The Summer of 2014: Coping with Drought

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson June 15, 2014 18:45

In a season of drought, do you save that 30-year-old flowering dogwood or your prize roses? Can you do both?

Does your vegetable garden take priority over the lawn? How can you ensure pets and livestock have enough water to stay healthy?

Area residents face difficult decisions when water is scarce, but common sense and a few suggestions from those in the know will ensure that you, your horse and your fruit trees survive the challenge of consecutive dry years in the foothills.

Most of us already fix household leaks and turn off faucets when water is not absolutely needed. But long showers may be the biggest household water waster, says Mona Walker, executive assistant for the Calaveras County Water District. Reducing showers from 10 minutes to five can save more than 1,000 gallons a month in a three-shower-a-day household.

What about outside the home? Most of us overwater our landscape plants, research by the University of California Cooperative Extension shows. Established trees, shrubs and groundcovers can most often do well on 20 to 40 percent less irrigation than they are typically given.

Below are other FAN-friendly ways to intelligently use and conserve water.

Use mulch

There may be no greater gift to your trees, shrubs, flowers, and veggies than mulch. It not only reduces evaporation and thus conserves water, but regulates soil temperature, prevents erosion, suppresses weeds, can evolve into compost, and often makes your garden look better.

Popular materials for organic mulch include wood chips, bark, dry leaves and straw (avoid hay, which may be contaminated with weed seeds). Green lawn clippings contain too much nitrogen, but dry clippings are OK. Newspaper and cardboard may be used as a base over which heavier mulch is placed to prevent it from blowing away or becoming messy when wet. Even pine needles can be used as mulch on acid-loving plants.

More permanent but less environmentally friendly mulches provide many of the same benefits. These include rock, gravel, rubber from recycled tires, and even plastic sheeting for some types of vegetables.

Prune and water trees less

Prune trees lightly or not at all in very dry years. Pruning stimulates plants to put out new shoots, and that growth requires more water.

Remove most of the young fruit from your trees early in the season and water them 25 to 30 percent less. In extreme drought conditions, Master Gardener and water expert Al Dahlstrand of Jamestown recommends stripping trees of 90 to 100 percent of young fruit – sacrificing a year of production but ensuring survival. The smaller the fruit when thinned, the greater the conservation benefit.

Keep pet water fresh, cut use

Make sure every hose end has a nozzle or shutoff valve so no water is wasted when dragging hoses to fill the dog’s dish or the chickens’ watering pan.

Earlene Smith of Peppermint Creek Carriage Company in Jamestown now only half-fills 50-gallon watering troughs for her 10 horses. “Fresh water daily is critical,” she says, “and horses tend to foul any unused water. There is little to waste now when new water is added.”

In drought years, creeks dry up early, leaving more pools and stagnant water as mosquito breeding areas. Water buckets and troughs are also fertile breeding grounds. Ever fearful of West Nile virus, a threat to horses as well as people, Smith puts goldfish in each trough to eat mosquito larvae.

Shade your veggies

Use shade cloth to reduce temperature and minimize evaporation. Placing straw or leaves in a garbage can and then shredding them with a string trimmer makes a finer mulch that is particularly good in vegetable gardens.

Plant only what your family can use. Scott Oneto, UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor for El Dorado, Amador, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, suggests focusing on vegetables that require less water. “Instead of watermelons and cantaloupes,” he says, “look to things like tomatoes and peppers.”

Eliminate lawns

Experts say lawns require and waste more water than any other outdoor use. In California 300,000 acres are covered in lawn and irrigated with 1.5 million acre feet of water per year, enough to supply three million homes. Most turf grasses require up to an inch of water per week (more in extreme heat) to maintain color and growth.

If you must maintain a lawn, water early in the morning to allow it sufficient time to dry out before nightfall. This reduces evaporative water loss and potential for lawn disease and funguses.

Rather than watering daily, soak your lawn once or twice a week. This promotes a deep root system, which will help keep your lawn healthy. Replacing a lawn with California native and drought-resistant plants (when there is sufficient water available for new plants) makes sense in an area with a Mediterranean climate like ours.
While many types of turf lawns will die if not watered, some hardy natives like buffalo grass require very limited maintenance and will return with the autumn rain.

Skip the fertilizer

Fertilizers (organic and synthetic) stimulate plant growth, and the more a plant grows the more water it requires. Fertilizer salts also build up in soil when not leached out by rain or irrigation, and they can burn roots.

Plant nothing new. Even California native and drought-resistant plants require a steady supply of moisture for the first year after planting. And they should always be planted in late fall to mid-winter.

FAN staff writer Chace Anderson is a Master Gardener. For more tips on weathering the drought, visit the UC Cooperative Extension online at

Copyright © 2014 Friends and Neighbors Magazine



Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson June 15, 2014 18:45
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