Watering during a drought begins with setting priorities

  • This July 22, 2016 photo, of a drought-stressed yard near Langley, Wash., shows a lawn gone dormant in the background while the mulch-covered perennials in the foreground thrive. Mulch serves as a protective layer for the soil, keeping water in and weeds and some disease out. (Dean Fosdick via AP)

Homeowners know that irrigation is a necessary but never-ending task for gardens and the overall landscape. But watering priorities change drastically during a drought. Conservation prevails over plant care, and can trigger expensive and in some cases emotional losses.

“If water conservation is important or needed, this takes precedence — especially if there are legal restrictions,” said Leonard Perry, extension horticulture professor emeritus at the University of Vermont. In such a case, he said, switch quickly to more drought-tolerant plants, and to practices such as adding compost and mulch, which hold water.

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If water restrictions have been mandated by your community, then determine exactly what they cover. “If not too severe, they may just cover lawn sprinklers and not watering of gardens,” Perry said.

Watering should be directed toward your choicest plants, expensive or special ones — perhaps family heirloom plants and those newly planted and not yet established.

“As much as it may hurt — and it has me — lawns are lower down (the irrigation list) as they take so much water,” Perry said. “You may need to let them shrivel and crisp up. But they may just go dormant and revive after a rainy period returns.”

Plan your landscape not only for beauty but for irrigation, said Sheri Dorn, an extension horticulturist with the University of Georgia.

“That goes to fundamental things — the right plant for the right place. Things that factor into plant health. If you have a stressed plant, you have to be aware of it,” Dorn said.

It all starts with the soil, she said. Analyzing its chemical components can help you gauge fertilizer needs. “Fast growth needs water to maintain it,” she said.

Ideally, not more than 10 percent of the landscape should be zoned for frequent water use, 30 percent or less for occasional water use, and 60 percent or more for infrequent water use, according to a University of Georgia Extension publication.

Longstanding droughts can be damaging, but water-wise gardening means you might be able to save your water and the plants, too, Perry said.

Some tips:

— Use soaker hoses or drip systems. You can lose as much as half of your water on a hot day to evaporation with overhead sprinklers.

— Invest in precision irrigation. Scotts Miracle-Gro Co., for example, has introduced new systems “using real-time weather, soil and plant data to automatically adjust and improve watering schedules, so customers always know what’s going on in every inch of their yards from their smart devices,” said Josh Peoples, the company’s vice president.

— Water deeply and less often, rather than frequently and for shorter periods. Water that penetrates more deeply encourages deeper roots, which are more resistant to drought, Perry said.

—Repair and collect. Make sure your hoses and fittings aren’t leaking, and save as much rainwater and wasted household water as possible.

— Cultivate sparingly. Turning over the ground dries it much faster.

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— Avoid pruning. It can further weaken stressed plants.

— Mulch. Mulch serves as a protective layer for the soil, keeping water in and weeds and some diseases out.