Getting Your Garden through a Dry Year

Here are some suggestions you might use to try and reduce the amount of water needed for your landscape plants, fruit trees or vegetable garden, and to keep them in a healthy, vigorous condition:

  1. Use mulch around vegetable plants, flowers, trees and shrubs to prevent excess evaporation of moisture from the soil surface. Many different materials can be used for mulch – peat moss, compost, ground bark, lawn clippings, straw or even black plastic sheeting. When spreading this material around the base of the plants, especially trees and shrubs, be careful not to keep the material next to the trunk constantly wet. This could lead to a buildup of fungus organisms that cause crown rot disease.
  2. Apply irrigation water in the evening or early morning to avoid water loss due to evaporation that will occur with midday watering.
  3. Water infrequently, but deeply, for most plants. Shallow, frequent watering encourages shallow rooting, and roots close to the soil surface will dry out faster than those deeper in the soil. If your watering is controlled by an automatic timer, program it so that it does not turn the water on every day, and increase the length of watering time.
  4. Destroy all weeds that may be competing with our desirable plants for moisture.
  5. Do not use excessive amounts of nitrogen fertilizer. Some nitrogen is needed to keep plants in a healthy, vigorous condition, but excessive amounts will only produce lush growth that takes more water to maintain.
  6. Remove excessive growth from trees and shrubs by pruning. Don’t remove so much foliage that you risk putting your plants under stress, but if they are overgrown, do some careful, selective pruning.
  7. lf your landscape trees have not been pruned in some time, this might be the year to consider having it done. Pruning of very large trees should probably be done by professional tree trimmers.
  8. If you have dense, crowded stands of trees, shrubs or other plants, consider removing some to reduce the total amount of water needed and to keep the remaining trees or plants in a more healthy condition. Plants that are overcrowded compete with one another for space, light, air and nutrients, in addition to water, so it makes good sense to maintain proper spacing.
  9. Use drought tolerant plants in your landscaping whenever possible. Contrary to common belief, there are some very attractive, interesting looking plants that don’t require large amounts of water to grow and stay healthy. A water conservation garden doesn’t have to look like a desert.
  10. Reduce your plantings this year, or delay planting until fall. Take out unthrifty or non-essential plants.
  11. Install a drip or low volume irrigation system. These systems not only conserve water, they reduce the population of unwanted weeds and actually are an improved method of watering many plants because they concentrate the water in the root zone.
  12. Practice good pest and disease prevention and control measures in order to minimize problems that will lead to plant stress.

These and other ideas may be used to reduce your garden’s demand for water and to help ensure your plants’ survival during critical periods of water shortage.

UC Farm Advisor Don Appleton column