Gardens and landscapes nationwide are facing the one-two punch of record-breaking heat and drought. Although there’s nothing you can do to change the weather, there are a few things you can do to help your plants survive this challenge.
Some of the effects of drought are obvious: brown lawns, crispy leaves, smaller flowers and fewer fruits. Other effects are less obvious but just as dire:
- Prolonged drought weakens plants, making them more susceptible to insect and disease attack.
- If dry conditions continue into fall, plants may show a decrease in winter hardiness.
- The drought has caused a scarcity of food for some wildlife species, leading them into home landscapes in search of sustenance.
How are you dealing with the drought? Share your tips and techniques by adding a comment at the end of this post.
Is there a silver lining to the prolonged dry conditions? Perhaps. Many plant diseases, including late blight, are less destructive this year than in wetter growing seasons. And some entomologists think that decreases in populations of the invasive brown marmorated stink bug may be due, at least in part, to the hot, dry weather.
Here are some tips for helping plants survive heat and drought:
- Water deeply, but infrequently. A weekly deep soaking is better than daily sprinklings because it encourages deep roots and helps flush any salt build-up in the soil.
- Apply water right to the soil. Use drip irrigation, AquaCones, a tree bag or a soaker hose to water. Less water will be lost to evaporation compared to overhead watering. Use self-watering containers to provide a slow, steady supply of water to roots.
- Water slowly, so it soaks in rather than running off. Soaker hoses and a water timer make it easy to apply a deep, thorough soaking.
- Apply mulch. A 2″ to 3″ layer of bark mulch, shredded leaves or pine straw helps conserve moisture and insulates the soil, keeping it cooler than exposed soil. Apply mulch to the soil in container plantings, too.
- Stop fertilizing. Feeding plants encourages flushes of tender, thirsty growth, and the more a plant grows, the more water it needs. Avoid applying synthetic fertilizers to drought-affected plants, because excess fertilizer salts can accumulate in the soil if there isn’t sufficient rainfall to leach them out.
- Avoid heavy pruning of trees and shrubs. Like fertilizing, pruning stimulates new growth.
- If water rationing or costs force you to water selectively, focus your watering efforts on trees, shrubs and perennials. Most lawn grasses will survive periods of drought; they may turn brown and look dead, but in many cases the roots survive and will resprout. Learn more about how to water trees.
- Capture the rainfall you do receive. Rain barrels can capture a surprising amount of water from roof runoff. Learn more about how to install a rain barrel and how much water you can harvest from your roof.
- Keep a close eye out for pests. Drought-stressed plants are more susceptible to attack by insects and disease organisms. Watch out for animal pests, too, that may turn to foraging in home landscapes.
- If landscape plants do succumb to drought, consider replacing them with varieties more adapted to dry conditions. (Note that even drought-tolerant plants need regular watering until they are established.)
—Suzanne DeJohn, Gardener’s Supply