Drought (or Low Rainfall) Gardening
By ISU Extension & Outreach Linn County Master Gardener, Becki Lynch
Although our area is not officially in a drought, we have not experienced such low rainfall for at least 10 years, and we are classified as borderline at this time – so, folks may want to start thinking about their priorities for watering our gardens and landscapes.
First, any newly planted trees, shrubs, and perennials will need to be the priority as their root systems are not developed enough to withstand the dry conditions.
Second, new lawns or repaired lawns –although if the cost was not prohibitive, you may want to try again when conditions change. Roots on new grasses are extremely shallow. Be sure to seed with drought resistant grasses like fine fescues.
Third, plants on sandy soils, windy sites, or other exposed areas. If you have planted matched plants for these conditions, you will have already placed drought resistant shrubs, trees, and plants, and so will not need to supplement the water immediately.
And fourth, be sure to supplement water for any flowering vegetables as this is the time they are setting their fruit.
What about the lawn? If water is not available, you can allow grass to go dormant. Unless conditions are extreme for a long period, it will usually begin growing again once conditions improve. Also, don’t mow grass when it is dormant and not growing. Even when growing, set the mower height at 2 to 3 inches high. High mown grass develops deeper root systems that are better able to withstand drought.
Also, here are some tips for watering and general gardening that will help conserve and make the best use of the water we have.
• Water in the early morning, when there is less heat and wind, and so less water lost to evaporation.
• Don’t use overhead sprinklers, which may lose over half the water on a hot day to evaporation. Instead use manual watering, soaker hoses or drip systems. Cover these with mulch, and they lose even less water to the air, and are invisible.
• Water deeply and less often rather than for shorter periods more often. Lawns and bedding plants should be watered to at least 6 inches deep. Perennials, shrubs and trees should be watered to at least 12 inches deep.
• Water established plants only if "really" needed and once they begin to wilt. Many perennials and woody plants may wilt, and not perform best if dry, but will survive.
• For flowers and vegetables, use wider spacing to reduce competition for soil moisture, mulching in between plants.
• Use 3 to 4 inches (after settling) of organic mulch (pine bark, straw or similar) to prevent soil from drying and losing moisture to the air.
• Incorporate organic matter into the soil, which will aid in water retention.
• Fertilize less, both less in amount and less often, and avoid too much high nitrogen fertilizer.
• Choose and place plants properly. Don’t choose plants that prefer moist, and place them in a dry area. And choose plants more resistant to drought. Native plants are an excellent choice.
• Don’t apply pesticides that might cause injury to stressed plants, or in heat, or that need to be watered in.
• Avoid pruning when plants are stressed and not growing.
• Use hoeing and soil cultivation of weeds sparingly. Continually disturbing the soil surface will result in it drying out much faster. But keep weeds down, as they compete with more desirable plants for water.
• Move container plants to more shaded areas.
• Use pottery containers that are glazed on the outside, which prevents much water loss. Or use plastic containers, or set plastic containers if unattractive into more attractive outer pottery ones.
• Don’t crowd too many plants into containers, or use large containers for large plants. This will help keep them from drying out so often, and requiring watering daily or more often.
Resource – University of Vermont Extension, 2011
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