Handling plants with care during a drought

Duane Campbell

This time Iíve been paying attention. This is not the first hot, dry spell weíve had. In fact our local paper has a daily column with synopses of articles that were in the paper 50 years ago that day, and recently it was about the local crops languishing from the prolonged hot, dry weather.

Iíve been through this before, as had my parents and my grandparents and doubtless their parents and their grandparents. And in the past I have learned a few things, but not as much as I should have.

One thing I learned several years ago is that plants like water. Yeah, yeah, we all know that, even I knew that, but I didnít know it as well as I should have. During one bad spell I set up a pulse sprinkler to water the vegetable garden, but it didnít quite reach the very back corner. Tomatoes there survived and produced, as they do usually, but they were half the size and half the yield of those within range of the sprinkler. I had set up a controlled experiment without even realizing it.

I also leaned how important deep, rich soil is. While much of our lawn area is what I like to call an ecologically friendly multicrop, there are two small areas where I have tried to grow a real, decent bluegrass turf with Ö oh letís say varying degrees of success.. But since these areas were small, I did more than spread the traditional inch of topsoil. I prepared them like garden soil, digging in organic material and, most important, digging it deep.

The results surprised me, though I didnít notice it right away. But during droughts and the usual August oven, most of the lawn turned brown, but the deeply prepared lawns stayed green. Maybe it wasnít the lush green of May, but still green.

The reason is simple. Ground dries out from the top down. While shallow rooted grasses turn brown when the top inch or two dries, grass in great soil has roots down deeper where the water supply is more reliable. Iím enough of a realist to know that I wonít convince anyone to double dig their lawn, but if you are putting in a new lawn, hereís a thought. Instead of trucking in the usual load of ďtop soilĒ to rake over the compacted clay or construction fill you have there, get a load of compost and rototill it into the top eight or ten inches before seeding.

The same deep root phenomenon applies to flowers and vegetables, and here I will nag you to put the effort into your soil. Unlike a lawn, you have more than one chance to do it, and you can do it plant by plant, a little at a time. Keep that in mind for a cool, sunny day this fall.

I have been paying special attention this time to which plants hate the hot, dry weather and which are coping. Crabgrass loves it, of course, which presents an opportunity for a few paragraphs on C-4 photosynthesis, but I can already see readers turning to the more exciting financial editorials. So I will just say that corn loves the heat as much as crabgrass, but most C-4 plants are weeds.

Anything in hanging baskets is in trouble, especially with gardeners less attentive than they should be. On the worst days, once a day watering isnít enough. Gardeners should be required to get a license before turning the care of a hanging basket over to them. For the less committed, plastic baskets are safer than moss baskets.

Plants with many thin, delicate leaves are far less happy than plants with tougher leaves. Impatiens whimpers in the heat and benefits not just from regular deep watering but regular sprinkling of the foliage, particularly when it is visibly wilting. Stouter leafed plants, particularly those that grow from tubers or bulbs, fare better. So if you pass on the impatiens and plant lots of cannas next spring, you can pretty much guarantee a cool, wet summer.

Duane Campbell is a nationally known agricultural expert. He can be reached at R6, Box 6029, Towanda, PA 18848 or e-mail at dcamp911@gmail.com.