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By Tom Woods
Signs of the severe drought currently gripping our area can be seen in lawns and landscapes throughout southeastern North Carolina. These include stunting, wilting, yellowing or browning leaves, early leaf drop, dead stems and branches, and reduced flower, fruit, and seed production.
How you care for your yard during drought will have a huge effect on how well it recovers once the rain returns. Use the following tips to help your yard survive the drought:
Do’s and don’ts during drought
During drought, you do not want to do anything that will encourage additional growth or add to the stress plants are already under. This is certainly not the time to set out new plants or seed your lawn. You should also avoid fertilizing lawns and landscapes. While it is OK to fertilize container plants or vegetable gardens that you are watering regularly, cut back the amount to half of what you would normally apply.
Another practice to avoid during drought is pruning, except to remove dead or dying branches. And this is also not the time to spray herbicides, which will have little to no effect on wilted or drought-stressed weeds.
Things you do want to do during drought include making sure all landscape beds have a 2-3-inch layer of mulch. This will conserve moisture and keep soil temperatures cooler.
You may also consider removing sick or poorly performing plants, since they are less likely to survive drought than healthy plants. In beds that are overcrowded, consider removing some plants to reduce the amount of competition for the limited water that is available. Pull weeds to prevent them taking the water that could keep your plants alive.
You may also consider extending the area of mulch around trees and shrubs and expanding landscape beds to reduce competition with turf roots.
What and when to water
If you are able to water during the drought, keep in mind that irrigation can never replace rainfall. You will not be able to keep your yard as lush and full during drought as it would be during a normal summer.
Consider allowing your lawn to go dormant. Most warm season grasses are fairly drought resilient and will recover when rainfall returns, though a thorough watering once a month will help minimize damage.
If you are watering your lawn, set your sprinklers to run between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. to minimize water loss from evaporation. Limit watering to two or three times a week, applying one-third of water at a time. Many lawns may develop localized dry spots; areas where the soil becomes so dry water will not soak in.
If you notice areas in your lawn that remain wilted even after watering, check the soil to see if it is still dry. If so, use a pitchfork to make holes in the ground and apply a wetting agent to help water move into the soil.
Set priorities for watering ornamentals. Consider what you are willing to lose and what it would cost to replace, as well as how feasible it would be to keep plants with high water requirements alive with no rainfall. Flowering annuals will die at the end of summer anyway, so why waste water on them? While most established trees and shrubs can tolerate some drought with little damage, it may not be realistic to keep drought-sensitive plants like hydrangeas, Japanese maples, azaleas, and dogwoods alive in sandy soils through extended drought. If you do lose some of these plants this year, replace them with more drought-resilient species this fall.
Trees and shrubs planted within the last year will be the most drought-sensitive, since their root systems are not fully established. They should be given top priority for watering. When you do water, apply water slowly so it can soak deep into the soil. Soaker hoses work well for this type of watering, though you may need to allow them to run for a couple of hours to wet the top several inches of the soil.
Another tip for surviving drought is to install rain barrels, so you can capture any rainfall that does come and use it to water plants later on. This is also a good time to take note of less drought-tolerant plants.
If feasible, move them in the fall so all of your drought-sensitive plants are growing together in one area, making it easier to water them in the future. Or, replace these plants with more drought-resilient species.
For recommendations of drought tolerant plants for our area, visit the Brunswick Extension website at http://brunswick.ces.ncsu.edu/ and click on the “Lawn & Garden” link. Scroll down to the “Recommended Plants” section to download lists of trees, shrubs, and perennials that thrive in our area. Also, check out the fact sheets under the “Water Wise Landscaping” section to learn how you can make your yard more water efficient.
Thanks to Charlotte Glen, Pender County horticulture agent.
Send your gardening questions or comments to: Brunswick County Master Gardener Column, P.O. Box 109, Bolivia, NC 28422, or call 253-2610. Enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope if requesting information or a reply. Answers may be printed in this column.