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Drought: How to help your lawn and garden – chicagotribune.com

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http://www.chicagotribune.com/classified/realestate/home/ct-sun-garden-0708-drought-20120705,0,6671851.story

Drought: How to help your lawn and garden – chicagotribune.com

If dull brown lawns and drooping trees remind you of the great drought of 2005, no wonder: We’re running just about as short of rain as we were that year. And weather experts are predicting continued high temperatures and scant rain for the rest of the summer.

Many towns already have imposed watering restrictions. So what can you do to help your landscape survive? In a word, prioritize.

Let the lawn stay dormant. If your lawn is brown, it’s not dead, says Richard Hentschel, a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator based in St. Charles (urbanext.illinois.edu/hort). The grass has just hunkered down into survival mode. The plants have stopped growing and given up on their leaves to conserve water and are concentrating all their resources on keeping their roots and crowns alive.

The best thing to do is to let the grass stay dormant until it is revived by autumn rains and starts growing new green leaves. You’ll save pricey water, and since the grass isn’t growing, you won’t have to mow. That will not only save you hard work in 90-degree weather but will save polluting emissions from gas-powered lawn mowers, says Rachel Rosenberg of the Safer Pest Control Project in Chicago (spcpweb.org).

If you have a contract with a lawn service for weekly mowing that is totally unnecessary when the lawn is dormant, Hentschel suggests you ask if the company will swap it for some other yard work instead.

A half-inch rainfall or deep watering session every three or four weeks will be enough to keep the roots alive while keeping the grass dormant.

But what if you’ve been watering the lawn and it’s still green? Either commit to watering all summer, no matter the cost, or else stop and let it go dormant, Hentschel says. The worst thing you can do is to water irregularly and whipsaw the lawn in and out of dormancy. That uses up the plants’ reserves and stresses the grass far more. So make a decision and stick to it.

Even if part of the lawn does die, it can be repaired by weeding and reseeding in late August or early September when the weather cools off.

If you have been practicing sustainable lawn care – keeping the grass at least 3 inches tall so it shades the soil more, top-dressing with compost so the soil is high in organic matter, leaving the clippings on the lawn – your lawn has a better chance of withstanding drought, Rosenberg and Hentschel agree.

Save trees first. Lawns are easily replaced, but trees are not. Even large trees need help to survive a drought – and if they die, it can take 20 or 30 years to replace that shade. Stress from the 2005 drought killed trees over the next several years. So put trees at the top of the list for watering.

Let the hose trickle for a good long time in several places under the tree’s canopy. Or spiral a soaker hose loosely around a tree trunk. Or buy a soaker bag at the garden center that will slowly ooze water to the roots. Most of a mature tree’s roots are within 6 to 8 inches of the soil surface.

Trees and shrubs planted within the last three years are extra vulnerable. Their roots haven’t grown far, so soak them near the trunk.

Water the garden long and deep. Let the sprinkler run for a good long time — enough to provide the equivalent of 1 inch of rain as water soaks deep into the root zone. You can check how long this takes for your particular setup by placing a tuna can or drinking glass under the sprinkler and noting how long it takes to fill 1 inch deep. If you give the garden a serious soaking, once a week should usually be enough.

Do it in the morning or late afternoon, so you don’t lose water to evaporation in the hot mid-day and you don’t encourage disease by leaving foliage wet all night.

Soaker hoses are nifty because they deliver water efficiently right to the soil, rather than flinging drops through the air to evaporate. And since leaves don’t get wet, you can use soaker hoses at night.

Except for containers, frequent watering by hand with a hose nozzle is worse than futile, Hentschel says; you will do no more than dampen the soil surface, encouraging short, weak, vulnerable roots.

Keep watering vegetables. Your plants need water to make tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, and it evaporates extra fast when the weather is hot. So keep watering. If plants stop setting fruit, it may be caused not by lack of water but rather by high temperatures, Hentschel says. Keep watering and when it drops back into the 80s you’ll get more tomatoes.

Water containers often. The limited amount of soil in a pot doesn’t hold much water. And as the summer goes on and plants grow larger, they lose more water to evaporation even as they need it to support more stems and leaves. So be prepared to water whenever the surface of the soil is dry; many potted plants will need watering daily or even twice a day.

Don’t fertilize. When plants are stressed “is not the time to fertilize anything,” Hentschel says. Let plants take it easy and don’t push them to grow more leaves that will just be vulnerable to wilting or drying out. And of course, don’t fertilize a dormant lawn.

Put off dividing and transplanting perennials. Wait until fall, or next year. In fact, you might consider cutting the top of established perennials back by a quarter or a third to reduce the demands on the roots, Hentschel says. You may sacrifice some flowering, but your plants will have an extra cushion to help them survive.

Mulch. A moderate layer of organic mulch such as shredded leaves or wood, straw or cotton burr compost helps hold in moisture and insulate plants’ roots against the heat. A layer 1 to 2 inches deep in perennial beds and 4 inches deep around tree trunks is plenty; too deep, and the roots can’t get oxygen. And keep mulch several inches clear of a tree’s trunk, so it doesn’t foster disease or harbor insects or bark-chewing rodents.

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Written by vaphc

July 6, 2012 at 11:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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