Erratic rainfall isn't enough to support plants

Garden Q&A

September 16, 2006|By Jon Traunfeld and Ellen Nibali | Jon Traunfeld and Ellen Nibali,Special to The Sun

My neighbor said my shrubs died from lack of water. How can that be? We got 9 inches of rain in one day in June.

That deluge cannot support a plant for a growing season. Furthermore, most of the rain from a strong thunderstorm runs off and never enters the soil around your home. Erratic rainfall is difficult for plants, especially newly planted trees and shrubs. Last fall and spring brought unusual droughts, even before our more typical summer drought. To help rainfall absorb into your land, build low saucers of soil around new plants. On slopes, build a soil half-circle on the downhill side. Rain gardens can be installed in lawn depressions to capture downspout water. Mulching only 1 to 2 inches deep prevents evaporation, yet isn't so deep it blocks light rain from ever reaching soil. Also, work organic matter such as compost into either clay or sandy soil, where it works as tiny sponges to hold onto moisture. Our new home is on the water and a bamboolike grass called phragmites is poking up everywhere. I tried digging roots, but they are too deep and everywhere. What environmentally-friendly potion can I use to kill this?

Phragmites continues to invade our wetlands. Although Maryland boasts perhaps the last stands of native phragmites, most phragmites you see are European and rapidly outcompete other water plants to create monocultures. Never dig phragmites; each root piece can resprout and ultimately spread the pest. Rodeo (a glyphosate herbicide safe for wetlands) can be used on phragmites flowering in late summer or early fall. To get a spray permit, contact Ed Gertler of the state Department of the Environment, 410-537-3651, or go to After spraying, remove or burn debris and help native plants colonize the area. If herbicides cannot be used, cut annually in late July to reduce spread. Be sure you are not killing native phragmites. The invasive type has rough, nonshiny green stems, and the dry leaf sheaths stay on the stems over winter. For more help with identification, call the Home and Garden Information Center.


Spray poison ivy, mile-a-minute vine and other noxious weeds with a systemic herbicide like those containing the active ingredient glyphosate.

Knock down the large, silken tents of the fall webworm where they are accessible. This very noticeable pest poses no long-term threat to your trees.

Jon Traunfeld, regional specialist, and Ellen Nibali, horticulture consultant, work at Maryland Cooperative Extension's Home and Garden Information Center, which offers Maryland residents free gardening information. Call the center's "hotline" at 800-342-2507 (Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-1 p.m.) or e-mail plant and pest questions through the Send a Question feature at

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