This morning the headlines in the morning news were that the drought in SE Wisconsin has been upgraded to “severe”.  What this means is that crop damage has occurred or is highly likely, there may be water shortages, and water restrictions are in place in many communities.  Well, the farm fields are not the only thing affected…as we well know, the lush green of spring in our individual landscapes has long since passed.  Coupled with no rain are the effects of sweltering high temperatures.  What to do….and what not to do….

I keep dancing, praying, and hoping for rain!  The cooler temperatures this week are a blessing, unfortunately the severe heat of the last two weeks has caused some damage to many landscape plants.  The damage that I have seen is mostly a ‘sun burn’ of top leaves on shrubs and trees, and where there has been no watering I am seeing shrubs now turn ‘crispy’.  Are they dead?  I’m not sure yet.  Stressed for sure…and time will tell if they can or will rebound.

Sincerely, I hope that we do not see widespread loss of ornamental plantings.  And I am generally not an alarmist…but the last time I recall a drought like this was in 1988 and the last brutal heat I recall like this was in 1995….never do I remember the heat and drought happening together.  I have driven and observed landscapes from Delafield to Whitefish Bay and what I see is note worthy.  I’ve seen Pachysandra lying flat because it is so parched of water, Burning Bushes with crispy leaves and stems turning brittle.

One thing is for certain—if you have not been watering your plants, you need to start now.  Depending on the size of your landscape, you may need to make choices about what plants you can and cannot afford to lose.  In my mind, trees take top priority followed by shrubs, then perennials….and finally annuals and the lawn.

Trees:  This is your first priority!  Trees are the most expensive, and often impossible, to replace within our lifetime.  Lay a hose at the drip line of your tree and just let it run at a slow rate so it softens and penetrates, not just run off the hard soil.  The amount of water depends on the size of your tree—for each inch in diameter that your tree trunk measures, provide 10 gallons of water.  If you have a 7” diameter tree, this means 70 gallons of water.  Hard to imagine 70 gallons, but here is a simple tip: time how long it takes your hose to fill a 1 gallon jug (at the slow rate), multiply this by 10 and this is how long you need to let the hose run for each inch in diameter that your tree trunk measures.

In 1988 I was 12 years old!  I remember the drought because I was a caddy at Tuckaway Country Club in Franklin.  The golf course was drying up and not very lush.  As a 12 year old kid, new to golf, I really did not take notice.  However, the next year as I spent another summer as a caddy I did take notice that many trees were dead.  I was told that it was because of the drought the year before.  Depending on how established and what type of tree you have, it only has so much moisture in reserve.  The soils are hard and dry to a very deep level right now and even the deep root systems of a tree are having a hard time finding the water they need.

Shrubs:  If you have several, you may need to prioritize your watering.  Provide water to the shrubs that are most valuable to your landscape.  Lay a hose at the base of each shrub and let it run at a slow rate.  Water each shrub for about 5-10 minutes 1-2 times per week.

Perennials:  If you have extensive perennial gardens you may wish to set up a sprinkler.  Set this up to run early in the morning for 2-3 hours in one location, 1x per week.  This amount of water, delivered by a sprinkler will imitate a slow soaking rain.  Be sure to be finished watering by 10am…any later an most of your water will just evaporate and be of no benefit to the plant.

Annuals: containers and bedding plants:  Again, you may need to prioritize your water and effort.  Bedding plants should be watered every other day, enough to moisten the soil to a depth of about 4-5”.  Literally dig down about 1 hour after you finish watering to see how far the water has infiltrated into the soil.  That is the best way to accurately know how much water you need to apply.  For containers—you need to water containers 1-2x daily depending on their exposure and size.  Hanging baskets/bags and small containers require more frequent watering.  Large containers or containers in a sheltered location may be alright with a good watering 1x per day or even every other day.  Watch for wilting—containers can dry quickly and become parched in a matter of hours.  Use saucers to hold water for the soil to draw up from the bottom.

Lawns: If you have not started….let it go.  Honestly.  Your lawn is likely fully dormant and pulling it out of dormancy at this time will make it mandatory that you continue to water.  Most communities are instilling water restrictions on lawns.  Now is not the time to start.  If you have been watering your lawn and it is actively growing and your community is not yet under water restrictions, consider cutting back on the frequency that you water but water for a longer period of time.  A deep watering 1x per week is sufficient and better than 3x per week at a low amount.  Our lawn grasses are meant to go dormant in the heat of the summer, they will come back.  That said—this is a “severe drought” and there are certain properties where there will be loss or damage.  If you see loss/damage, then contact us and we will propose the correct course of action.  Likely, simply aerating and overseeding in the very late summer and fall will be enough to repair and fill in any damaged areas.

Here are a few more general watering tips that will help you:

Don’t rely on sprinkler systems to water new plantings—do it by hand.  Then, you’ll know exactly how much water they are getting.
Soak your plants thoroughly so that the moisture gets to the bottom of the planting hole.  Plants that do not receive adequate moisture at the depths of their rootlets will tend to root near the surface.  This could lead to dependence on frequent watering and uprooting during storms.
Get to know your soil structure.  Heavy clay soils retain moisture longer than sandy soils.  If you are unsure of the moisture retention of you soil, dig down along the roots and feel it.  If the soil feels water-logged or smells “swampy”, loosen it with a digging fork or rake and allow it to air dry.  If it feels dry—water.
Water during the early morning hours.  This will help prevent loss of water by evaporation during the heat of the day.
Avoid watering during the evening which could encourage disease.
Try to keep from wetting the foliage.  Wet foliage encourages disease.
To conserve soil moisture, keep a 2-3” layer of mulch in place over the root system.  Mulch also helps keep weeds down, cools the soil, and attracts beneficial organisms.  Choose mulch that is composed of organic matter (peat, compost, etc.) it will help to improve soil structure and fertility.

I welcome you and those you know to contact me with any questions.  Please forward this message to others.  Thank you!

Dancing, Praying, and Hoping…