Fight Drought but Water Wisely

Whenever we have a period of drought with little moisture in the soil, as we often have experienced this summer, we need to get smart about watering.


If you have limited time or community restrictions on when you can water, you must choose carefully which plants or landscape areas get the water. This is a life or death decision for many plants.

Recently planted first

Whether tree, lawn, shrub or flower, it if was planted this season, it’s at risk. Seeded turf grasses and sod lawns have tiny root systems and the roots just started to reach into soil; annuals and perennials have roots that reach out only an inch or two. If those small root systems completely dry out, there is a point of no return; different for different species, but it happens quickly and irreversibly.

Shrubs and trees have larger root balls, but they also die quickly if they dry out to the point of no return, or if they dry out too many times. The systems just get exhausted. The roots are very small compared to the demand to provide water for the relatively large trunk, branches and leaves above ground. Your new shrub or tree probably has roots reaching out just an inch or two from the original root ball.

Even if you planted the tree or shrub two years ago, its root system is still limited, so you must water it thoroughly and often enough to keep it alive.

Homeowners usually make the effort with a new landscape planting, but often assume the plants are fine during the second and third summers. That’s still a period of high risk, especially this year.

Stressed older trees

People water the tomatoes and petunias that will die in September anyway, and neglect the viburnum or Japanese maple that cost one hundred dollars. If we value them, we should make watering them a top priority.

New sod lawn: Soak the whole sod and then two inches farther into the soil below; the same for seeded lawns. Do this every time the area is dry beneath the sod (lift a patch to test). In hot, dry weather, this could be every day, for longer than you think.

Vegetables and this season’s flowers: Water until the soil is wet 4 to 6 inches down; that is, deeper than the little root ball. Check with your finger to see if the top inch of soil, not just mulch, is dry – then you must water. This could be every day but usually is once or twice a week. It’s better to water part of the garden really well every day, instead of the whole area insufficiently.

Shrubs and trees planted recently (up to 3 years): Water deeply and thoroughly, out beyond the root ball and deeper than the roots, at least once a week or whenever they are dry. Feel with your finger; if the soil is dry 3 inches down, the plant is in danger of dying.  During a drought, you should water the new plant deeply, twice or three times a week.

Older perennials and shrubs: Use your judgment and give established plants a deep watering whenever they show stress (a droopy, parched look, or outer leaves browning) or the soil is cracking.

Old trees: Watering a stressed old tree will take many hours with a sprinkler, soaker hose or a running hose that you move around the large root area. Test with a shovel; if the soil beneath the tree is dry 8 inches down, your tree is stressed, so water until the moisture has penetrated at least a foot.

Deliver water efficiently

Waving the hose over mulched plants is mostly useless. Point the hose end, preferably with a water wand, at the base of plants so water goes toward the roots. Pull mulch away from little plants. Place soaker hoses near the plants. If you use a sprinkler, test to see if the water gets to the plant roots; often it does not. Watering in the morning is ideal because the water doesn’t evaporate so quickly, but water at noon or in the evening if morning watering is not an option.

Right now the soil is so dry that water runs right off the surface or into cracks and it never gets to the plants. Try mixing some compost into the surface soil around the plant as compost holds soil moisture well.

It’s not easy to get enough water to the plants when the weather is so hot and dry as it has been this summer. Just try to water wisely during these challenging weeks.


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