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Expert offers tips to help lawns, plants during drought

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Catherine W. Idzerda
July 2, 2012

— It's no longer funny when someone asks, "Is it hot enough for you?"

It hasn't been funny since at least Thursday, when the temperature reached 99 in Janesville.

Here's another thing that isn't funny: the state of your lawn.

Nor is the condition of the perennial beds, the state of the tomatoes and the drooping and miserable annuals in full sun. None of those things is funny, either.

The United States Department of Agriculture announced that Rock and Walworth counties are experiencing "moderate drought" conditions.

We asked UW Extension horticulture educator Mike Maddox for home garden watering advice: How much, how long and other best practices.

Universal rules

-- Most important: Water deeply and infrequently. Once a week, Maddox stands over each of his tomato plants and, using the gentle spray setting on the hose, lets it run for a count of 45 to 50 seconds at the base of each plant.

It's not a scientific formula. He's determined that given the quality of his soil, the amount of water that comes out of the spray nozzle at that setting—about five gallons—is the amount his plants need to get a good soaking.

Give plants a gentle spritz each day, and the roots will remain at the surface, and water will be lost to evaporation.

-- Always at the base: Notice that Maddox said he waters at the base of the plant. Overhead watering can lead to fungal infections. This is most true with tomatoes, beans, peppers and some summer squashes.

Even if the plant is not susceptible to fungal infections, watering at the bases of plants gets the water where it's needed most and reduces the amount of water lost to evaporation.

Soaker hoses can help with this, as well.

-- Practice perfect timing: First choice? Water in the morning. Second choice, the evening. Watering in the middle of the day is the least effective because of the amount lost to evaporation. This is especially true of overhead sprinkler systems.

Variables

-- Mulch makes a difference: If your perennial beds have mulch, such as wood chips or bark around them, it will help conserve moisture. Same in the vegetable garden: Mulches of straw or other organic materials help hold in water.

-- Soil types make a difference: If your soil has high sand and gravel content, plants will need more frequent watering.

-- Common sense: Keep an eye on your plants. When the leaves start to curl, that means they're trying to reduce their exposure to the sun's heat. Wilting and drooping are other obvious signs.

Lawns

-- Basic rules: Like other flower and vegetable plants, lawns need an inch of water per week to stay healthy and green.

As with other plants, a short watering puts more stress on the grass than if it hadn't been watered at all, according to turf grass specialists at UW-Madison.

Many Wisconsinites let their lawns go dormant during the hottest days of summer; this is an option, too.



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