June 6, 2011

The Calendar Says It Is Spring, But It Is 93 Degrees.....and Climbing

drip lines can be connected to a hose
and are really efficient

The western states are MUCH drier than Florida
and use more creative watering methods

Every year, we experience a phenomenon I call "The Transition"; the period between the pleasant weather of Spring, and the brutal sun and heat of Summer. Unfortunately, this transition period involves long days of brilliant, cloudless skies, little or no rain, and fairly strong dry winds. These forces combine to make plants ( and gardeners) really unhappy. The results are painfully evident, with great patches of dry grass, wilting and defoliating trees, wilted everything else, and a renewed questioning in the wisdom of having tropical gardens. 

Take heart, fellow gardeners, the rains are coming. This happens every year, but the length of these dry spells seems to get longer and longer each year. I can't speak to the idea of global climate change, but I could certainly speak to the ideas of local climate change, and a disappearing water table. What can we do as a residence, business, and community to bring relief to our plants, without breaking any ethical or legal conservation laws ? 

My answer is that we can do several things to make our plants happier in the dry times, using techniques I have brought forth before in previous blogs. Let's revisit some of these ideas, starting with intelligent watering practices. Using large amounts of irrigation water for a few minutes each day is counter-productive, and nets you shallow root systems that need watering daily to survive. Using less water over a longer time ( e.g drip or soaker lines on the soil under mulch) will give plants the water they need with no runoff and almost no wasted water.

drip emitter set on a durable sub-
surface drip tube line

Using larger amounts of mulch or compost is a great way to save water and get better looking, more drought-resistant plants. Use more mulch, not less, and use it more often, not less often. Keep mulch away from the tree trunks or stems, and strive to apply 4-6" of mulch in the entire area under the tree or shrub canopy, out to the canopy edge and even beyond. Some of the better looking low-maintenance gardens I've seen locally had no grass, a thick bed of mulch and pine straw over the whole garden, and the plants looked fabulous. Grass is an enormous consumer of water and fertilizer, to say nothing of the time and expense of keeping it cut and weed-free. 

If you simply must have turf grass, water it intelligently, deeply, and weekly. So many people water their lawns every day ( unnecessary), feed the grass monthly ( unnecessary), and spend egregious amounts of money on weedkillers and pesticides ( unnecessary). Moreover, there are turf maintenance companies which trumpet the need for high-nitrogen fertilizers, guaranteeing that their product will green up the grass almost overnight. The tree and palm and shrub roots that grow throughout the property certainly don't need this extra nitrogen, and can even be harmed by it. In Florida, an N:P:K ratio of 3-1-3 is ideal, e.g. a 12-4-12 fertilizer, or a Palm Special type of fertilizer. If you really want an extra punch in the fertilizer product, choose extra potassium, the last ingredient in the mixture, such as 12-4-15. This extra potassium level gets you stronger roots, greener color, and solid tree / palm roots, without speeding up plant growth. 

Last and not least, look at where your irrigation is applying water--you might be watering a sidewalk, road, driveway, or patio deck. These areas won't absorb water, and will evaporate water fast, wasting it into the air, not into the ground. Water your property early in the morning, before 9 a.m. to slow down evaporation into the atmosphere. The old dogma of watering at mid-day is wasteful and unproductive. The best effects come when irrigation is done near dawn. 

We can all conserve a little water without any impact on our lives, saving water at every step. Together the numbers add up to impressive levels: if every household and business in Florida watered one day less than we currently do, billions of gallons of water would be saved every year.           

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