When The Rain Doesn’t Come…Ever
The Rural Intelligence region is fortunate to have so many gardening experts close by. Our garden writer, Madaline Sparks, is the principal in her own design, installation and maintenance business, Madaline Sparks Garden Design, with clients in Columbia and Berkshire counties. For 12 years she was the contributing garden editor at Real Simple Magazine. Madaline and her husband, Wayne Greene, live in Spencertown, NY where both are very active volunteers at Spencertown Academy Arts Center.
I tend to write about the things that are on my mind. These days I’m obsessing about our lack of rain, lying awake nights worrying about the plants I installed in gardens this year. Everywhere I go, people are talking about it. A few nights ago, it rained for 4.5 minutes, exactly. There had been a promise of rain in the air all day. It just felt like it was going to let loose and go on for a while. But alas. That promise was repeated today and it was totally disappointing once again. With the current forecast, there’s no relief in sight.
Like many in these parts, my well does not recover very quickly, so I cannot water with abandon. I have to be very selective about what I water and how I do it. My priorities for watering are, first, plants that have been put in the ground this year and are not established yet. Next are plants that were installed last year and still need some extra help. And then, containers in full sun that dry out in this weather seemingly minutes after they are drenched. I’m letting the grass go dormant. It’ll green up again when (and if) we do get rain. The only silver lining is that mowing isn’t necessary.
There are many techniques for saving water and using it judiciously. I cringe when I see people scattering water willy-nilly over the leaves of plants just until the surface of the soil or mulch looks wet. Nothing is getting to the roots where the plant can take it up into its stems and leaves. Watering must be done at the base of plants and not with a strong stream, which runs off, but with a dribble or a trickle so it has a chance to percolate the layers of soil and seep deep into the base of the root zone. Deep-watering several times a week, rather than brief, daily watering, provides enough moisture for growing plant roots in hot weather.
Soaker hoses winding through the flowerbeds are an excellent method of allowing moisture to reach the base of the plants without losing most of it to evaporation. Hooking up a battery-operated timer to the soaker hose allows you to avoid watering at peak use times and taxing your system or your well. Setting timers for longer periods, less frequently, is better than watering every day.
When it’s hot and dry for long periods, the surface of the soil, even if it’s mulched, becomes baked and hard. When this happens, water can be wicked away from where you want it to go. Gently loosening the area around the base of the plant allows water to reach the desired destination.
The same condition happens with containers. Commercial potting mixes can become water repellent if they get too dry. The potting soil dries up, shrinks and become hard so that when watered, it runs down the inside of the pots and out the bottom without permeating the root ball. You’ll see the water escaping through the drainage holes and think it has been sufficiently hydrated but, in reality, it hasn’t been watered at all. Using your fingers or a small tool to carefully disturb the crusty surface around the base of the plants will improve the saturation conditions.
One important tip to keep in mind: during the heat of the day, especially if plants are sited in direct sun or are exposed to prolonged windy conditions, leaves will look wilted even though you may have watered that morning and the soil appears to be wet. This is a self–defense mechanism employed by the plant to protect the roots. It closes the pores in the leaves to prevent too much transpiration of moisture. If the leaves recover and perk back up late in the day, it doesn’t need more water. If they stay limp, then don’t wait, spot water immediately.