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Water Wise Gardening

When those raindrops stop falling, and temperatures soar, it's time to come to the rescue of your fading flowers and thirsty vegetables.

Whether you’re experiencing just a short dry spell or struggling with a deepening drought, there’s plenty you can do to help your plants survive and even thrive during the dog days of summer.

Good Neighbors
Put plants with similar water requirements together. You’ll be able to “water smart,” which means you won’t waste moisture on plants that don’t need it or neglect plants that do.

Annuals and vegetables are usually fairly high maintenance, when it comes to water. They need a lot and they need it often. Herbs are fairly drought-tolerant; lawns are always thirsty; and flowering shrubs such as roses, need more water than sturdy evergreens. Container plantings usually require frequent watering because there’s not much soil in which to store moisture. Add water retentive polymers to the soil when potting up a container garden to minimize the number of times you need to water. You can pick up this product at your local garden center. All you need is a small spoonful or two of polymers for a container of soil.

Here is a list of heat tolerant annual flowers that will stay bright and showy no matter how steamy it gets: calliopsis, cockscomb, dusty miller, lantana, Mexican sunflower, nierembergia, portulaca, salvia, sunflowers, vinca and zinnia.

Watering Can

Go Native
Native plants are flowers, trees and shrubs that have evolved in a region over thousands of years, adapting to the changing environment. They’ve thrived on their own their own for centuries, through all kinds of weather extremes. When it comes to low maintenance you can’t go wrong with a native plant. Because they are tough, they can sometimes become garden thugs, so before you plant a variety check with a local garden center or cooperative extension to make sure it is not considered invasive. A few of my favorites for sunny flower borders are: blanket flower, black-eyed Susan, baptisia, Joe-pye weed, liatris, purple coneflower, goldenrod, penstemon and coreopsis.

Mulch
To a plant, organic mulch is nature’s sunscreen. By covering exposed ground with a 3 to 4 inch layer of shredded hardwood, leaves, bark, peat moss, straw, compost or grass clippings, you add a protective layer that keeps the soil cool, conserves water by reducing evaporation and discourages weeds. A red flag that you need to add mulch is soil that tends to crust or crack, especially after a rain or watering.

Mow Smarter
Taller grass shades the ground from sun and helps keep moisture in the soil. It also encourages deeper root networks, helping your lawn withstand drought and disease. For cool-season grasses, such as Kentucky bluegrass, tall fescue and perennial ryes, mowers should be set at 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 inches. Warm-season grasses, such as zoysia and Bermuda, should be maintained at 2 inches.

Watering
It breaks my heart to see someone standing in a yard, hose in hand, spraying plants with water. This won’t begin to quench a plant’s thirst. A really long, slow drink of water every 3 to 7 days is much more beneficial because it allows moisture to get all the way down to the root.

If you are conserving water, it’s best to devote your attention to your most recently planted trees and shrubs. Those planted this spring, and even 2 and 3 years ago have yet to establish a strong root system. Deep soak these plants every 10 days.

Deep soaking can be done with an ordinary garden hose set on a slow trickle. They key is to apply small amounts over a couple of hours. Or you can place a five-gallon bucket with 4 to 5 tiny holes in the bottom near the trunk. Fill the bucket with water and it will slowly drip around the tree over time. You will need to apply 5 gallons for every year the tree has been in the ground, up to a maximum of 20.

A lawn requires 1 1/2 inches of water per week to stay actively growing. If your community is under watering restrictions, you may have to let your lawn go thirsty. Most varieties of grass will go dormant and turn brown, but when rains return they usually recover.