What planet do you live on? One where the rainfall deficit is 11"-plus and the Chesapeake Bay a sewer of nitrogen and phosphorus, or Bizzaro World where a chemical green lawn pocked with automatic irrigation heads (or at least a yellow rotating water spike) is the perfect picture of the good life?
Most lawns here are cool season grasses, of the type called fescues, that go dormant in the heat. It’s not dead, just resting. Brown grass greens up with cooler temperatures and more rain. Only a prolonged drought is likely to kill turf grasses, but by then water use would be restricted anyway (remember when the Orange River went dry?) and you’d be wishing you’d installed that graywater system or stored summer’s rainstorms in barrels. But even if you had, watering the lawn in August still wouldn’t be a good idea.
If iPods and books-on-tape don’t appeal, bury drip irrigation hoses under a couple inches of mulch, attached to a timer.
Untended sprinklers slop over onto driveways and streets, washing pesticides and fertilizers, oil and gas drippings into the watershed. Overhead watering can work with turf if you position sprinklers carefully, monitor the water and restrict it to morning hours so it doesn’t stay wet overnight, but it’s not the best choice for other plants because a lot of water gets lost in the air; crowns rot, fungal diseases spread.
This is the time to let established plantings take care of themselves. Concentrate instead on individual trees, shrubs and perennials that haven’t yet grown their roots into surrounding soil. Plants put in last spring need to be nursed through the summer with a deep soak every week or two until they get a good rain.
Envision the root ball. A 6-8′ balled and burlapped tree has a bigger root system than a quart-sized perennial or a 6" potted petunia. Put water to the roots as directly as possible, holding a moderately flowing hose to the base of the plant.
A mounded hill of soil around the edge of the planting hole holds water in. Hunker down on your haunches (this will make you an honorary Virginian regardless of birthplace) or sit in a lawn chair and watch the water puddle up and bubble down repeatedly (kink the hose or use a shut-off valve while you’re waiting; don’t blast away and let the water and soil run off) until the ground is saturated.
Some people can’t stand this because it takes too much time and they find it excruciatingly boring. Their plants die and they lose money. If iPods and books-on-tape don’t appeal, bury drip irrigation hoses under a couple of inches of mulch, attached to a timer. Portable plastic watering bags can be placed around newly planted trees. Five-gallon buckets with holes in the bottom are equivalent if not particularly aesthetic.
Sound water use allows us a bit left over to get a jump on the fall garden. As August wanes, temperatures abate and well-amended soil is ripe for direct sowings of kale, turnips and carrots along with transplants of chard, Brussels sprouts and cabbages. Look for them now in local garden centers.
It is possible to husband our landscapes through the sere times without sucking the water table dry or contributing to polluting run-off. Think twice before you water this summer. Minimize turf and use drought resistant plants.
The little white garden on the corner of the McGuffey Art Center at Market Street and Second Street NW showcases plants that tolerate dry conditions and minimal maintenance while shimmering in the dusk and dawn: oak leaf hydrangea, Shasta daisy, coneflower and catmint. Ornamental grasses and herbs are also indispensable for the Virginia xeriscape. That’s what the good life looks like: sustainable.
Garden questions? Send to them Cathy Clary at firstname.lastname@example.org.