Friday, March 22, 2002
Gardening during a drought
Merriam-Webster defines drought as "a period of dryness... causing extensive damage to crops...." The National Drought Mitigation Center (www.enso.unl.edu) has a map displaying the areas of the United States most affected by the continuing drought. Massachusetts is rated "severe," a three on a scale of one to five, five meaning dangerous drought conditions. If we don't receive a huge amount of rain this spring, we will have a serious drought situation this summer. We won't be facing watering bans in the same way Chelmsford or Acton would be, since we have our own wells. If we water our lawns, shrubs, trees and gardens freely during the drought, our wells may run dry. I asked the fire department how the drought is affecting burn permits. "We issue them on a daily basis, depending on the report from the fire chief or deputy fire chief," said the dispatcher. So far no permits have been denied due to the drought, but as the spring progresses, that may change.
Why mulch? Mulch keeps weeds from germinating and adds nutrients to the soil, but most importantly mulch retains moisture and coolness by reducing evaporation and blocking the drying sun and wind. The best mulch is compost, which is a combination of materials such as peat moss, salt hay, ordinary hay, buckwheat or cocoa hulls, wood chips, leaves, pine branches, aged sawdust, and seaweed. Place mulch around shrubs, trees, and plants but leave space around the stems to discourage rot. Chopped oak leaves, pine needles and peat moss are good for acid-loving plants such as azaleas, rhododendrons and woodland plants such as mayapple, trillium or bloodroot. Stones can also be used as mulch, and can be an effective and attractive alternative to traditional coverings. Since they don't add nutrients to the soil, it would be best to lay the stones on top of a layer of organic mulch.
...And mow less
Some people may be tempted to replace their lawns with a wildflower garden, thinking it will need less care. In a time of drought, it is difficult to start a large garden. Young plants need a lot of watering to get established. Let the lawn grow high instead; it will eventually turn into a wildflower garden on its own. When you mow, do it less often and set the mower higher. The taller grass will shade its own roots. "One of the big things that troubles me is the irrigation installers telling the customers to water their lawns every day," said Leo Blanchette. "Lawns should be watered deeply every five days, not shallowly every day."
Leave the grass clippings on the lawn, which will decompose and add nutrients to the soil (this will not encourage thatch). Rake leaves on to the grass and mow them, chopping them finely. Leave the bits to decompose and feed the grass. If the grass turns brown, let it go dormant, rather than watering it shallowly. It will "green up" again in the fall.
Vegetable gardening in a ditch
A long-time gardener at Foss Farm let me in on a secret: plant in ditches. In spots where it is sunny and windy and the soil drains well, such as the field at Foss Farm, the soil quickly dries out and the wind can topple young plants. Dig down about six to eight inches and plant in the ditch, leaving the sides open like a "V". When you water, the ditch will guide the water directly to the plants. You can "hill up" some plants, like tomatoes and corn, as they grow, piling soil around the bottoms of their stems. They will develop additional roots, bringing more moisture to the plant and making them stronger.
Use a drip hose
If you start seeds outdoors, or if you have plants that must be watered regularly, use a drip hose, which is a regular-size black hose with tiny holes throughout. It allows water to "weep," wetting the ground under the plants. These also work well when buried two to four inches deep under or next to the plants. This eliminates much of the evaporation that occurs when plants are watered using overhead sprinklers. Water early in the morning or late in the evening, when the sun is low. For new gardens, create raised beds, using two by sixes, filling a five by ten rectangle with rich, moist topsoil and mulch. By creating a raised bed garden, you can give your plants a maximum amount of nutrient-rich soil, which will decrease their need for regular watering.
All plants can be affected by drought. Check the leaves on your plants and trees. They may turn orange, sometimes with other tints, and fall prematurely. The plants will benefit by deep watering once a week. Rather than be tempted by frequent shallow watering, which can be more harmful than helpful to plants, create a watering schedule. List your garden areas, and days in which they receive a deep watering. Change your schedule if it rains, pushing back the watering by a few days.
Don't forget about the birds. During time of drought, a simple birdbath becomes very important to birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and nightly visitors such as raccoons. You can also provide moisture by nailing half an orange or grapefruit to a dead tree. Even a baking pan sitting on the ground can be used, filled with water each day. Prepare and plan now for a drought. "If people would do more to conserve, we'd be better off," said Leo Blanchette. "We have customers who drain their bathtubs to water their plants."
If you are ready for it you can still enjoy gardening this summer. Buy lots of sunscreen. And wear a hat.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito