Time for intervention if plants have a drinking problem

The first week of August means it is time to face your water worries. There are more hot, dry days ahead so commit now to some irrigation insurance so you won’t lose valuable trees and shrubs.

The Compleat

Home Gardner

The first week of August means it is time to face your water worries. There are more hot, dry days ahead so commit now to some irrigation insurance so you won’t lose valuable trees and shrubs.

If your concern over your water bill is higher than your love of a green lawn, let the lawn go dormant or “golden” for the rest of the summer.

Lawns that dry out in the summer are not dead. The grass will spring back to life and green up in the fall once the rains begin. The plants that will need extra water this month are thirsty rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias, blueberries and any tree or shrub planted within the last year.

The rest of your landscape – including trees and shrubs – will appreciate a good soaking at least once a week; but how much water they need depends on your soil, your mulch and how much it rains.

Use a hand trowel to dig into the soil near your shrubs. Check the color of your soil six inches below ground level. If the soil is dry and light in color, either do a rain dance or offer everyone a drink.

Watering questions must be heating up the dinner table discussions. Here’s my vote on family debates and intervention when it comes to drinking problems in the garden.

Q. To keep our lawn green, my husband wants to have our automatic sprinkler system come on every single day. I say that is too much. What is the right time to turn on the lawn sprinklers and how long should they run? J.K., Tacoma

A. There is no easy answer for this one, but watering your lawn every day is too often. The fungus among us like “red thread” will attack a lawn that is constantly moist. Watering every day is also a waste of a valuable resource and drives up the water bill. Ideally your lawn would stay green with just one inch of water a week – and that one inch would be applied slowly, so the water has a chance to soak into the soil, applied just once or maybe twice a week. Set out an empty tuna can and measure how long it takes your sprinkler system to fill the can with one inch of water. If your lawn needs more water than that to stay green, take steps to improve those thirsty grass roots by aerating the soil and then topdressing with an inch of compost. Getting compost down into the soil will act like a sponge to hold more moisture.

You can save money on your water bill by adding a “Rain Sensor” to your sprinkler system. These are inexpensive devices that note when rain is falling and then automatically turn off your sprinkler system. Check your home center store or irrigation supply center for a rain sensor. To wean your lawn from its’ daily drinking problem, reset the sprinklers now to come on every other day and gradually taper off on how frequently you water as the soil improves and the weather cools.

Q. Can I overwater my hanging baskets? I water every morning but notice the petunias in my hanging baskets are wilting and turning yellow. My neighbor said they are drowning from too much water. Is this possible? P.P., Olympia

A. Yes, many plants in pots suffer from too much water and you could be forcing your petunias to drown in misery. Good drainage is crucial during hot weather when you water often. Sometimes, by mid-summer, the drainage holes of hanging baskets and pots become plugged with roots or blocked by the weight of the pot; the stagnant water trapped inside then causes root rot. The plants will wilt as their root system shuts down. Petunias are the canaries of poor drainage, singing the blues if they have to endure wet feet or soggy bottoms. Slip bottle caps or pieces of tile under the edges of heavy pots to serve as pot feet that will increase drainage. Use a sharp knife to poke into the drainage hole and loosen any roots that may clog the opening of your hanging baskets. Most importantly, feel the soil before you water your plants. Don’t offer a drink until the top inch of soil in the container is dry to the touch.

Q. Help! In the recent heat wave my hanging fuchsia basket got a bit overheated – all the petals dropped from the flowers and the leaves started to wilt. I realize now that I need to water more often. But can I save this plant? Will it recover? Is there first aid or CPR for dry fuchsia baskets? M.R., e-mail

A. Time to reduce, rehydrate and recover your wilted plants. Flowers that normally thrive in our cool summer weather such as hanging fuchsia baskets, lobelia, begonias and impatiens are struggling with the heat and they will pout, wilt and throw a fit when temperatures break 85 degrees. (Tomatoes, geraniums and most herbs love the hot weather.) If wilted plants don’t perk right up after a good drink, you’ll need to take drastic measures. Reduce the size of these heat-shocked plants by cutting them back by up to one half. Pruning always stimulates growth and this jolts them out of their stupor. Then rehydrate with extra water, submerging the entire hanging basket under water if the soil has become hard-packed and sheds water. Then use a water-soluble plant food like Miracle Gro or Alaska fish fertilizer to force feed some new life. Your newly pruned fuchsia will pump out new shoots with a whole new attitude. Either that, or it will stay wilted let you know it’s ready for the compost pile.

• • •

Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of “Easy Answers for Great Gardens” and other books. For book requests or answers to questions, write to her at: P.O. Box 872, Enumclaw, 98022. Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a personal reply.

For more gardening information, she can be reached at her Web site, www.binettigarden.com.

Copyright for this column owned by Marianne Binetti.

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