For the Time Being

For most of us, winter watering means dragging a hose.

For most of us, winter watering means dragging a hose.

It’s still devastatingly dry. In oreder to keep plants, shrubs, lawn, and soil alive in your Eastern Colorado landscape, you’ll more than likely need to water.

Here are some tips:

  • The best way to know if you need to water, is to poke a blade six inches into the soil, open a wedge and feel it. If it feels moist or is frozen, no need to water.
  • Check your soil at least every three weeks.
  • Don’t rely on a little bit of snow to do the trick. It often takes 10 inches of snow to equal one inch of rain.
  • Water when the temperature is above 40 degrees.
  • The best hours of the day for watering are usually between 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM. However, on very warm days, that window may be bigger.

Your neighbors, your wife, or your best friends might ask, “Why are you watering? Everything’s dead!”

That’s a perfect time to shine your intelligence. “They’re not dead. They’re dormant.”

There’s a big difference, and you know it.

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When It’s Too Darned Hot: Tasty Soil, Tender Mulch, and Just Enough Water

Have you felt yourself wilting, lately?

A day in the nineties or triple digits, makes me glad I’m a mobile creature. I can retreat to the shade or the relative cool of an interior. But what happens to plants when the temperatures soar?

Plants, like people, differ in their responses to heat.

As you can imagine, plants which evolved in steamy tropical rain forests and searing deserts survive the heat without much apparent fuss. It’s the plants from temperate zones which stress and cause the gardener to stress even more.

Like afternoon naps for the gardener, one of plants’ heat survival strategies is dormancy. A great example is the natural response of bluegrass varieties. When the heat turns up, bluegrass turns brown and goes to sleep. The water we pour on it through the hottest months isn’t so much to keep it alive, but to keep it cool. As long as irrigation water is evaporating and cooling the lawn, it stays relatively green. According to University of Colorado Extension, a healthy bluegrass lawn can get by on twice weekly irrigation and can survive in dormancy for weeks or even months without irrigation. Once cooler temperatures return, begin regular watering, and the green will follow.

Many flowering annuals take a break in the heat. While they aren’t totally dormant, they save their energy for the opening and closing of stomata, a kind of pore on the undersides of leaves. Perennials that normally bloom in summer’s heat, such as lilies, may wrap up their season in a hurry. When a plant wants to rest from the heat, it’s important to refrain from fertilizing. This is especially true of roses.

The Golden Jubilee Agastache pictured above is in a serious heat wilt. It is also more sensitive to soil moisture than many of the plants around it. I call it a signal plant. When it droops, I watch it as the evening cools. If it perks up, soil moisture is not yet an issue. If it doesn’t, you’ll see a sprinkler out in the morning.

During a heatwave, the natural impulse of many a gardener is to turn on the tap. While it’s important to keep garden soils from drying completely, we often water more frequently than necessary. In sandy, porous soils, three times a week might suffice. In clay-based soils, twice a week could do it. The trick is to irrigate for longer periods during extreme heat, making sure moisture penetrates to a depth of 6-8 inches.

To muddy the waters a bit: All watering rules are relative. How quickly do the temperatures rise in the morning? How far did they go down overnight? What is the relative humidity? Has it been windy? Any of these factors can change your watering regimen.

Knowing when to water is told by the soil. Put a blade in to a depth of 3-4 inches and make an opening. Feel the soil at the bottom of the opening. If it is cool and damp, all is more or less well. If it is dry, it’s time to water. Relying on plants to tell you when to water can be misleading. While it’s true that plants droop when they need a drink, they also droop in heat. They can also droop from drowning.

The same principles apply to the vegetable garden. According to University of Colorado Extension, a properly prepared veg garden should be able to tolerate intervals of 2-7 days between watering.

These watering intervals might seem counterintuitive at best, preposterous at worse, but the key is to follow other practices as well.

The foundation to any lawn or garden survival through these conditions is living soil. Soils that are properly amended save on water and support stronger, more resistant plants.

In addition, the use of mulch is crucial, even in the veg garden. The goal should be no exposed soil surface. Even half an inch of humus, leaves, straw, or fine gravel will shade the soil, helping to keep it cool and reduce evaporation.

Timing and delivery methods of watering are also important. Most experts agree: water in the morning and deliver the water at the soil’s surface, under the mulch, if possible. This helps mitigate fungal and disease issues as well as conserve water.

Keeping up with watering is sometimes the only thing a hose-dragger like me can accomplish during the hottest weeks. The comfort is knowing that as the day’s grow shorter, longer nights and cooler overnight temperatures give both gardens and gardeners a much needed respite.

Sage and Savvy, Number One

What’s a gardening website without tips, tid-bits, and to-do lists?

Every now and then, at least, don’t you think?

Some of my favorite tools for Spring clean-up. Especially the little rake. It can get into the crunchiest of places.

Spring clean-up will soon be wrapping up in these parts, but just in case you’re running a little behind, like I am, here’s a couple of tips:

  • Use hedge shears to cut back dead stems and grasses. I find cutting is easier on the plants than pulling, except with daylilies and iris.
  • Cut down a whole bed at once (unless it’s too windy), and then rake it off.
  • Toss everything directly into a large trash can or open tarp that drags along as you progress through a bed.
  • Compost at home, or take winter’s dregs to a place like our beloved Rocky Top for recycling.

Gotta love a hori-hori.

Now is a great time to:

  • Blade out those cool season weeds, like dandelions.
  • Get soil activator and fertilizer on what’s left of your lawn.
  • Scatter, scratch, and water in compost or organic fertilizer around your shrubs, grasses, and perennials.
  • Turn on your irrigation system or start dragging hoses.
  • Top off your mulch.
  • Cut new edges along beds and walkways.
  • Pinch back those geraniums you overwintered.
  • Resume the stretching you ignored all winter long.
  • Stock up on sunscreen.

Oh, and if you have early season tulips of daffodils that have finished blooming, snap off the seed pod forming at the tip of the stem. Bulbs tire more easily if they bear seeds.

Always remember to step back from time to time and admire your work.

Oh! Oh! And one more thing: Schedule a massage.

How to Kill Your Lawn and Still Be a Good Neighbor

With the cost of irrigation going up, you might be tempted just to turn off the spigot altogether, take the lawnmower to a donation center, and go someplace cool for coffee.

Wait!

If simply abandoned, a typical urban yard in Colorado will turn into a dirt lot. Seriously. Do you really want to depress your neighbors that much? There are alternatives.

Here’s what you can do:

1) Figure out which grass you just might want to keep. A nice level spot, maybe a little high shade, so you can cool your feet, play croquet, or let the dog have a place to “go”.

2) Dream up what you can put in the place of all that grass. Anything BUT rocks. How about a vegie garden? Create habitat for birds! Put down some mulch, move in a bench, and take a nap. Flowers, now there’s a thought. You could even plant native grasses.

3) Choose a method of elimination. Herbicide (poison). Removal (murder by spade). Or smother it.

4) Put something fun, useful, or pretty in its place.

My friend, DB, took the plunge a couple of years ago. Got rid of all her bluegrass. Replaced most of it with buffalo grass and made an eye-catching mixed border out of her parking median. The new look still fits the neighborhood, but takes almost no supplemental water to maintain. Have a look.

For the full show, so to speak, come on down to the Western Landscape Symposium in Pueblo or book Cheryl to speak for your group.