Dry Soil and the Cape Cod Garden
Dry Soil and the Cape Cod Garden
As I write this blog post, it’s a sunny 81 degrees and very windy. We haven’t had significant rain for sometime, and according to the latest Cape Cod landscape message from the UMASS Cooperative Extension, our soils are dry. “Precipitation fell on June 27/28 and July 2 amounting to just under an inch (0.91”). Soil moisture is short; there’s just enough precipitation to keep plants limping along,” they wrote on July 8th.
Unfortunately, that sea-breeze that is so delightful for us on summer days blows even more moisture away from plants in sunny weather. So it’s especially timely to do a post today about watering.
“I have an irrigation system, so my plants are okay, right?
The answer to this questions depends on how long your system runs, and how often. Unfortunately, many automatic irrigation systems are set to run for only 20 or 30 minutes at a time, and usually this only dampens the soil a couple of inches down. In fact, if a layer of mulch has built up in beds over time, this brief watering might not even reach where the roots are in the soil. Since irrigation equipment and water pressure varies, it’s impossible to give people a set time and frequency for their watering schedule. But it is possible for each homeowner to check for themselves to see if their system is doing the job. An hour or two after your irrigation has gone off, go out to your beds with a trowel or shovel. Move any mulch aside and then dig a hole ten inches deep. Look and feel the soil at the bottom of that hole. If it’s moist from your recent watering, you’re in good shape. But if it’s dry, your irrigation isn’t running for a long enough period of time. Set the system to run longer, but not as frequently. Ultimately you’ll be using about the same amount of water but it will be going down in the root zone where it can sustain your plants.
Be sure to test your soil moisture in this manner in two or three locations. Sprinkler heads might be soaking on one side of a shrub, for example, while the back part of the plant remains dry.
“My perennial dried up! Will it come back?”
Most of the time perennials will recover even if the top foliage has wilted and dried. Cut off those dying and unattractive stems, and water the area well with a sprinkler. You could soak one plant temporarily with a hose or watering wand, but for over-all recovery water with a sprinkler so that the entire area gets a good, deep soaking. If you’re only soaking the individual plant, the dry soil around it will take that moisture away quickly, and the plant won’t be able to restore its drying roots.
“How do I know if my plants are drought-stressed?”
Plants that are thirsty often show signs of drought before there is actual dieback. Look for curled leaves, brown leaf edges, and drooping stems. Sometimes these are very noticeable and other times they are more subtle. Look at the tops of plants, and the parts that are most exposed to the sun, because that’s where you’re likely to see the symptoms of drought first.
“If my plant has dried up, will giving it some fertilizer help?”
If your plant has gotten really dry, do not fertilize in an attempt to make things better. If you’re using synthetic fertilizers this can cause more damage than good. The best help for a plant that’s in drought stress is water. Mulching bare soil, or covering the dirt with a layer of compost can also be of benefit. Water regularly while you wait to see if the problem areas come back or not. If they don’t show new growth by mid-August, prune them off. Apply an organic fertilizer in the spring.
“My containers look dry by 4 PM, but I thought that I was supposed to only water in the morning.”
While morning watering is the preferred time, it’s best to water a thirsty plant when you notice that it’s dry, be it in the ground or in a pot. Containers dry more quickly, and in some situations you may need to water them twice a day. As long as they have a drainage hole, let your eyes and fingers be the judge of when pots or boxes need water. Additionally, if the soil in a container has gotten very dry, it’s best to water them twice. Water well once, wait a few minutes, and then come back and water them again. This will ensure that the entire root ball will be well soaked.
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