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Drought proof your garden

May 10, 2012

Summer is right around the corner and while we have had a great rain year thus far, we in central Texas are still in a moderate drought as of May 1st. I thought this would be a great time to talk about how to help your garden make it through what could be another tough summer as unscathed as possible.

We should all know by now that Texas summers get pretty hot (and if this is your first Texas summer, you are about to find out) and our bodies sweat as a way to try and cool themselves. Well, plants do a similar thing so obviously they need the right amount of water to do that. Notice that I said the right amount of water, not lots of water. Sure, you could flood your plants everyday or quickly water them 3 times a day and they may survive, but they won’t thrive. The goal is to not have to water everyday and especially since we are in a drought make the best use of the water when we do…. errrr water.

So how do we turn our plants into efficient drinkers? Start with the soil!! You may have heard that you need to “water deep”, but what exactly does that mean and accomplish? The soil dries out fastest at the surface because it is there that the sun heats it and the wind accelerates evaporation. Watering so that we get moisture below the first few inches is like money in the bank, except we are saving for a dry and sunny day, not a rainy one. In order for the plants to access that lower moisture, they need longer roots. Longer, less frequent waterings encourage the plant roots to grow down instead of out so they will be able to access this lower moisture and because the deeper soil is not exposed to the sun and wind , it stays cool and damp longer. Deeper roots and deeper water means your plants will be able to drink for longer making them less likely to dry and wilt.

“So you are telling me that I just need to water longer and I’m all set? Thanks and see ya later!”

Not so fast. Just because you are watering longer does not mean that the water is making it to the lower layers of the soil, nor does it mean that your plant roots can grow deep enough to access this possibly hypothetical lower water. It’s time we talked about soil compaction. You see, when two soil particles fall in love…. Wait, what are we taking about here? Alright, that’s not quite how it happens (or is it? Can you really prove me wrong?), but for various reasons particles can get squished together so tightly that roots and water cannot get between the particles. Water will run off or pool and roots will get thick and crooked trying to go nowhere and getting there fast. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to keep that soil loose so that water and roots can penetrate. There isn’t a quick fix for soil compaction, what we need to do is change our habits.

First and foremost, stop watering straight from the hose with the solid stream! What soil is not washed away will definitely become compacted from the force and rearrangement of particles as they settle. It may not happen right away, but it will happen. Make sure you use a watering wand or some other attachment that breaks up the flow, think rain drops. Drip irrigation is even better.

Aggregation! Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about! Bask in all it’s crumbly glory!

Secondly, add organic matter like compost. Bits of organic matter, like humus, act like little sponges and some will absorb water to be used later. The bits of organic matter also create bonds with the soil particles and create aggregates. Small aggregates make bigger aggregates and so on. This is the soft, crumbly soil that we want. Close your eyes for a minute and think of marbles in a bowl. Ok, now open them and start reading again. Did you notice there are all kinds of spaces between adjoining marbles? It is in these spaces that water percolates and roots grow downward. Turn your soil into a bowl full of marbles. Adding compost is not the only thing you can do to add organic matter. I am growing a cover crop (also called green manure) of palestinian clover in my garden. When I mix it in, the roots, leaves, and stems that do not decompose right away will add a lot of organic matter to the soil. While it is living (I am also growing a more permanent row of it in my paths) the roots that the clover sends down will also provide channels for water drops to follow and the leaves will protect the ground from the direct impact of falling water. The bacteria that live around the roots will also fix nitrogen in the soil, but that is a topic for another day.

Another thing that you can do to ease compaction is a technique used in the French method of bio-intensive growing called “double digging”. Basically, you use a shovel to remove the top layer of soil, put it on a tarp or in buckets, and then dig another shovel depth down to loosen the lower soil. Now replace the top layer of soil. You should really only have to do this once. A simple web search on double digging will…. dig up plenty of info. I might post more on compaction later, but let’s get back to drought proofing.

Mulch, mulch, mulch. Or shade. Or both. The idea here is to provide shade as well as a physical barrier over the soil that will help keep it cool so that we lose less water to evaporation. Mulch with straw, compost, wood chips, shredded paper, etc. I do a rendition of square foot gardening and my plants are generally close enough together that they provide enough shade to cover the soil, but not each other.

Feed your plants correctly. Fertilize enough so that your plants have all the nutrients they need to grow up big and strong. Healthy plants are better equipped to handle stress from weather extremes, pests, and disease. Too much fertilizer can run off, pollute water and soil, and waste your money. Unbalanced fertilizer, like way too much nitrogen, creates an unhealthy plant and an unhealthy plant will not be resilient. So again the emphasis here is CORRECTLY.

And there you have it folks! Follow these tips and your garden will love you for it, paying you back with beautiful looking, healthy plants loaded with goodies!

Happy Gardening.

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