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What's bugging you? Aug. 8, 2018

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Our drought has continued with generally hot, dry days. I did receive seven tenths of an inch of rain the last week of July but this storm was spotty at best. We have entered the monsoon season with expected increased chances of rain. I will not hold my breath!

A continuing drought can be a gardener's worst nightmare. When a hot, dry weather pattern settles in, it affects your landscape in a variety of ways. There's nothing you can do to prevent a drought, but there are some strategies you can enact to help minimize the effect it has on your yard.

Drought weakens your plants, increasing how susceptible they are to attack from insects and disease. It also makes plants less winter-hardy, especially if the drought occurs in fall as plants are going dormant. The hot, dry conditions have a lasting effect, too -- trees and shrubs in particular can take several years to fully recover from drought.

Watering your garden is the most obvious strategy to deal with prolonged dry conditions. To stay healthy, most garden plants like about an inch of moisture per week. In most cases, it's better to apply the water less frequently during droughts but with higher amounts. It's a bit of a waste to give your plants less water more frequently: Doing so discourages the roots from growing as deeply into the soil (where it stays moister longer) as they can, and it's also inefficient as more water is lost to evaporation.

While about 50 percent of residential water use typically goes toward our gardens, the biggest water user by far is your lawn. Lawns planted to cool-season grasses such as Kentucky blue grass use 40-50 percent more water than trees and shrubs for optimal appearance. The first thing I would look at in my effort to maximize water efficiency would be my irrigation system. You can't just install a lawn sprinkler system and expect it to function perfectly year after year.

I would also suggest reducing the size of your lawn where practical and reducing the amount of water you apply by 10-20 percent. Your lawn won't look as good but it will survive and not go dormant. You should reduce the amount of water applied by watering less often, maybe increasing the interval by a day. Do not reduce the amount of water applied at each irrigation. We want to encourage deep roots. Core aerating your lawn is another practice that will increase water penetration and be very beneficial.

If you haven't done so already, I would apply a 2- to 3-inch-deep layer of mulch over the soil in your gardens and under trees and shrubs. It keeps the soil cooler and shields the ground from direct sun. The benefit is that moisture stays in the soil longer, where it's more available to your garden plants. You can run a soaker hose underneath your mulch to maximize water savings. Water will be delivered directly to the ground (reducing evaporation) and slowly (reducing water loss to runoff). It will also keep plant foliage dry, which helps prevent many common fungal diseases such as black spot on roses.

If you apply fertilizers (organic or synthetic), it's helpful to stop doing so when you are trying to conserve water during a drought. Fertilizers encourage plant growth; the more a plant grows, the more moisture it needs. If fertilizer salts build up in your soil because they're not naturally leaching out with rain or irrigation, they can build up and burn plant roots, causing further damage.

You should also pull weeds. It might not be fun at the best of times, but getting those weeds out of the garden is especially important during drought. The reason: weeds' roots steal valuable moisture from your desirable plants.

Deadheading your flowers is also suggested if you don't already. Removing spent blooms before they have a chance to set seed saves energy for your plants: They don't need to put extra energy (which they need water for) into producing seeds.

Gardening without water or in minimized conditions can be challenging. By following a few of these simple tips, however, you can still have the beautiful garden without irresponsible water waste and high utility bills.

Jim Leser retired to Cedaredge in 2007 after a career with Texas A&M University Extension in entomology. He is a member of the Cedaredge Tree Board and a Colorado Master Gardener.

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Jim Leser, What's Bugging You
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