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Drought Gardening 

Containing water around marigolds, onions, violas and pole beans with straw mulch.

Photo by Julia Graham-Whitt

Containing water around marigolds, onions, violas and pole beans with straw mulch.

It's no secret by now that Humboldt County (along with all of California and many other western states) is in trouble when it comes to general lack of rainfall. While the entire county is in a moderate drought, portions are in severe drought and some are even experiencing extreme drought. To find out drought conditions for the entire county, you can visit www.drought.gov.

So, what can gardeners do to help their landscapes/gardens out? I'm glad you asked.

Water. But water is precious and if you're in a municipal area, it's not cheap. There are ways to keep your garden and landscape plants alive without being a water hog or paying through the nose for your hydration.

For starters, don't water in the middle of the day, when it's warmest (even on the coast where it's often foggy all day long). If you're using sprinklers or other overhead watering methods, don't water when it's windy, either. Sprinklers lose 30-50 percent of their water through evaporation and other means, so it's the least efficient way of watering.

Watering first thing in the morning is usually the most beneficial for plants, as it prepares them for the day's heat. While watering in the evening can also be helpful, here on the coast, it can cause problems such as fungal diseases or rot.

Setting up a drip system is an efficient way to get water only where you want it, whether in an edible garden or ornamental landscape. Soaker hoses are also good for water conservation but they will water everything in a bed, including the spots where there aren't any plants, which means you're also watering the weeds and future weeds. But they're still preferable to overhead sprinklers. Watering deeply for a longer period of time on fewer days is far better than watering a little bit every day. Roots will penetrate deeper into the soil if you give it a good soaking.

Do a little research about which plants actually need water and which don't. Generally speaking, native plants don't need much water after they've become established, as they are used to the growing conditions here (though this year, they may appreciate a little extra moisture, as we're 15 inches below normal rainfall). Some plants are very thirsty but others need minimal to no supplemental watering. Woody herbs (lavender, rosemary, sage) are also quite drought tolerant. Check with your local nursery to ask about which plants are the most drought tolerant, and consider putting these in your landscape (or even in pots on a small balcony or deck if you are an apartment dweller).

One of the very best things you can do to help conserve water and contain moisture is to mulch. Whether it's shredded redwood bark, fir chips or just some straw (straw, not hay), this will keep plants moist longer and keeps their root systems cool. If you don't have the money to purchase mulch at one of the local landscape supply companies, there are often "free piles" of chips that the tree trucks dump around the county. There's a giant one at Redwood Acres in the main parking lot near the ballfield. You can often find piles of chipped tree debris in the turnout off of State Route 299 near the Glendale exit, as well as up in the turnout by Big Lagoon up in Trinidad. The general rule is, if there's a pile of chips on the side of the road (not in front of someone's house, let's get real here), it's up for grabs.

Before you grab that free mulch, though, take a sniff. Does it smell like eucalyptus? While chipped eucalyptus can be beneficial for smothering and outright killing weeds, it can also cause some problems for your landscape plants. But if you want to kill a bunch of turfgrass, eucalyptus is the way to go.

Layer the mulch at least 3 inches thick. This will provide a weed barrier (understand that you will still have weeds, thanks to wind and birds and children waving those pampas grass blooms around, but they will be much easier to pull out if you've mulched heavily).

And finally, if you can stand it, please don't water your lawn. Grass is supposed to go dormant; it's how nature intended it to be. Since I'm sure we'll be asked to conserve water again this year, it pains me a bit to see people using water to keep that grass green. If you must water the lawn, remember: One long, deep soaking goes a long way over multiple shallow watering sessions. Deep root systems help keep the grasses greener longer. Better yet, rip out that lawn and put in some drought tolerant groundcovers you can walk over. The wildlife will love you for it.

Julia Graham-Whitt (she/her) is owner and operator of the landscaping business Two Green Thumbs.

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