Plant Survival in Summer

Photo: Spot-watering in Sperry home turf uses less water than running the sprinkler system.

Many Texas cities have again been hit by extended drought. Reservoirs are sinking and water utility companies are either encouraging or demanding that we cut back on water consumption for landscaping needs.

Our first overriding suggestion is that you establish priorities, that is, that you determine which plants are most critical to you. Annuals can easily be replaced, but groundcover beds and low shrubs are equally vulnerable since they also have very shallow root systems. It’s a pity to lose a planting of Asian jasmine or dwarf hollies when just a dollars’ worth of water could have saved them. New trees and shrubs are also more likely to be lost due to drought than their more established counterparts. Water curtailments or not, we must always hand-water new plants for their first year in our landscapes.

Many Texans are allowed to water on only one day per week, probably between 6 PM and 10 AM. Here are our quick tips to surviving the drought.

Signs of Drought Stress
Plants that are suffering from dry soils have several characteristic symptoms.

Wilting. This one seems obvious, but some people don’t actually notice it early enough. Plants can soon reach the “permanent wilting point,” that is, the point of no return. Learn which plants in your landscape wilt first and use them as your indicators.

Color change. Some plants actually do not wilt. Their leaves may take on a subtle change from bright, vibrant green to a dull, olive-drab. Hollies are good examples, as are Indian hawthorns.

Yellowed internal leaves on trees, shrubs. Plants that get too dry will often shed many of their lower and more internal leaves. It happens with poinsettia plants. Remember how stemmy they can become if you fail to water them properly? Outdoors you’ll see those same symptoms on large-leafed shade trees such as fruitless mulberries, catalpas, silver maples and cottonwoods. Their internal leaves will turn yellow and begin to fall. It can look like autumn from late summer on with leaves covering the lawn. Watering will be necessary, of course, but these trees just can’t keep up with the heat.

Turf symptoms also include folded or rolled leaf blades as well as the color change to dull green. Dry grass will also fail to’ll see footprints in it when you walk across the lawn.

Water Management Tips
There are things you can do to make sure you get full use of every drop that comes through your meter.

Honor those evening, night and early morning watering hours. There is less breeze then, so you’ll get a more accurate spray pattern. You’ll have far less loss to evaporation, and your plants will be less likely to scald due to the sun’s burning rays hitting droplets of water on their leaves and flowers. Water pressure is also better overnight.

Consider watering twice on the same day. The first will function as pre-watering to soften the soil. That will allow the second watering to soak more deeply. You may have to do one early in the morning of your scheduled watering day and the other in the evening.

Use drip irrigation and soaker hoses whenever you can. They introduce water directly into the ground, almost eliminating any chance of runoff or loss to evaporation.

Check hoses and sprinklers for tight fittings.

Watch for uniform spray patterns from automatic sprinkler heads. If the patterns are broken up, take the head apart, clean its filter, then reassemble it.

Be sure all sprinkler heads are aligned properly and that they are not encumbered by spring and summer leaf and stem growth. Trim growth as needed, or insert extenders where required.

Watch for wet spots that might indicate a valve that is not closing fully. The soggy soil will normally be near the lowest head on that valve’s station. Water will dribble slowly from the head.

Remove all weeds. They use more water than their desirable plant counterparts.

Mulch beds to reduce the soil-to-air contact and slow drying due to exposure, also to reduce weed growth.

Avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers during the hottest part of the summer. The next prime time for feeding most landscape plants will come in early September.

Posted by Neil Sperry
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