget it just doesn't work. Weekly, or at least monthly, inspections of the entire system are necessary for optimal water delivery. A sprinkler head slightly out of kilter will deliver water to the driveway instead of your thirsty plants. Turn on the system and check for blocked nozzles, missing sprinkler heads and correct direction. Also, it is best to water during the early morning hours to avoid evaporation by the sun or misdirection of water by wind.

I'm sure we will be addressing this issue in the upcoming season. Take time to prepare your garden now to ensure its survival later. And remember -- lawns are dispensable, so don't feel badly if you lose yours to drought. A brown lawn is a sign of responsible water management.

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