Water is like gasoline: you don’t miss it until it’s gone. Benjamin Franklin succinctly stated it this way: “When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.” So, while you may not be contemplating a hot, dry, sun-baked summer now, it’s important that you create and maintain a landscape that can stand up to whatever’s in store for us this summer.
Having experienced several years of drought, I no longer grieve for my withered, drought-stricken plants. I reflected on those losses, which I distilled into the following list of “8 landscape lessons learned from living with summertime droughts”:
- Select plants that match the conditions in your landscape. Besides meeting a plant’s requirements for sunlight, be mindful of dry and wet areas in the landscape. Select plants that will thrive in those conditions. Also, group plants together according to their requirements for water. Divide your landscape into “hydrozones,” which allow you to water more efficiently. Plants in the lower water use zone receive less frequent—if any—water than those in the high water use zone. For more information, see HGIC 1717, Plants that Tolerate Drought.
- Add organic matter to the planting area. It improves air and water movement in clay soil and acts like a sponge to retain moisture and minerals in sandy soils.
- Mulch. A two- to four-inch layer of mulch conserves moisture, suppresses weeds, and enhances plant growth.
- Water new plantings regularly until they become established. Spring-and summer plantings are especially vulnerable to perishing from a lack of water during their “growing-in” period. During the first few weeks, water often enough to keep the soil moist. Then, start cutting back on watering to every few days or longer. Eventually, water on a weekly or “as needed” basis by testing the soil and rootball for moisture until the plants become established.
- Avoid excess watering. This applies to edibles, ornamental flowers, shrubs, and trees, and lawns. This is not only wasteful, but overwatering can also leach nutrients out of the soil, promote disease, and inhibit root growth.
- Install a drip or microsprinkler irrigation system. They are simple to install and use less water than conventional irrigation systems.
- Avoid heavy applications of fertilizer to your plantings. Heavy applications of fertilizer will result in a lot of soft, lush top growth that will have to be supported by regular applications of water. Keep your plants “lean, green, and mean” to help them deal with summertime stresses.
- Go on vacation next summer and forget about it. Heed the advice of the world-famous American horticulturist Liberty Hyde Bailey (1858-1954): “I stayed home from a vacation one summer that I might keep my plants from dying. I have since learned that if the plants in my borders cannot take care of themselves for a few weeks, they are of little comfort to me.”