Summer planting tips from a gardening meteorologist...
Oh what a summer this is turning out to be! If your lawn/garden looks like anything but the Mojave, give yourself a pat on the back. The maps above say it all: over the last 30 days, temperatures are running around five degrees above normal and precipitation barely half normal. The U.S. Drought Monitor designates our region “abnormally dry” with an “official” drought as close by as southern Maryland.
In conditions like these plants transpire water at a rate of more than a quarter of an inch a day. That adds up to three and a half inches in just the two weeks since we last talked and most of us have been lucky to pick up an inch of rain.
So what are we to do…?
Water is the main solution at this point, plain and simple. The key is to try to make the most of the water you put down. If you are running a sprinkler try to place a rain gauge to measure how much you are putting down. At least an inch at a time is needed to provide a good soaking to lawns and herbaceous plants. At the rate we are losing water, that’s required every 4 or 5 days.
It is best to water as early in the morning or late in the evening as possible as evaporation from the sprinkler will be lowest at that time. Watering during the day can help to cool delicate plants like ferns and keep them from burning.
The myth about watering during the day burning plants is just that, myth. If it were true there would be a lot of farm fields with burnt corn and soybeans
A key to success is making sure the water is not running off and doing no good. I know many of us use significant amounts of mulch in our gardens. Assess the condition of your mulch. If it is like mine it may be a pretty compact mass right now. I can tell you first hand putting water on top of that from a hose is like watching a duck’s back: it runs right off. All it tales is a little raking to break it up and greatly improve its ability to absorb those quick downpours that we have been having.
It is also important to make sure the downspouts from your house are putting that runoff where it can be used by your plants too. You can get cheap plastic attachments at any hardware store to direct that runoff where it will do the most good.
There was a great article in the Washington Post Thursday Home section that talked about actually making a rain garden to take advantage of the runoff from your house. I can guarantee you I will be putting one in next spring to utilize that moisture. Not only will I have a great wetland spot, but I will also keep my runoff to a minimum and help out the Chesapeake Bay which can use all the help it can get, given recent stories on the dead zones caused by fertilizer runoff.
Trees and shrubs are really suffering and they need a direct watering at least once a week unless they are large and well established. I made the mistake of forgetting to water a wet-loving willow a week ago and will be paying the price in some lost limbs. If the idea of wasting 20 to 30 minutes per tree watering makes your eyes glaze over, find something you can do to wile away the time: reading a magazine, calling an old friend, anything to make it less onerous. You will be rewarded for this small amount of time spent for the rest of the year.
This is also a great time to take a look around the garden and see which plants are suffering the most from dryness or sun and decide if there is a better placement for them. I will be the first to admit that studying the situation in the first place would have saved me from a few horror stories. Still,sometimes situations change, necessitating a move. I will be taking a look at moving plants around in the next blog. In the meantime keep watering your plants and yourself!
Capital Weather Gang meteorologist David Streit is also an active gardener. He earned a certificate in landscape design from the USDA Graduate School and volunteered many years at the National Arboretum.