With hardy plants and smart watering, gardens can survive

Common-sense care can help plantings, local experts say

August 16, 1999|By Heather Tepe | Heather Tepe,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Are your daisies drooping? Have your watermelons withered on the vine? Do your peppers look parched? Howard County gardeners are weathering the drought with varying degrees of success.

The state is in the midst of one of its worst droughts, which is taking a toll on lawns, vegetable and flower gardens, and trees and shrubs throughout the region. Mandatory water restrictions imposed two weeks ago will make it even tougher for plants to survive the summer and for gardeners to save expensive landscaping.

But with a little ingenuity and some common-sense measures, residents can enable their gardens to outlast the dry conditions. Even with the rain over the weekend, Howard County is still one of the driest counties in the region.

Georgia Eacker, coordinator of the master gardener program for the Cooperative Extension Service, suggests setting priorities for watering. Valuable plantings such as trees, shrubs and vegetable gardens should get the attention and resources.

"When you water those top-priority plants," she said, "water deeply and don't use a water sprayer or sprinkler. The more efficient and effective way is to drip your hose right on the ground."

Eacker says watering needs to be as deep as possible to encourage good root growth. Don't waste water on foliage but water directly on the ground, she advises. When the soil is deep brown and moist 2 inches down, it's watered well.

Miriam Mahowald, one of the first master gardeners for the Cooperative Extension Service and a vegetable judge at the Howard County Fair, has a trick for deep watering: Poke holes in a plastic milk jug with a nail; fill the jug with water recycled from the shower or dehumidifier; let it drip through the garden alongside the plants. She says this method works best with tomatoes, peppers and shrubs, but isn't as effective for such plants as squash or pumpkin.

"We typically don't see the full results of the drought until after we've passed the season," Eacker warns. She recommends a xeri-scape strategy when replacing scorched shrubs, perennials and lawns.

Xeriscaping is a technique of planning a landscape that conserves water by using plants that are heat- and drought-tolerant. Using drought-tolerant plants can reduce water use by as much as 50 percent.

Grass will come back

The restriction on watering lawns means there's not a lot to be done to revive crunchy grass. Established lawns will pull through, according to gardeners. Karen Carter, a member of the Dorsey Hall Garden Club in Ellicott City, says, "Grass will go dormant and hopefully come back in the spring."

Lawns that were seeded or sod that was laid since last fall probably won't survive. "You may have to let it go for this [summer] and start again in the fall," says Mahowald.

Once water restrictions are lifted and car washing is permitted at home again, Mahowald recommends that residents continue to practice water conservation.

"You can put your car on the lawn to wash it," she says. "It sounds a little silly, but it's OK."

The soap won't hurt the grass and could be good for it. A small amount of soap helps break up water molecules so they spread better. And, according to Mahowald, soap is useful in controlling some insects.

She also suggests keeping grass 3 1/2 inches high: "That keeps the soil cooler, and when the soil is cooler, you use less water."

Frank Murray's family rents two garden plots on the grounds of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in North Laurel. This year's crops have been discouraging.

"Everyone who's gardening doesn't have the enthusiasm for it because things are not growing well," he said.

Murray is disappointed that although he and his family tend 15 tomato plants, they won't get enough tomatoes to last through the winter. He and his wife, Sue, canned 45 quarts of tomatoes last year.

"This year we're probably going to get less than a third of that," he said. They plan to supplement their harvest with tomatoes purchased from farmers' markets.

"We've maintained the same level of watering as last year, but the ground is rock hard again in two days even though we do give it a good soaking," he said.

Until the ban on soaker hoses, Hope Corrigan had been having a little luck with the vegetable gardens and pumpkin patch at her Ellicott City home. "My garden doesn't look as good as some years," she said, "but it doesn't look terrible either."

Before the restrictions went into effect, Corrigan relied on soaker hoses to water her vegetables. Now she makes do with a hand-held hose.

No fair entries

Although she won ribbons for her beets, green peppers and carrots at the Howard County Fair in past years, Corrigan didn't enter anything this time. "When you enter something in the fair, they have to be uniform and market quality," she said. "My produce just isn't as beautiful this year."

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