Approach gardens with a dry eye

Greenery: There's no use shedding tears over your plants, though there are some strategies to help them survive the drought.

August 14, 1999|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

Gardening under water restrictions is no picnic for Marylanders these days. And don't look for this weekend's predicted "scattered showers" to bring much relief.

But as bad as things are, it's still possible to avoid complete garden disaster.

Flowers, vegetables, trees and shrubs can be hand-watered -- with a watering can, a bucket or a hose. Gardeners also can turn to "gray water" -- water that's been used to wash dishes, bodies and clothing. (If there are rain showers, you can collect that too.)

"My best strategy is to save the rinse water from washing clothes," says Jane Baldwin, an avid gardener who's president of Cylburn Arboretum Associates in Baltimore. "You can get as much as 30 gallons of fairly clean water. If you're squeamish about the soap, don't put it on vegetables. But on ornamentals, shrubs and trees, that little bit of soap is no problem."

Ray Bosmans, a horticulture specialist with the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service, advises putting soapy water around the plant, not on the foliage itself. He also suggests not using particularly soapy water on plants in pots or containers. You also can dilute the soapy water with other water.

The problem with the weather this year is that unusually cool ocean temperatures are keeping the jet stream north of the Great Lakes, and depriving the Midwest, East Coast and Southeast of normal rainfall. In some areas, rainfall is as much as 18 inches below normal.

"This drought is the worst we've seen because it started so early -- in April," Bosmans says. "But actually, it's been like this for a couple of years."

The sporadic and localized showers we've been experiencing don't improve the situation much because it will take extended downpours -- such as those from tropical storms in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico -- to replenish the water system completely.

"The water table situation is terrible," Baldwin says. "That affects not only wells and springs, but huge trees and shrubs whose roots draw from there."

You can help those plants by hand-watering -- but the trick with large specimens is watering enough. They need to be saturated until the soil is damp to at least 6 inches, says Scott Aker, a horticulturist with the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington. "Not every day, but once every two or three weeks."

However, with this kind of drought, you are going to lose some plantings -- some temporarily, some permanently.

"Annuals I'd give up on," Aker says. "And if there are some areas of the yard that aren't near and dear to you, let them go." If you have a new planting and you're happy with it, focus your attention there, he says.

"Everybody's place is different," says Dick Bir, a nursery plant specialist at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Center in Fletcher, N.C. "Do an assessment from an economic point of view."

Decide which plants would be the most expensive to replace, he says, and concentrate on those. Still, everything might not survive. "There isn't a lot of magic" anyone can apply under drought conditions, Bir says.

Oddly, grass, one of the things that seems to concern homeowners the most, is among the plants most adaptable to drought conditions.

Harold Kanarek, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture, says agriculture officials have been hearing the same question over and over again: "My lawn's dead and the governor won't let me water it. What can I do?"

His answer: "Don't worry about lawns. They will come back."

The grass isn't dead, he says. It's just asleep -- gone dormant, in horticulture terms. It will wake up once it gets some water and cooler temperatures. "Lawns are pretty hardy," Kanarek says.

Any lawn that's more than 6 months old will be fine, he says. And very young grass or sod -- planted or set between July 1 and Aug. 4 (when the water restrictions went into effect) -- can be hand-watered between the hours of 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.

Other plants also may go dormant as well, but, unlike grass, the perennials and shrubs need to be watered, Bir says. Container plants will probably need water every day, but saving them may be as simple as moving them out of the sun to a shadier area.

Plants also become more susceptible to insects during a drought, Bosmans says. Oaks and maples, particularly, may be invaded by borers. Unfortunately, he says, "You can't do much about that."

Other casualties could be medium-sized shrubs, such as azaleas and rhododendrons; plants in sunny locations; or "understory" trees, such as redbuds and dogwoods, Baldwin of Cylburn says.

Marylanders need to learn what people in drier states, such as California and Arizona, have known for years, she says: Native plants do better than "exotics" imported from some other climate. "You need to be smart about what you plant."

Or, as Bosmans points out, "When this is all over, see what did well and plant more of it."

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