I don't know about you, but I am ready for some cool fall days and the crisp, crackling sound of fallen leaves under your feet - Oh wait! The leaves are already falling off the trees! Ever wonder why trees will lose their leaves during a hot, dry summer? Or why your herbaceous perennials will just wilt down and disappear? For a lot of plants, this is a way to preserve themselves for the next season. Trees will drop their leaves early and 'go to sleep', while herbaceous perennials will shut off leaf and flower production to save the underground portions of the plant. If you are like me, you will let your plants 'go to sleep' and will only water when conditions are to deep drought status - and then only water the shrubs. Even with this drought that most of the country seems to be experiencing this summer, I have yet to water any of my plants! How can this be, you ask? With 90% of my gardens filled with native plants, the fact that I don't have any grass, and that I have several years of accumulated leaf litter in my gardens - my plants are surviving and are still green. One or two of the shrubs under the bigger trees are beginning to wilt down and I will keep my eye on them, but most are handling this drought quite well. If necessary, I will water the ones that are looking bad but only if they are in danger of total death. So, the next question is, how to water your plants!
All of you who are reading this post, raise your hand if you have been out there watering your plants with a hose. Raise your hand again if you have an attachment on the end of your hose that sprays the water like a sprinkler.... Now, for a few facts on watering your plants. When you water with a hose and you put your thumb or finger on the end of the hose to create a 'spray', you have now reduced the amount of water getting to the soil by about half. If you are using a sprinkler head on your hose, only about 25% of the water is actually making it to the ground! If you water during the heat of the day (when most think that the plants need the water), even less water is making it to the ground. Why? Because the majority of the water droplets that hit the air evaporate as soon as they are released from the hose. If you use a sprinkler head, the droplets are smaller and evaporation rises to a higher rate. Water in the heat of the day when the sun is at its hottest (noon-2pm) and even more water will evaporate before hitting the plants. How is this possible, you ask??? You can see the water as it hits the leaves and the leaves are very wet! Why worry about water hitting the ground when the leaves are all wet? Because almost 100% of the water that the plant uses comes from the roots, not the leaves! The leaves are not there for water intake. They are there to make the food that allows the plant to grow.
How does this work? There are holes called stomates on the leaves. They are microscopic pores in the leaves that allow them to bring in CO2 and other molecules necessary for the plant to live. CO2 is one of the essential building blocks for carbohydrate production that produces the sugar (carbohydrates) that all animals on the earth need for food. I sometimes play a game with my grandchildren in which I ask them to tell me if they can think of any food that they eat that does not start with plant consumption. Try the game yourself, you will find that there is always a plant at the beginning of any food chain, but I digress!
SO, to continue, when you water your plants using a hose, you are reducing the amount of water that the plant receives by at least 50% AND you are also increasing the chance of disease! When the water droplets puddle on a leaf surface, lots of little microscopic bacteria, fungi and other things love to swim in this water and when the water is absorbed into the leaf through these holes, so are the diseases! But don't worry! There are ways to water your plants that will get the most amount of water to the roots!
First and foremost, you must water slowly and completely. For optimum growth, plants need at least an inch a week. By this I mean that at least an inch of water must reach the roots each week. One way to accomplish this is to use a soaker hose. This is a special hose that has tiny holes along its length that allow water to seep out when the hose is connected to your spigot. Here is the kicker - the soaker hose must be wound throughout your gardens so the entire area will be covered and it must be left running until you can scrap away the topsoil and find that the water has penetrated at least one inch into the soil.
You CAN make your own soaker hose, just poke tiny holes along the length of the hose (all around the hose). You can buy a new hose and do this or just use your old hose. You can put several hoses together and wind them throughout your garden or just do different portions of your gardens at a time. Whichever way you decide to use your soaker hose, it will have the best chance of saving your plants during this drought.
A second way to save your plants during a drought is to use mulch and I am speaking of leaf litter or even wisely spread grass clippings. Regular bark mulch is OK for a new garden but it is made of bark - the outer surface of a tree. It will not absorb and hold water like leaves or grass clipping. Wow! Another way to save money in these hard times and protect your plants! A third way to preserve your plants during a drought is to plant natives (!) and let them do their thing! If your native perennials die back this summer and don't give you that wonderful display of flowers - don't despair! In most cases, they are just protecting themselves and will come back next year to try again! In any garden, plants native to your area will usually perform the best and survive the longest if planted in the right areas for them.
I hope this post has helped you through these tough days and remember me as I continue to calculate leaf area of over 500 leaves and work on the statistical data important to finishing this degree!!!