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Just in case it's another dry winter.

Just in case it's another dry winter

Will it rain or not this winter? Will there be enough water to garden as usual next spring and summer? What can you do now to help your plants if you are forced to cut back on watering next season?

Even though we all hope these are moot questions, they can't be ignored. With one dry winter behind us in many parts of the West, another one would change the way we water our gardens. Two years of drought, in 1976 and 1977, certainly did.

You can't make it rain, but what can you do?

Dry years are a fact of life in much of the West. You can't do anything about that. But what you can do is conserve water as best you can and prepare your plants for less water.

Most of the things you should do are simply good gardening practices. Healthy plants will withstand drought better than unhealthy ones. If the rain does come, they will be all the better from the extra attention.

Here's how some fall-winter gardening activities can affect water needs:

Mulching. Over the long run, this may be the single most effective way to save moisture. A layer of organic mulch--such as compost, ground bark, leaves, pine needles, straw, even grass clippings--moderates soil temperature, reduces evaporation, and encourages root growth in upper soil levels. It also reduces weeds that compete for moisture.

Start by putting down 1 to 2 inches of fine-textured mulch, such as ground bark, now. Use twice that much for coarse or fluffy ones such as leaves or pine needles. Add more next spring.

Pruning. It would seem to make sense that if you prune out foliage, a plant will need less water. After all, most of the water its roots absorb is transpired (released) through the leaves. But it may not be that simple.

Dormant pruning can result in vigorous, tender growth next spring. Unless you reduce the plant by a quarter to a third, you may actually be increasing water use. Pruning also lets more light hit the soil, which would increase evaporation, even with a mulch. Pruning for water conservation alone is not a good reason to prune.

Fertilizing. Fertilize plants such as cool-season lawns that normally get fed in fall. Don't fertilize other plants unless they are showing obvious signs of nutrient deficiency. Over-fertilizing forces growth that will use more water.

Watering. Cooler fall and winter weather will reduce plants' water needs, but they can still dry out. Deep-water trees and shrubs now and again in January and March if it's dry. Smaller shrubs may need one or two more waterings.

If the rains don't come, keep an eye on everything. Water if plants are wilting or off-color because of lack of water (probe the soil to see if the top 3 to 6 inches is dry). You don't want them to face the next growing season already stressed.

Whenever you water, do so efficiently, wetting the entire root zone. Rebuild soil basins now to concentrate water from early rains around the roots. If rains get heavy, break basins down so excess moisture can drain away.

Switch to drip irrigation or sprinklers with a slower application rate.

Remember that trees growing in lawns need more water than what you give the grass alone. Water them independently and deeply.

Weeding. Keep after weeds; they'll compete with desirable plants for whatever water is available.

Lawn care. This is an especially good year to aerate or dethatch cool-season lawns (bluegrass, fescue, rye grass). Both practices will increase water penetration and reduce runoff.

Container gardening. Plants growing in containers are water guzzlers, particularly if they're rootbound. Now is a good time to pot up or transplant any that have gotten too big for their britches.

Pest control. Drought is more likely to injure plants stressed by insects or disease. A dormant spray this winter will help control many problems. Also, destroy any diseased plant debris lying around the garden.

A tougher question: to plant or not to plant?

This deserves serious thought, especially if you are planning expensive landscaping. New plantings will require more water than established ones. If we have another dry winter, you'll have to water regularly until the roots have established in native soil--at least six months, probably longer. You might want to put off major landscaping until spring, when we have a better idea of how much water we'll have.

You may also want to rethink how you plant a lawn, knowing it will probably be the first thing you have to let dry out if water is scarce. For that reason, sowing seed, which is usually less expensive than sod, may make more sense--you'd have less money invested in it, should a drought come. Or sow a temporary alternative, such as wildflowers or sweet alyssum, that will germinate with whatever rain comes, look good through winter, and be easy to eliminate next spring.

If you do plant . . .

Use drought-tolerant species whenever possible. Install drip irrigation to provide necessary water this winter, and next spring and summer.

Small plants will usually get established more quickly than larger ones. If you have a choice, it's better to go with 1-gallon cans rather than 5-gallon cans.

Photo: A layer of organic mulch conserves water and can help plants through periods of drought. Soil basins direct water to roots (see text) by preventing runoff
COPYRIGHT 1987 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Oct 1, 1987
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