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GARDENING IN A DROUGHT

By Dr. Leonard Perry  
Extension Greenhouse and Nursery Crops Specialist
University of Vermont

With a drought affecting much of the north country, smart gardeners are finding ways to garden using less water. In addition to using proper watering practices, or collecting and recycling water, there are also some cultural tips you can follow for water-wise gardening.

Cultural Practices

--For flowers and vegetables, use wider spacing to reduce competition for soil moisture, mulching in between plants.

--Use three to four inches (after settling) of organic mulch (pine bark, straw, or similar) to prevent soil from drying and losing moisture to the air. Keep mulch away from trunks and off the top of desirable perennials. Using plastic mulches around shrubs or in vegetable and annual flower gardens in which plants are spaced regularly can help as well. Or place thick layers of newspapers in rows, covered lightly with mulch.

--Incorporate organic matter into the soil, which will aid in water retention. Compost also adds nutrients, but breaks down faster than peat moss--another common amendment. Peat moss lasts longer in the soil, at least a year or more, but adds few nutrients and acidifies the soil (which is easily corrected with liming).

--Fertilize less, both less in amount and less often, and avoid applying too much high nitrogen fertilizer. Too much nitrogen results in excessive growth and increased need for water by lawns and plants. Organic fertilizers provide less nitrogen to the soil and usually release it slower over a longer period, as well as help improve soil humus, which helps hold water.

--Choose and place plants properly. Don't select plants that prefer moist conditions, and place them in a dry area. Choose plants more resistant to drought. These include many other plants in addition to cacti and succulents, such as those with deep taproots (baptisia or false lupine), thick storage roots (daylilies), or waxy coated leaves (sedum). Perennial flowers need water when newly planted, but once established require much less water than annual flowers. Native plants may be a good choice as well.

--Don't apply pesticides that might cause injury to stressed plants, or which in heat need to be watered in.

--Avoid pruning when plants are stressed and not growing and are thus unable to heal wounds quickly. Pruning also may stimulate side shoots and more growth, creating the need for more water.

--For evergreens, use antitranspirant sprays on leaves to help prevent water loss. Or erect windbreaks around such plants, if they're small or new and in a windy area. Burlap strung between posts is effective. For routinely windy sites, consider planting a more permanent windbreak of spruces, firs, or other evergreens to screen other plantings.

--Use hoeing and soil cultivation of weeds sparingly. Continually disturbing the soil surface will result in it drying out much faster. You may have to cut weeds off at the soil surface, or use contact or systemic herbicides and save the cultivation until drought conditions ease. At least the bright side is that under drought, weeds won't grow as fast either! But keep weeds down, as they compete with more desirable plants for water.

Container plantings

--Move container plants to more shaded areas, so the soil won't dry out as quickly.

--Use pottery containers that are glazed on the outside, which prevents much water loss. Or use plastic containers, which, if unattractive can be set 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 as often and requiring watering daily or more often.

Lawns

--Leave grass clippings after mowing to act as mulch and recycle nutrients and some moisture.

--If seeding lawn areas, or repairing areas, use drought resistant grass types such as fine fescues.

--If water is not available, allow grass to go dormant. Unless there are extreme conditions for a long period, grass usually will begin growing again once conditions improve.

--Don't mow grass when it is dormant and not growing. Even when growing, set the mower height at two to three inches high. High mown grass develops deeper root systems that are better able to withstand drought.

If water is restricted or in short supply, give highest priority to the following:

--Newly planted trees, shrubs, and perennials

--Newly seeded lawns or repaired lawn areas

--Plants on sandy soils or windy and exposed sites

--Vegetables when flowering

For current information on drought conditions, log onto the National Drought Mitigation Center Website at www.enso.unl.edu/ndmc/watch/watch.htm or the University of Massachusetts' drought information Website at www.UmassDroughtInfo.org.



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