Many of my readers suffer from severe drought, enough for plants to lose their leaves and go dormant long before they should. Most well-established plants will recover from the effects of drought, even if they lose their leaves now. And what’s new? If you don’t give them water weekly or more often, some may die.
Adding to the problem is the fact that many places have enacted watering bans or limitations. And the wells may not have enough to water everything. And, of course, watering takes time – time away from family, dogs, and hobbies.
If you haven’t thought about drought, you should. Start by looking at your plants. Are the leaves limp, withered, or turning brown? If so, you need to water them well — today! They need a good deep watering.
Deep watering is not easy. If you take your hose and spray the base of the tree for a minute, you’re not giving it much water. Wait 10 minutes after watering and return to the new tree or shrub you planted last spring. Use your finger or a tool like the CobraHead weeder (a weeding tool with a single tine) to dig 4 inches or more. Is the ground wet? It should be. Most of the roots are found in the top foot of the soil. Add more water as needed.
If your soil is like powder, it is not easy to get water into the soil. If your tree is on a hillside, the water you apply will run off almost immediately and not seep in at all. Even a gentle slope will allow water to drain away. You will need to make a ring of soil or mulch around the tree or shrub to contain the water.
If you’re using a hose, use a spray wand to apply the water rather than a spray nozzle held in your hand. These wands are typically 24 inches long with a beautiful “rose” on the end that releases water in a gentle stream and have a valve to open, close or partially open the water. Since the tip of the wand is close to the ground, it is less likely to remove soil. And it lets you direct the water exactly where you want it. Soaker hoses on timers are good if you travel a lot or go on vacation when it’s hot and dry.
Before you start watering, find out now how much water your hose delivers. To do this, time how long it takes to fill a 5 gallon bucket. Two or three minutes is usually enough, but it depends on the diameter of your pipe and the water pressure. Half-inch pipes are worth nothing. Five-eighths inch pipes are adequate and ¾ inch pipes are good for long runs. Five gallons is the minimum amount of water needed for a thirsty shrub or newly established tree.
Most new woody plants need 5 gallons per week, but it depends on the type of soil. Sandy soil dries out the fastest and needs the most water. Clay soil retains water, but it is difficult to get completely wet. Even though I have good soil, I always add compost to the soil when I plant anything. Not only does it add biological activity, but it retains water in sandy soils and loosens clay soils. I buy it by truck. Most garden centers sell it in bulk, which is cheaper than buying it by the bag. Bag compost, I like the Moo-Doo and Coast of Maine brands.
Grasses and weeds suck moisture from the ground, so dig them up around your trees. Weed a circle around new or struggling trees 3 to 4 feet wide. Then get a fine mulch (double grind mulch, no wood chips). An inch and a half of mulch is about right, or 2 inches. Deeper and shorter rain showers will never bring moisture to the roots of your plants.
Don’t buy bagged wood chips based on price – or if you do, buy the most expensive. Cheap mulch can be ground up and shredded from construction debris and pallets. “Colour-enhanced” mulch gets stained or stained with something and can spread chemicals around the garden – and fade over time.
Never let the mulch touch the bark of your tree or, even worse, make a fake mulch volcano. Mulch can harbor fungi that will rot your tree’s bark, killing it in 6 to 10 years. Once the cambium layer under the bark is rotten, the tree will die. If you have mulch against any of your trees, please fix it immediately.
Years ago, I visited my friend, Sydney Eddison, at her home in Newtown, Connecticut. Sydney is a landscaper, author of many fine gardening books and a poet with superb gardens. They were in the midst of a terrible drought – so severe that mature oak trees were losing their leaves in the forest in August. A water ban was in place, but his gardens looked great.
“Sydney,” I said, “You cheated and watered your plants.” No, she explained, “It’s all about the mulch.” Every fall, her husband, Martin, would mow all the leaves that fell on the lawns and bag them. He stored them in the barn and after all his plants woke up in the spring, she added a layer of chopped leaves. Not only did they retain moisture as they decomposed, but they added organic matter to the soil, making it better every year.
This fall, do the same. Pick up your leaves or have the lawn service pick them up for you. I don’t put them in bags, I just add them to a pile and use them as mulch in the spring. It really works. A 2 inch layer is perfect.
Don’t be discouraged if some of your plants go dormant now. It’s their way of protecting themselves. But water it if you can – and get it deep. Your plants will bless you.