Some rules of thumb for conserving water

It remains dry as we approach the summer solstice, except for some widely scattered showers that are mostly hit and miss, depending on your exact location.

Last weekend also featured a couple of pretty chilly nights. I recorded lows of 39 and 43 degrees on Friday and Saturday, June 12 and 13. Signs of drought are becoming obvious as I drive around. Some trees, including birches and shadblow, as well as red maples, have dropped some of their leaves. As much as half of their canopy may now be on the ground and we will not get to see these leaves turn color this fall, sadly. This will not harm them at all in the long term.

Here are some tips for coping with the current dry conditions. Some of these might be called “rules of thumb” for any given situation. This makes me wonder exactly who “thumb” was or is? Seems like he or she has a lot of clout and is right about things most of the time. Maybe “Thumb” should be running for president?

Anyway, remember that newly planted trees and shrubs need to be watered a minimum of about once per week for the entire first season they are in the ground, right up until November. That is, if precipitation is less than one inch per week. The second year, water at least once every other week, and the third year, water once every three weeks. By the fourth year they should have developed enough of a root system to survive droughts such as this.

The best way to water is to place a slowly trickling hose at the base of the plant and let the water trickle in for at least an hour or so.

As for annuals and perennials, including most vegetables, my philosophy is to water only when they wilt in the early morning or evening. Many plants will wilt on hot, sunny afternoons even when soil moisture is adequate. Surface watering of these plants every day only encourages shallow rooting, thus exacerbating the problem. Tomatoes, peppers and most other vegetables will develop a deeper root system if they are forced to do so.

Forget about watering the lawn unless you have unlimited sources of water provided by a surface water source, such as a pond. If you have well water remember that is not unlimited and groundwater recharges very slowly. Many lawns have gone dormant already and they can survive in this condition.

Use mulches as much as possible to retain surface soil moisture. Organic mulches such as wood chips, straw, grass clippings or bark chips should be applied after rainfall or thorough watering. A 4-inch layer is adequate; more will do no good and may harm the plants.

Avoid creating “volcanoes” at the base of your trees with wood-chip mulch. A saucer-shaped mulch with none of the chips or bark touching the trunk of the tree is ideal and the circle of mulch can be three or four feet in diameter.

Mulch also smothers weeds that suck up water. Black plastic mulch actually provides a vapor barrier to any loss of surface water through evapotranspiration. Vegetable crops grown through black plastic mulch that has been sealed by covering the perimeter of the plastic with soil will NEVER need to be watered if the mulch was applied when soil moisture was abundant.

Collect as much rainfall runoff as possible. Heavy storms that may deposit an inch or more of rain in 15 minutes provide little relief since most of the moisture runs off into roadside ditches. A quick downpour is actually useless, unless you capture the runoff somehow.

The best way is to position 55-gallon barrels under downspouts off your roof to take advantage of thunderstorms. I attached a gutter and downspout on just one side of a 10-foot-long shed on my property and it takes only about an inch of rainfall to half fill a 55-gallon drum. That 55-gallon drum, when full, will water my raised beds for two weeks or more.

If you must use well or city water, consider setting up a drip irrigation system, which is by far the most efficient way to water all your gardens. If you have a pond, you can buy a small gasoline-powered pump to fill barrels positioned near your garden. Put “Mosquito Dunks” in the barrels to safely kill any mosquito larvae that will hatch, without poisoning the water.

Reach Bob Beyfuss at rlb14@cornell.edu.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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