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Weathering the drought in the landscape

February 21, 2008

Media Contact:
Dr. Barbara Fair, assistant professor of Horticultural Science and North Carolina Cooperative Extension landscape specialist, 919.513.2804 or barbara_fair@ncsu.edu

Drought of the intensity experienced in North Carolina and other parts of the Southeast is likely to damage landscape plants to some degree, but there are steps homeowners can take to alleviate the damage, according to a horticulture expert at North Carolina State University.

Dr. Barbara Fair, assistant professor of Horticultural Science and North Carolina Cooperative Extension landscape specialist, suggested that homeowners begin by trying to reduce or filter landscape-drying wind where possible. This can be done with fencing made of wood panels, bamboo, woven twigs or plastic windbreak netting.

And as homeowners look to the future and normal rainfall returns, they may want to consider planting hedges of drought-tolerant evergreen plants such as holly (lex sp.), arborvitae (Thuja sp.), eastern red cedar, (Juniperus virginiana) and spruce (Picea sp.) designed to reduce drying winds.

Applying proper mulch is also helpful, Fair said. Mulch will retain the available soil moisture and, over time, will improve soil structure. She suggests mulching with wood chips that have been composted for at least 6 months, bark or pine straw. Mulch around woody plants should never be more than 3 inches deep, while mulch around herbaceous plants such as perennials and annuals should never be more than 1 to 2 inches deep.

Homeowners should also try to keep their soil healthy by minimizing compaction from vehicular traffic and working organic matter, such as leaf compost, animal manure, mushroom compost or similar products, into the soil. But working organic matter into the soil is best done in the fall.

Fair said homeowners may also want to consider using rain barrels or other water harvesting methods to make the best use of the rainfall we do get.

Homeowners can also help their landscape plants survive by keeping them healthy. For example, use care with string trimmers or mowers around woody plants to avoid damaging them. Some thin-barked species will never recover from a bark injury.

Fair also suggested pruning plants correctly and at the correct time of year. She added that some plants don't need regular pruning, so homeowners should know the species and the pruning requirements. Horticulture agents at county N.C. Cooperative Extension centers can provide this information.

If homeowners are concerned about large trees, Fair suggested contacting a certified arborist to assess tree health. An arborist will know when and how to fertilize and prune properly.

Fair also suggested using integrated plant and pest management. "Essentially, either you or your landscape maintenance professional should spend time taking an inventory in your landscape. Look for damage to the plants either due to the drought or due to insects; look for disease or nutrient deficiency problems. Simply keep an eye on the landscape."

As homeowners look to the future, Fair suggested they consider drought-tolerant plants when adding to their landscapes.

"I think it is important that people do understand that native plants are not necessarily the answer, nor are plants actually drought-tolerant until after establishment," Fair said. County Cooperative Extension horticulture agents can provide lists of and give advice about drought-tolerant plants.

Homeowners may also want to consider a technique called "hydrozoning" for future plantings. Hydrozoning involves grouping plant species that have similar water requirements. And when water use restrictions allow, homeowners may want to consider investing in precision irrigation equipment, which applies water based on plant needs.

Homeowners installing hard surfaces in their landscapes may want to consider pavers or other porous materials rather than concrete. Pavers and porous surfaces allow penetration of rainfall into the ground.

Fair also suggested that homeowners consider gravel or scree gardens. She said such gardens use plants such as agave, lavender, euphorbia, sedum and santolina that require very low amounts of water for maintenance. And for containers, Fair suggested that homeowners look for plants that require minimal water.

The drought has been tough on North Carolina landscapes, and conditions will be difficult until normal rainfall returns, but Fair said homeowners who work at maintaining their landscapes should be able to weather the drought without too much damage.

Written by: Dave Caldwell, 919.513.3127 or dave_caldwell@ncsu.edu

Posted by Dave at February 21, 2008 08:00 AM