By JESSICA DAMIANO – Associated Press
Many people try to save water just to do the right thing (and save money too). But when a severe drought hits and state and local governments enforce restrictions, water conservation becomes non-negotiable.
So far this summer, nearly 65% of the United States and Puerto Rico have experienced “unusually dry” weather, according to the US Drought Monitor. Almost 43% of these locations experience “moderate” drought and almost 47% experience “severe”, “extreme” or “extraordinary” drought. That means more than 109 million people live in drought conditions.
And many of them have plants or gardens to take care of.
Unfortunately, it’s a little late in the season to try two of the best ways to conserve water in the garden. First, rain barrels and other rain collection methods are of little use if there is no rain to fill them. Second, xeriscaping, the practice of planting drought-tolerant crops, many of which are native to a region, only works if those crops are already present. Consider both for next year.
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Native plants are well adapted to their climate and are more tolerant of adverse conditions such as drought. For example, in California, where about 98% of the state is affected by drought, plants like California poppy, California fuchsia, California lilac, and manzanita are among the best native xeriscape plants.
Check the EPA’s compilation of drought-tolerant plant resources, listed by state, at epa.gov/watersense/what-plant to find your best options.
CHOOSE WHICH PLANTS WILL BE WATERED
When gardening under water restrictions, prioritize which plants require the most water and which can be sacrificed if necessary. Newly planted trees and shrubs are high on the list of priorities. They need regular watering for their roots to become established, which can take a full year.
Older trees, especially fruit, nut, and ornamental trees, but also evergreen trees, can suffer from drought, so don’t forget about them.
Perennial flowers, which return year after year and are more expensive than annuals, should be next on the list, along with vegetables in the flowering and fruiting stages. Melons and squashes, which have deep roots, typically require less water than crops like corn, which have shallow roots.
Yearbooks, which are not long-term investments anyway, should be at the bottom of the list of priorities; crops with high water requirements, such as beans, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, corn, lettuce, and radishes; and plants that grow in pots, as they require more water than their in-ground counterparts. None are likely to thrive on what little water can be offered under prescribed restrictions.
Most plants require an average of 1″ to 1 ½” of water per week under normal conditions, which is just over half a gallon of water per square foot of garden area. However, this need could increase during times of extreme heat when the soil dries out more quickly.
Still, don’t apply the weekly water needs of your plants all at once. Split it up into two or three sessions a week, opting for deeper, less frequent waterings versus daily sprays that are wasteful and ineffective at root saturation. Deep watering also forms stronger, deeper roots that can better nourish plants when surface water is less available.
Avoid using overhead sprinklers that wet foliage, pavement, and other areas instead of directing water to plant roots. Instead, lay drip tubing or drip irrigation tubing on the soil just above the roots. Watering cans and hand hoses are also aimed at ground work.
Water only in the morning (or evening if absolutely necessary), but avoid midday when moisture is likely to evaporate before it reaches the roots.
Consider using so-called gray water, recycled household water, to water plants. Unsalted water left over from cooking eggs or vegetables provides a nutrient-dense bonus. Rinse and bath water that is not too soapy does not harm ornamental plants. Just don’t use it on edibles. And the water caught when rinsing fruits and vegetables can be used in the garden.
MORE THIRST REDUCING TIPS
Keep beds and borders free of weeds that will compete with your plants for water and nutrients. A 3-inch layer of bark mulch, wood shavings, or gravel around the plants prevents weed seeds from taking root, retains soil moisture, and keeps the soil cooler.
Raise the mowing blades to encourage deeper roots. Taller grass requires less water as it grows slowly and shades the ground. Repair or replace leaking hoses and bib connections.
Some don’ts: Avoid fertilizing crops during a drought; This may seem counterintuitive, but fertilizers encourage rapid growth, which increases water requirements. Avoid using weed killers, which tend to drift to other areas in hot weather. they are less effective at high temperatures anyway.
Don’t plant anything new and avoid pruning plants, which will stress them out and increase their water needs.
In the future, consider replacing the lawn with native ground covers. Incorporate generous portions of compost into beds and planting holes to improve water retention. Refer to plant labels for sun exposure requirements (shade lovers will need more water if overexposed to the sun). And use more native plants.
Next summer this might be easier.
Jessica Damiano is a regular contributor to The Associated Press about gardening. A master gardener and educator, she writes The Weekly Dirt newsletter and creates an annual wall calendar of daily gardening tips. Message her at firstname.lastname@example.org and find her at jessicadamiano.com and on Instagram @JesDamiano.
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