Yeah. 2018’s been a rough summer. It got hot early, and it’s been hot for a long time. We’ve had a tiny break these past few days, but who knows what’s coming in the six or eight weeks ahead! And, it’s been really dry on top of it all.
If you’re relatively new to Texas you may be wondering if this isn’t about the worst it can get. Well, friend, let me help you. 1980 was horrible. It was hotter, and for more consecutive days. We had less rain, and for more consecutive days. We were under strict water curtailments. It was downright tough to be a gardener back then.
And then there was 2011. The biblical drought that was the worst many of us Native Texans had ever seen. It was so bad that big native oaks in East Texas died from its effects for years after the fact.
So we’ve been through a lot here in Texas, and there will be more to come. Some of it will be good like the generous rains of 2015. And some of it will be bad. Since we’ve been trending toward the latter, let me give you some pointers on how you can help your plants make it through this tough time we’re currently facing.
Critical tips to surviving the drought …
• Decide which plants are most critical and work hardest to save them. I’ll give you my own personal opinions. I’d rate shrubs and groundcovers at the top of my list. They take the longest to replace, and they’re among the most expensive to start. Annuals can be replaced very easily. Turf will probably make it with minimal watering, and shade trees certainly can with just an occasional soaking. I just hate to see a nice holly hedge or a big groundcover bed of Asian jasmine dying because somebody didn’t spend $3 to water them.
• Invest in a “smart” controller that will determine when the sprinkler system runs and for how long, based on factors like temperature, wind, humidity, recent rainfall, soil types, slopes, sun/shade and plant types. All of that gets programmed in, along with technical data of water pressure and flow. They’re pretty cool tools. And they’ll save you more than just water. They’ll save you money.
• Water new plants by hand. Use a garden hose rigged up with a water breaker or bubbler to slow the flow of your hose at full volume. Soak them deeply every couple of days. Sprinkler irrigation alone will not be enough.
• Watch for insects and diseases. Plants become much more vulnerable when they’re challenged by hot, dry weather. Know each of your plants by its common name, and make a list of the problems most likely to befall it. Learn to watch for them regularly, then step quickly to rescue them should the problems appear.
• It is normal for many trees to develop yellowed older leaves that drop prematurely starting in mid-July and August. It’s especially common with large-leafed trees like catalpas, cottonwoods and fruitless mulberries. Don’t confuse this with iron deficiency, because that will always show up on the newest growth at the tips of the branches, and those leaves will stay on the tree. The problem you’re seeing on older leaves that are dropping is just reaction to drought and low humidity. The plants can’t pull water through fast enough, so they start shedding some of their responsibilities of maintaining all the foliage they produced back in spring’s cooler, wetter weather. Use a soaker hose around the drip line. Run it slowly for 12 to 18 hours. Two weeks later, put it in a slightly different configuration and run it again. Water bags around the trees’ trunks are expensive and useless.
• Don’t worry about having a lush, green lawn. Aim to keep it attractive and alive. You can do that with weekly waterings if it comes to that. Early mornings are the best times to irrigate. Your smart controller will run each station for a few minutes, then cycle back to it a few minutes later after the water has had a chance to soak into the soil. That prevents runoff, and that’s a sensational idea in this state where every drop counts.
• If you have St. Augustine, and if you have areas of turf that are in the hottest, driest parts of your yard, and if they don’t respond to irrigation by the next morning, odds are that you have an outbreak of chinch bugs. They’re horrible this year. They show up in July and August, and they cause the lawn to look torched. You’ll see the BB-sized black insects in the dying areas, and if you do, let your local nurseryman show you your options in control products. Don’t waste any time. They are sure death for big parts of your lawn.
• If you see edge burn or marginal browning on your plants’ leaves, those are indications that they aren’t handling the sun very well where you have them planted. Of course, you might have let them get too dry in the meanwhile, but if you’re sure that you didn’t, you might want to make plans to move them this winter into a spot that has a lot more protection from sun. Japanese maples and hydrangeas are common victims of this problem.
• Mulch your beds to prevent weeds and slow drying.
• Mow your lawn at the recommended height. Allowing the grass to grow taller does not help it survive the summer. It weakens the grass, allowing weeds to get a start.
• Should you go xeriphytic? In other words, should you plant trees and shrubs that are native to more arid conditions? In my opinion, absolutely not. Not here! Sure, we’ve seen parts of a short-term drought since last spring. But remember just three years ago when it rained 60 to 70 inches in the Metroplex and 80 inches in Corsicana just an hour to our south. Xeriphytic plants don’t stand a prayer when they’re set into that kind of environment. The heavy clay soils fill with water, driving out oxygen, and the plants soon suffocate and die.