Published on 04/03/00

Simple Steps Help Landscape Handle Drought

We can't accurately predict the future, but our state climatologist says an extended drought is likely this summer. Are you prepared for the inevitable restrictions on outdoor watering?

You can't totally drought-proof your landscape. But you can do a number of things now to help it prosper with less water this summer.

If you're putting in a flower bed, here's a fail-proof way to make it more water-wise.

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Photo: Gary Wade

Two sheets of newspaper under 3 to 4 inches of a fine-textured mulch will help keep the soil moist longer.

Put Newspaper in Beds

First, prepare the bed. Thoroughly incorporate 3 inches of compost or weed-free composted manure into the top 12 inches of soil. Make sure the material is well rotted. Compost is nature's black gold, helping hold water and nutrients in the soil while extending the time between watering.

Next, dip some newspaper in water and lay it two-sheets thick over the bed. Overlap the sections slightly. This will serve as an added barrier to moisture loss.

However, don't apply the old adage, "if a little is good, a lot is better." More than two sheets of newspaper will keep water from moving into the soil. I learned this the hard way and won't do it again.

Slow-release Fertilizer

Once the newspaper is in place, use your hand to carefully dig planting holes through the paper. Place a tablespoonful of slow-release fertilizer, such as Osmocote 18-6-12, in the hole beneath the plant.

Slow-release fertilizers won't hurt the roots. They release their nutrients slowly throughout the growing season. When moisture becomes limited, the fertilizer release rate drops. It picks up again when the moisture returns.

Once the plants are in the ground, place 3 to 4 inches of mulch on the surface. Not just any mulch -- look for one with a fine texture, like shredded hardwood bark, mininuggets or pine straw. Fine-textured mulches are better at conserving water in the soil.

Many Georgia cities or counties provide ground wood products as part of their recycling efforts. These materials are great. Take advantage of them. They not only conserve moisture, but help prevent weeds and soil erosion and add valuable nutrients back to the soil.

Gallon-jug Tricks

Another resourceful way to make your landscape more water-wise is to make three to five BB-size holes in the bottom of a gallon milk jug, then bury the jug up to its cap next to a newly planted shrub.

Once or twice a week, when it doesn't rain, just remove the cap and fill the jug with water. The water drains slowly into the soil about 12 inches deep and encourages a deep root system.

Even if you don't bury them, you can use gallon milk jugs during dry spells when normal irrigation is banned. Just punch three to five small holes in the bottom and place 2 to 3 inches of pebbles or gravel in them to keep them from blowing around when they're empty. Meat skewers make the perfect-size holes.

Then set the jugs near shrubs you want to water. Keep an equal number of hole-free jugs so you can carry water from inside when you're prohibited from turning on the outdoor faucet.

'Do What You Gotta Do'

Bath and dish water can be recycled for this type of outdoor irrigation. This may sound like a lot of work. But "you do what you gotta do" when outdoor watering is banned and your shrubs are wilting to the point of no return.

Finally, when watering with a sprinkling can, place two to three drops of a dish detergent in the water. This will decrease its surface tension and help it stick to the foliage and penetrate the soil better, with less runoff.

The key to a more resourceful landscape is creativity and a desire to reduce, reuse and recycle. It's not just a fad anymore. It's a necessity if our children and future generations are to enjoy the same quality of life we appreciate today.

Gary Wade is a Cooperative Extension horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.