Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
May, 2001
Regional Report

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Thirsty lawns can be reduced in size by adding borders of colorful, drought-resistant perennial plantings.

Drought Prevention

The California energy crunch is in full swing. Power outages and all the disruption they cause in traffic and daily lives have become a new part of the California lifestyle. But hold on to your batteries, dear friends; there is more in store than just defrosted freezers and down computers.

Our Dry Winter

The rainy season is unofficially over at the end of April. Although we do get some rain in May, it's usually in the form of light showers--just enough to ruin the Memorial Day weekend. Rain early this winter gave us high hopes of a nice wet winter, but winter storms started late this year because of high-pressure weather systems that were camped along the Pacific Coast in December and January. We did get a lot of rain in February, but we're still way behind our normal annual rainfall totals.

Lack of Snow Too

Northern California depends on the winter snowpack in the Sierra Mountains for most of its water. On a recent train trip to Reno, I traveled through the Sierra Mountains and noticed that Donner Pass was conspicuously lacking in snow. This means that we have little hope of melting snows from the mountains making up for the lack of natural rainfall. Which, in turn, probably means water rationing this summer--or, at the very least, increased water bills. But gardeners can take some measures to prepare for a long, dry summer.

Water Trees Now

Many trees and shrubs depend on winter rain for water. Oaks and olives are a few deep-rooted trees that naturally survive on very little summer irrigation. By watering them deeply now, while water is still available and cheap, your valuable landscape plants will have a better chance to survive the summer. Use a soaker hose to apply water around the drip line of trees and shrubs. Allow the water to run until it reaches at least 4 feet deep for trees. Use a soil probe to determine how deep into the soil the water actually penetrates. The probe will push easily through damp soil and come to a halt when it reaches dry soil. The deeper the water penetrates, the deeper the roots will grow.

Watering Lawns

The same theory applies to lawns. Water deeply, to a depth of 18 to 24 inches, and infrequently now to encourage roots to grow deep into the soil. Later in the season, when water is in short supply, your lawn will have a better chance of surviving if roots have grown deep enough to reach the natural moisture level of the soil. Remember that infrequent deep watering is much better than frequent shallow applications of this precious resource.

Flower Bed Care

Enjoy your spring garden, but don't plan on replacing flower beds with water-hungry, summer-blooming annuals unless we get a real deluge sometime this month. Plan instead on planting drought-tolerant perennials such as artemisia, coreopsis, and salvia.

Apply a thick layer of mulch to existing perennial beds to keep the soil cool and prevent moisture loss. Mulch is probably your best defense against drought. It protects the soil surface and prevents water from evaporating. It also keeps weed seeds from germinating by shading the surface of the soil. It's important to keep weeds under control in drought years. Greedy weeds will rob landscape plants of valuable moisture if allowed to grow unchecked.

Using Containers

Don't plan on planting in containers or window boxes unless they're double insulated against heat and moisture loss. If you do intend to garden in containers, try planting in a smaller pot and placing it inside a decorative outer pot, making sure both have adequate drainage. Pack the space between the two with straw, newspaper, or even soil to keep the inner container cool. Always apply a layer of mulch to the soil surface of containers.

Keep the Veggies Coming

For vegetable gardens, select plants that require little water. Tomatoes are deep rooted and will survive with much less water than corn, which is a thirsty crop. Save corn for next year, when hopefully more water will be available. Perennial vegetable crops such as rhubarb will survive nicely with deep, infrequent watering.

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