If you live in an area which experiences periods of drought, you’re probably subject to watering restrictions. Fortunately, your landscape can be surprisingly resilient and drought tolerant using the measures I covered in Part 2 of this series which ensure your plants establish well and sink their roots more deeply into the ground.
Under extreme conditions, a drip irrigation bag – which I covered in Part 3 of this series – can help carry sensitive plantings through the worst of times.
Yet, it is often our urban lawns which suffer most when water runs short and temperatures soar. Although I garden in the heat of the Atlanta, Georgia area, I rarely provide supplemental water for my lawn. I follow some simple steps to strengthen my turf for those inevitable hard times, and you can do the same for your lawn too.
Setting Lawn Up for Drought Tolerance
By watering your mature lawn infrequently (as described in Part 2) yet deeply, you will increase it’s resiliency to surviving drought, because the grass roots will have grown down to where the soil is cooler and retains moisture longer than near the surface.
There are additional steps you can take to further develop drought-resiliency of your turf:
Improve the soil
I add a half-inch layer of compost as a top dressing to my lawn early every spring. One of the very best attributes of compost is its ability to hold moisture. Compost is a mix of organic matter, consisting of billions of microorganisms per tablespoon. Those microorganisms produce byproducts that are beneficial to other soil-dwelling creatures, while improving the soil texture and structure. The compost helps bind soil particles together and retain moisture to be available to lawn roots.
As the drier or drought period of your growing season approaches, begin to mow your grass to the top range of its preferred growing height. Taller shoots mean deeper roots. Also, the higher grass blades shade the soil surface, reducing evaporation of soil moisture.
Whenever you do mow, allow the grass clippings to remain on the lawn. The clippings return valuable nutrients and moisture to the lawn. This will improve your lawn health throughout the growing season – but especially during periods of drought-stress.
All lawns can benefit from core aerating, when done during seasons of active growth. Aeration aids in improving soil compaction and delivering oxygen to the roots of your grass. The open space also improves root expansion and provides voids for fertilizer and seed to go to without washing away. The plugs of soil (or cores) will, in a matter of a few weeks, disappear back into the ground, as they break down.
Don’t fertilize during the drought period itself.
There is a time and place for all things, and fertilizing is no exception. Providing fertilizer – whether compost, granular (like non-synthetic, nitrogen-based Milorganite®) or liquid – is an important step for lawn health. Yet, it can actually hurt your turf if applied during drought. As nature’s best defensive survival mechanism, grass slows or stops growing when subjected to extreme conditions. Supplemental nutrients will trigger your lawn to grow. If your lawn is stressed due to lack of water, you don’t want to add to that stress by triggering new growth. Your lawn will better survive drought if allowed to remain in a non-growth state.
In times of severest drought, know how to prioritize your water usage. Use that precious resource on your more delicate and expensive plants and trees. It may pain you to sacrifice your lawn, but grass is quick to recover and easiest to replace.
Additional Drought-Resiliency Care for Trees and Shrubs
Applying compost or other supplemental nutrients at the proper times throughout the lifecycle of your trees and shrubs too will decrease their dependence on supplemental watering as they develop. It will also better prepare them for periods of drought stress. The organic nutrients you add to your soil during spring and fall will feed the soil food web and improve the soil’s ability to hold water during summer heat.
As with your lawn, withhold supplemental nutrients during extreme conditions.
Don’t forget to prune for health and structure. Prune correctly and at the right time of year to prevent adding that stressor to your trees and shrubs. I have a lot of pruning tips here, on this site (search for “pruning”) and on my YouTube channel that can answer any questions you might have on the subject.
Planning to get away from it all at some point this growing season? You don’t want your gardening efforts to go to waste by allowing the health of your landscape to suffer.
Maybe you have a garden-savvy friend or neighbor who can help while you are away? That’s great! The longer you’re away, the more important this becomes. In fact, if you’re away for more than a week, find someone who can at least inspect your garden and report back to you, just in case!
But for all those times we don’t have that person, we need to think about our garden’s basic requirements and potential problems and plan accordingly. I provided some vacation preparation tips in a recent podcast on the subject.
Saving the Best for Last – Mulch
The single best thing you can do to improve your watering efficiency is to add mulch to your garden beds. I can’t stress enough the importance of mulch in waterwise gardening throughout the growing season.
Mulch insulates your garden soil, keeping the roots of your plants cooler and keeping the soil moist. A garden bed covered with a layer of mulch will require less supplemental watering. When you use a drip or soaker method buried under mulch, the mulch will prevent evaporation, so all the water can be taken up by the roots without waste.
There are additional benefits to mulch. If your beds aren’t planted tightly enough to prevent the sun from reaching the soil or if you have any open areas, that layer of mulch will block the sun from germinating weed seeds living in the soil. If your area experiences heavy rain, a layer of mulch protects your garden beds from soil erosion.
Mulch really is a winner all the way around. Just bear a couple of key things in mind:
- Depth is important. Keeping your layer of mulch at least 2” deep (more if possible) will provide the maximum bang for all the benefit “bucks” listed here.
- I recommend spreading mulch up to within about 2” of the base of your plants. It’s best not to mulch right up to the trunk, as that can create an easier path for pests and disease.
- The best time to apply mulch is in late-winter/early-spring before your plants have had a chance to leaf out. It’s easier to spread, and takes care of mulching before you get busy with your planting season.
Well that’s it – my 5-part series on waterwise gardening. I hope you have found the information in these posts to be helpful in your garden and landscape. If so, I’d love to hear about it. Please share your thoughts in Comments below.
What steps do you take to be efficient with your water? Please take a moment to share – we all become better gardeners when we learn from each other.
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