Preparing your garden for dry conditions
Photo courtesy of Lorene Edwards Forkner – This ground cover tapestry, which includes a spring primrose, insulates soil from temperature fluctuations and reduces evaporation.
by Lorene Edwards Forkner
It's spring! Plants and gardeners alike revel in this luxurious season of sufficient moisture. Bulbs bloom, seeds sprout and plants are growing at an alarming rate in the lengthening days. However, even in the midst of showery April, experienced Northwest gardeners know to plan for eight to 10 weeks of punishingly dry, parched conditions that routinely show up after the Fourth of July.
Here's how I've learned to weather this climatic bait-and-switch throughout many seasons in my garden:
- Get to know your garden. Identify shifting seasonal patterns of sun and shade. Sunny sites dry out faster than those in dappled shade. Take note of low spots in the landscape where water pools in wet weather. This will be a possible location for extra thirsty plants.
- What lies beneath? Sandy soil or sticky clay? Such factors make a huge difference in how your plants respond to watering. My sloping backyard is composed of well-drained, sandy loam - a boon in wet weather and I rarely lose a plant to root rot. An annual 3-inch blanket of compost adds valuable organic matter and helps to retain soil moisture. I've had to give up trying to grow beautiful, big-leafed ligularias as even judicious summer watering perks right through my light soil leaving behind a wilted mess. I've learned to appreciate spring ephemerals like primroses, corydalis and bleeding hearts. These thrive on seasonal rains before politely going dormant beneath the skirts of more drought tolerant summer perennials like hostas, cone flowers and ornamental sages.
- "No bare soil" should be every plant-lover's creed! Establish plants so they knit together to fully cover and shade the soil. Compost and underplanting with ground covers further insulate soil from temperature fluctuations and reduces evaporation, helping to maintain soil moisture at the root zone.
- Learn to love your hose. It can provide the best education and the most accurate barometer of your garden's needs. Invest in quality hoses that are strong and flexible; life's too short for brittle vinyl and intractable kinking. Water deeply, but less often to encourage a good root system. More frequent, shallow watering only encourages weak surface roots that quickly dry out and stress the plant. Soaker hoses are an easy and cost-effective option because water slowly leaks into the soil at the root zone preventing wasteful runoff. This year, in addition to wrangling my rubber hoses, I'm excited to put my new rain barrels to use harvesting free water for irrigating my vegetable garden.
By incorporating these gardening strategies into my routine during the wet season, I'll be certain to make it through the harshest of dry spells. Welcome to another year of having fun in the garden.
Lorene Edwards Forkner, freelance writer, garden designer and food enthusiast, lives in Seattle and revels in the seasonal pleasures and broad scope of gardening in the Pacific Northwest. She's a contributing writer to Northwest Garden News and author of "Growing Your Own Vegetables."