Survival of the Well Informed
Summer has finally arrived. I have been looking forward to this for months. The longer hours of sunlight, the thunderstorms, the sounds of rainfall on the roof. But what I look forward to most of all is the warmth. Within a minute the sun’s heat can completely change the mood of a day. But with the heat everything needs water, both the plants and us. It creates extra work as the grass needs to be cut, the flower baskets get droopy and the trees get thirsty. It can become very time consuming and you might find yourself asking “Is there a way to do this quickly but also do it well?” I have a few strategies that may be helpful.
My first piece of advice is mulch. I wrote an entire blog post about mulch a while back and it discusses the topic in depth. For now, I will cover the basics. All kinds of mulches help to reduce weed growth, and they are helpful for retaining moisture by reducing evaporation. This will reduce how often you need to water and can protect your plants from dehydration in a drought. Mulch will also decompose with time becoming a helpful source of compost and nutrients. Whether you use mulch or not it is vitally important that you keep the grass and other competing weeds away from your young plants. This may be the most important step other than watering itself. If the grass closes in around the base of a young plant, it will steal up to 80% of all the nutrients and water in the area. Trees and shrubs will grow most of their feeding roots in the top 6″ of soil where there is the most nutrients to feed on. Trees will grow roots that go much deeper as well of course, but these roots are mostly for anchoring. There really isn’t much nutrients to be found when you dig past a foot deep. The real problem is that the grass will grow its feeding roots at the same level as the trees and shrubs, but the grass is far more aggressive.
Another option to remove the competition is tilling. Tilling the soil 4″ to 6″ deep will be enough to uproot most weeds. But some of you are connecting the dots by now. If a tree grows its feeding roots at the same level as the weeds will they not be damaged too? It is true. Tilling too close to trees will disturb and ruin many of their feeding roots and stunt the growth as well. It can possibly even kill them. So, what to do? Move your tiller a little further away from the trunk each year. One foot a year will probably do nicely. You can keep the area clean without disturbing the majority of the roots.
After all of this the most fundamental thing needed is water. There are many options for how to water your yard, but the way you do it may greatly affect the outcome. When watering grass it is not picky, and a sprinkler does best to get wide even coverage. But some shrub varieties will not tolerate getting their leaves wet all the time. It can lead to things like Powdery Mildew, Fungal Black Spot, or other fungal issues. Most shrubs and trees prefer getting watered close to the base. The less splash back the better, because some diseases live in the soil and can be splattered onto the leaves and branches by overhead watering systems. This is commonly displayed in tomato plants. In the end, a soaker hose system works very nicely. A regular hose, watering cans, or pails also work well. Make sure you have a dike around your trees and shrubs that is high enough to hold a couple gallons of water. You want the edges to be 3″ high and to be 3′ in diameter. Having a dike like this together with the mulch will greatly increase the moisture retention for your plants.
My last thought is about fertilizer. You will need to back off the fertilizer by the middle of June so that the plant can properly shut down for winter hibernation. It is comparable timing to pruning. If you prune or fertilize too late in the year your plants will continue growing late into the season and will not have time to harden the fresh growth before frost. This will result in tip dieback.
I hope you all enjoy your summer, your gardens and your yards! Now if you will excuse me, I need to go do some gardening of my own.