Tuesday, June 28, 2011


            Got a grab-bag of miscellany for you today, ranging through phenology observations, companion planting, small miracles, plant-buying opportunities, eating local, the latest slimy doings at Monsanto, astronomical happenings, and the first-ever GFTGU poll—Got Lightning Bugs? Let’s get started!
            Tim’s been busy exploring Google Gadgets again. He interrupted me during a tense level-4 Sudoku session the other day to announce he’d learned how to run polls on the blog. He’s so cute when he enthuses about cyber-gimmicks. I listened politely, then filed the information in my brain’s recycle bin, sure I’d never need it.

            Spoke too soon. The very next morning, my cousin Mike emailed me that the lightning bugs had returned to Boonsboro, Maryland, reinforcing our family’s genetically based tendency to be entertained by trifles. The news got me thinking, though: here on Oak Island, I can count the lightning bugs flirting their bioluminescent rears in my back yard on the fingers of one hand. In fact, I don’t need any hands: don’t recall ever seeing a single one.
Where art thou, lightning bug?

            Communicated same to Mike, reinforcing our family’s genetically based tendency to depress ourselves, bemoaning lost summer nights of yesteryear  spent careening barefoot around back yard and park chasing six-legged sparks, clutching peanut-butter jars with holes punched in the lids for air and three blades of grass for our captives to perch on and eat. (Eat?)

            Further research into the subject (reinforcing the family’s genetically based tendency to become distracted at the drop of a hat) revealed that lightning bugs, a.k.a. fireflies, are indeed disappearing. Loss of meadow habitats to development and suburbia’s fixation on decking the dark with strings of fairy lights and torches and up-lighting make it difficult for the tiny brilliants to find each other to mate.

So tell me: does your neighborhood still receive lightning bug visitations? Tim gleefully set up the idiot-proof mechanism at top right (I know it’s idiot-proof because I could do it) for you to weigh in on this vexing issue. It’s not as trivial a thing as I may have made it sound, so c’mon and give us a click. You’d do it for “American Idol.”

This totally unscientific "Got Lightning Bugs?" poll will be open through July 5. The gadget automatically updates every time somebody votes, so we can all watch the results roll in together. Is that cool or what?

Will my sunflower seedlings bloom
before July 16?
Will pollinators care?
            In case you missed it, last week—June 20–26—was federally designated National Pollinator Week. (Isn’t it grand that Congress occasionally demonstrates its ability to suck it up and make a decision on an issue?) You can check out what you missed at Pollinator Partnership’s website, download colorful pollinator posters and learn about the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign.

            Sponsored by the Great Sunflower Project, the Great Bee Count will be held on July 16th. I’m hoping my ‘Lemon Queen’ sunflowers will be blooming by then. As you can see, it’s going to be touch-and-go right up to the deadline, thanks to the sluggishness my fingers impart to seeds. Still, we’re doing better than last year, when all my starts died.
My prize Nature's Notebook

            In other phenological news, I’m making and recording passionflower observations every three days for Nature’s Notebook, the citizen-scientist part of the USA National Phenology Network. Here’s a shot of my prize specimen.

            If you haven’t already signed on, it’s not too late to get involved this year. I didn’t start until August of 2010, and—because our first frost didn’t occur until December 3—still managed to make a contribution.

            Meanwhile, out in the vegetable garden, the raccoons are having a field day with the tomatoes. Don’t know if it’s because the drought's made them thirsty, or if they think we grow the maters for them, or if it’s pique, but Tim and I are fighting back. We barricaded the beds with bird-netting stretched between fence posts and slid concrete reinforcing wire leftovers between the green fruit-laden plants and the yaupon hedge. So far, so good.

            On the pickleworm front, I’m trying to flummox the little troublemaking moths with companion planting. The cukes in baskets hanging on my front porch share their space with nasturtiums and French marigolds. The melons out back on the slanted support grow over and around creosote-evoking Lemmon marigolds (Tagetes lemmonii). And the cucumber seeds I planted Sunday afternoon will sprout through trailing branches of scented geraniums (Pelargonium ‘Sweet Miriam’). If proximity to pungent foliage puts pests off, I will be very pleased with myself. If not, it’s back to the drawing board.

Melon vines clamber over and through
the aromatic foliage of Lemmon's marigolds
Will 'Sweet Miriam'
protect the melons?


The ultra-cool-looking
           Finally, just because I like the plants, I sowed seeds for tall-growing castor bean (Ricinus communis), red Malabar spinach (Basella ruba) and lion’s-tail (Leonotis leonurus) in among the pole beans. The Malabar spinach is edible (it’s not a true spinach but a tropical Asian vine); the dried petals of lion’s-tail can be smoked or brewed as tea for a mild high (it’s also known as wild dagga, which sounds vaguely Rastafarian to me); and the castor bean, poisonous in all its parts, is the source of ricin, a potent toxin. Hope it doesn’t poison my beans.

Clematis pitcheri's first bloom
at NE 13th Street
            Little miracles happen all around us all the time. One occurred in my back yard last week. After starting out life with a cudweed nanny, and sulking flowerless for six years, my Clematis pitcheri bloomed. And only a couple of weeks after I whined about it not blooming right here.

            Speaking of miracles, check this out: my Christmas poinsettia is flourishing out on the back porch. It’s still got a few bracts left, and the new leaves are a rich, deep green. Frankly, I’m surprised, and humbled, by this little plant’s ferocious will to live. And just a tiny bit scared.

            The better-late-than-never-blooming Clematis pitcheri originally came from Plant Delights Nursery, near Raleigh, NC, which is holding its sultry summer Open House the weekends of July 8-9-10 and 15-16-17. Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 1 to 5 p.m. on Sunday. The brochure notes that about 230 different crinums are at peak bloom in the on-site Juniper Level Botanic Garden, along with an impressive Echinacea display. If you’re impervious to heat-related ailments, pay ’em a visit.

           Farmers markets are in full swing everywhere by now, so get out there and partake of local bounties. If you live in North Carolina, consider signing up for the 10%NC program. You pledge to spend the equivalent of 10% of your weekly grocery budget on locally produced foods—“local” includes fruits and vegetables you grow and harvest yourself—and agree to respond to a two-question weekly email to track your progress. The website lists sources of local foods by zip-code, and catalogs in-season produce.

           Anything you buy from small farmers in your area is bound to be better for you than the dicey stuff churned out by agri-business. For two hair-raising articles warning of the slippery slope of Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready frankencrops, click on the following links: “Roundup: Birth Defects Caused by Top-Selling Weedkiller, Scientists Say”; and “Bill Gates, Monsanto and Blackwater: A Marriage Made in Hell.” Even if the stories (and/or the science) border on sensationalist, there’s the old truism about smoke and fire. Certainly, big-business profits trumping health and safety—and everything else—is nothing new.

The Chinese TaiJi hexagram elegantly
depicts the relationships between
solstices and equinoxes
            Moving right along from the down-and-dirty to the celestial… The Naval Observatory’s Sky-Guy reports that the week-long period of longest days of the year ends today (June 28th) in the D.C. area. What do you mean, “week-long period of longest days”? you ask. Everyone knows the solstice marks the longest day. Well, everyone’s wrong. The summer solstice occurs when the sun is directly above the Tropic of Cancer at 23 degrees north latitude. It usually coincides with one of the longest days. But the number of minutes between sunrise and sunset stays the same for a week or so. Southeastern North Carolina’s first longest day was June 18th; daylight period began shrinking on the 26th.

            We do have two new moons this July, a kind of consolation prize, I guess.
Well, that’s it. June’s done, 2011’s half over. Thanks for dropping by. See you in July.


Friday, June 24, 2011


            Oak Island racked up another .08” of rain from a Thursday night storm that skirted us to the north, bringing our 35-day total to .58”. The good news is, my rain barrels have water in them again.
Fitzgerald rain barrel # 1

            An old-fashioned “new” idea, storing rainwater for future use is once again popular. Driven by a sharp awareness of the need to conserve water following several seasons of drought, I’d asked Tim to install a 55-gallon black pickle barrel under the back-porch downspout. (It was my anniversary present for 2008: am I a lucky girl or what? And why a pickle barrel? We live near Mount Olive, NC, the Pickle Capital of the U.S.) He raised it on blocks so my watering can slides easily under the barrel’s spigot. I love the virtuous feeling I get when I use it, and angled for another one. Tim said, “Would you please stop fluttering your eyelashes like that and just call the [rain barrel] guy?” So I did, and Number Two now sits on the north side of the outside shower, convenient to the vegetable garden.

Fitzgerald rain barrel # 2
             Easy to install—requiring only an “S” modification of a downspout—rain barrels are available at garden centers, hardware stores and occasionally from Cooperative Extensions or as garden club promotions. Cost varies—my first one, from a garden center, ran about $130; the Boiling Spring Lakes Garden Club delivered the second one, setting us back just $45. For those of you with flamboyant tastes for whom basic black won’t do, expect to pay a premium for hand-painted models. (One advantage of black is that it helps slow down huge ice-cylinder formation in winter by absorbing warmth from the sun. If you live in a cold-winter area, you’d probably best empty and store yours from first frost to last, no matter what color it is.) If you have a frugal or a do-it-yourself bent, many magazines published directions in their spring issues over the past few years: and of course, googling “rain barrel” will deluge you with plans.

Three rain-barrel factoids:

·         It only takes one-tenth of one inch of rain running off just 1000 square feet of roof to fill a 55-gallon rain barrel. Most barrels are manufactured so that they can be connected to other barrels to capture the excess, if you have the space and desire. (I have the desire. Unfortunately, I lack the space.)

·         Only allow rainwater in your rain barrel. I started pouring grey water (water saved after use in cooking, bathing or washing dishes) in mine, resulting, after a few warm days, in 55 gallons of really stinky liquid. I had to drain the barrel and scrub it before refilling it. If you collect grey water—which I sometimes do, although not to a fanatic extent, mostly from kitchen chores, when I’m in the mood—pour it directly on your plants to keep your barrel smelling rainwater fresh.

·         A rain barrel never fully empties because the spigot is about nine inches above its bottom. Over time, algae and bacteria grow, causing the decanted water to smell unpleasant. Your plants won’t care, but you might. It’s okay to address the problem with the very occasional dollop of Clorox. Chlorine is volatile, meaning it evaporates into the atmosphere, which is why swimming pools go through tons of it in a summer. A half-cup of the stuff poured into 55 gallons of water at the beginning and again at the end of the growing season can’t do too much harm. And please—somebody correct me if I’m wrong.   

Ninety-Mile Beach,
near Cape Reinga, New Zealand
           When our town demonstrated its firm resolve to install a sewer system, indicated by digging up our street, Tim and I considered converting our septic tank into a cistern to store excess runoff from our roof. The details proved onerous, however, as the tank lies directly beneath my vegetable garden. We shelved the project until we win the lottery. In which case, we’re immigrating to New Zealand anyway.

Everybody loves rain… except when there’s too much or too little of it. It often seems no middle ground exists—we’re either inundated or parched, or, as in the case of one recent year, the Mississippi River put the Midwest under water at the same time Atlanta’s reservoirs were down to a frightening 90-day supply and California was on fire. As the concept of limitless clean water goes the way of eight-track tapes and VCRs, it behooves gardeners to adapt so that our precious plots may continue to thrive.

List of common runoff contaminants,
courtesy of Virginia Tech's website
(Click on the picture
to make it readable) 

Storm-water run-off poses big problems for city-dwellers because urban areas are notoriously lacking in spaces for water to seep into the ground. This is one of those rings-around-the-pebble-tossed-in-the-pond situations. During storms, water flows off roofs and over hard surfaces at great speed, causing erosion when it hits dirt. Along the way, it picks up heavy metals from paved surfaces, fertilizers and pesticides from the land it courses through, and sundry other pollutants you wouldn’t want coming out of the kitchen tap before ending up in the closest stream, river, lake or ocean.

So what am I expected to do about that? you ask.

I’ve got two sets of two words for you: permeable paving, and rain gardens.

Permeable paving example # 1

Although it sounds oxymoronic, permeable paving is a hard surface that allows water to go through it. Think of unsealed dry-laid paver patios and sidewalks, wide-spaced flagstone paths, and driveways made of concrete panels with cutouts that grass grows through. There are rumors abroad of actual permeable asphalt and concrete, mostly being used in the Northwest U.S. Other seepage-friendly driveway materials that abound in my childhood memories include gravel, oyster shells, and those parallel tracks with grass or gravel or oyster shells between them.

Permeable paving example # 2

If you’re building a house, the most important thing you can do is to make sure the house actually fits on the lot without resorting to oddly angled garages, tiny setbacks, or shoehorns, so there’s some open land left into which rain water can run. (It really annoys me to see McMansions crammed onto lots so small the side setbacks are ten feet or less. They not only look ridiculous, they are impossible to landscape well—scale is out of kilter from the get-go.)  Minimize or consider alternatives to usually impervious surfaces, like driveways and patios. Any up-front expense will be more than recouped both aesthetically and by lack of future drainage problems. 

Sand to China on Oak Island

Our house on Oak Island doesn’t have drainage problems. Besides sitting on sand-to-China, the structure, driveway and sidewalk only occupy about 1900 of the 6000 square feet that is our property. That works out to less than one-third impervious to two-thirds pervious, a good ratio. But if I lived on swamp-muck or clay or other dense soil, I would consider adding a rain garden to my landscape.


A rain garden/bioretention area
schematic drawing
Rain gardens are another one of those trendy “new” phenomena that date back centuries. When the only way folks knew how to manage their land was sustainably, they sensibly dealt with occasional excess surface water by giving it a place to go. Grandma called these areas “the pond,” or “the low spot,” or “the bottom”: today we say “rain garden” and “bioretention area.” The objectives are the same: to slow down runoff in order to minimize erosion; and to filter out pollutants before the water reaches rivers or other surface features and the water table. Modern techniques for channeling urban runoff include green roofs, permeable paving, residential rain gardens and—for commercial applications—bioretention facilities (rain gardens on steroids). All of these enhance the “catchment” of rain following the principles of the natural water cycle, instead of relying on increasingly overtaxed storm drains. It’s certainly an idea worth studying, despite the florid vocabulary. 

An actual parking-lot
bioretention area at NCSU
Ideally sited in an already-low spot, a rain garden is an area dedicated to an array of plants that prefer boggy conditions (or at least don’t mind occasional wet feet): to reiterate, the idea is to slow down runoff so that it can be absorbed into the ground, and cleansed by percolating through roots and soil before reentering the water table. A rain garden can also spiff up reedy, weedy, marshy places on your property, making it look like you planned them that way.


 Tim and I haven’t been called upon to design a rain garden yet, though I suspect the day is coming. But since I have no direct experience with the process, I’ll share with you the book I read. Rain Gardens: Managing Water Sustainably in the Garden and Designed Landscape by Nigel Dunnett and Andy Clayden is a basic overview of the concept and a primer for constructing a rain garden of your own (see Good Reads at right). And of course the Internet is chockablock with helpful sites as well.

            Okay, enough for one session. After the June Wrap-Up, we’ll celebrate the Fourth by taking a look at garden water features.

            Thanks for dropping by.


P.S.--On Thursday, 23 June, the Wilmington, NC, StarNews ran an op-ed essay I wrote rebutting a piece extolling agricultural biotechnology. Check it out at the link I've provided.

Monday, June 20, 2011


Hose at the ready:
Thanks, Oak Island
            Tim and I have an in-ground irrigation system. I love it for convenience’s sake, because it frees me from dragging hoses and sprinklers around the yard. Or at least it did until our megalomaniacal town government forced The World’s Most Expensive Sewer System down our throats just because they want the 45-foot height restriction lifted so we can become Myrtle Beach.
            Be that as it may, I no longer use the irrigation system except for the drip zone. I’m back to hauling hoses to water the south-side nursery pots and any new planting that isn’t reached by dripline until it stops wilting. The lawn is on its own. Spray zones are inefficient anyway, as they are subject to wind and evaporation issues. Plus, I’m not totally convinced the perfectly manicured lawn—an artificial, high-maintenance monoculture—is such a great idea in the first place. (In Second Nature, Michael Pollan does a hilarious riff on his dad’s refusal to buy into the tyranny of grass in a Long Island suburb in the 1950s. See Good Reads at right.)
Mr. Pollan takes on the POA
in Chapter 1

Nonetheless, irrigation systems relieve the daily tedium of hydrating your landscape—just set the clock and let her go while keeping a weather eye out for, well, the weather. Of course, nothing yet devised by man is without its little hiccups. Lots of things can go wrong, starting with installation. Some installation contractors have a deep understanding of, indeed an affinity for, the hows and whys of irrigation mechanics. Others just stick pipe and wires in the ground and hope for the best.

Even flawlessly installed systems, however, can run into trouble for a number of other reasons. Programmophobia, the unreasoning fear of touching the controller, crops up with alarming frequency. Most clocks offer two or three programs, each of which has three possible start times. It’s important not to overlap start times, because when you do, no water comes out anywhere. You’ll need to know how to set zone run-times and water days for every program you use. It’s also important to know how to run the system manually, both from the clock and at the valves. This is essential because how much and when you’re watering what changes fairly often. Why’s that? you ask. Because water requirements change over time. Well-established lawns and shrubbery need less (or no) supplemental irrigation, especially in cool seasons. For those of you who keep adding plants like I do, drip is pretty much forever. You’ll also need to know how to change the back-up battery that lives inside the clock, which saves your watering program for 24 hours should you lose power for any reason. The battery cannot run the system, however, so get in the habit of checking both the controller and the ground-fault-interrupter outlet it’s plugged into after every thunderstorm and whenever you have to reset your microwave clock.

A few other common irrigation aggravations include:
The Fitzgeralds' Nelson
irrigation computer-clock

·         Rain sensors. These excel at sensing rain and turning the system off but to date have proven lacksidaisical about turning things back on after the rain stops. Glenn, our irrigation guy, assures us they’re getting better. Uh-huh.

·         People operating vibrating plows, trenchers and core aerators. All these pieces of equipment can (and do!) cut through, shatter and/or puncture hard pipe and driplines without anyone’s knowledge until the grass and shrubs start to go brown and crunchy despite the fact that new wetlands seem to be forming out at the front of your property.

Watch out for this guy
with his Dingo trencher

            ·         Thirsty rodents. Squirrels regularly splash all the water out of  the bird bath I installed expressly for their convenience and enjoyment, then gnaw holes in my driplines to get a drink. Flirty-tailed little bastards. And the raccoons are just as bad.

            ·         Summer vacations. If anything is going to go terribly wrong with your irrigation system, it will happen when you’re out of town. Ask someone you trust to check on things inside and out while you’re gallivanting. Especially after thunderstorms.

the most efficient way to water

In irrigation as in life you get what you pay for. An all-drip system—one without any spray heads, even for the lawn—is the most cost-over-time and water-use efficient way to go. It is also the most expensive initially, even assuming you find a contractor who’s heard of all-drip irrigation and knows how to install it. Be aware that quality of materials varies significantly. Heads range from el-cheapo plastic to top-of-the-line brass. Although none of them lasts forever (imagine grains of dirt grinding away at moving parts every time a head pops up, rotates and retracts), the replacement interval for the higher-quality models far exceeds that of bargain-basement specials. The basic system is a sprays-for-grass-and-drip-for-garden-areas array. Insist on a zone dedicated to dripline, for three reasons: 1) many plants, like roses and azaleas, resent overhead watering as this practice promotes fungal growth and sun-scorched foliage; 2) at some point you’re going to be able to drastically reduce the water you give your grass, and where does that leave all those garden areas serviced by the same zone?; and 3) do you really want to make life easier for those weeds in your “natural” areas?

For your information, a turf head—the large, rotating sprayer—spews out about two-and-a-half gallons a minute. Spray heads—the smaller ones that water in a constant arc—throw out four or so gallons a minute. Neither of these figures accounts for evaporation or wind dispersal. If time hangs heavy on your hands, you can count the number and type of heads per zone and multiply by the appropriate gallons-per-minute to determine how much water comes out: divide the number of gallons by the square footage of the area (rough length by approximate width—it’s easier if you make everything a rectangle) to learn how much water you’re providing per square foot per cycle. You’ll probably be appalled.

Turf head spewing
two-and-a-half gallons per minute
while rotating 180 degrees

Spray head (on a riser)
blowing out four gallons per minute
in a fixed arc

Emitters and the special
emitter tool for making holes
in the drip pipe
(the red-top one is an 8 liter,
the green-bottom one a 1 gallon 

Driplines have little button- or spigot-like things stuck into them, called emitters, where the water comes out.  They are calibrated to release two gallons/eight liters per hour or one gallon/four liters per hour. You can tell which ones you have by peering closely at the thing—it has a teeny-tiny 2 or 8, or a 1 or  4 stamped on it somewhere. Emitters should be placed well away from the main stem of the plant but still within the rootball area. How long and how often you run the drip zone depends on the number, placement and output of the emitters, and on your soil type.

While a well may seem an attractive alternative to connecting to municipal sources, the hidden costs of “free” water can be prohibitive. Mainly, you have to worry about the pump. In my neighborhood, irrigation-only wells tend to be shallow, and the pump ends up above-ground, usually in an aesthetically inappropriate place. Pump installation quality varies as much as that of irrigation systems themselves, and for the same reasons. Preventing cracked lines during winter is another headache. Because watering during the cold months in mild-winter areas is essential for newly installed plants and shrubs, you can’t just winterize the pump and turn it off. Anti-freezing devices that involve electricity (heat-tape, light bulbs, etc.) are subject to the vagaries of the power grid. You can also count on dirt getting drawn up with the water, so your driplines will need to be blown out once or twice a year to prevent them from clogging up. (Do this by removing whatever crimps the end of the line, then run the zone for a minute or two.) This is especially true if you use quarter-inch tubing to irrigate your containers—these plug up in no time at all. Emitters at the ends of these "spaghetti" lines may also become obstructed, reducing—or nullifying—their effectiveness.           

An unburied and unmulched
dripline in my back yard

By the way, driplines should never be buried, only covered with mulch. Over time, however, mulch and dead leaves decompose, turning into soil. Tiny surface roots work their way over your dripline and grow into bigger surface roots. My point is that, left to her own devices, nature buries driplines. It’s really to your advantage to keep them up on the surface where you can easily get at them to add or subtract emitters and line extensions.

 That’s all I have to say about computer-controlled irrigation systems. Have additional questions? Totally confused? Leave a comment, or email me, and I’ll try to clarify the murky area.

Oak Island got .34" more rain on Saturday, bringing us up to a half-inch for June. Next time: rain gardens and water harvesting. Thanks for dropping by.


P.S. – Summer solstice occurs on the 21st at 1:16 pm EDT. It feels so ironic that the days begin to shorten when it’s so damn hot out, don’t you think?

Thursday, June 16, 2011


            This morning, Oak Island got .16” of rain. It’s the first significant accumulation since May 20th. Today we start a series on watering and water in the garden. 
My rain gauge,
late morning 14 Jun 2011:

The two basic ingredients for gardening success are soil and that most precious of natural resources, and the one most Americans take for granted, water. Where I live, we’re awash in it—the Atlantic Ocean, the Intracoastal Waterway, sounds, bays, inlets, river mouths, estuaries, great tidal marshes. Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner has our number, though: most of the surface water is too salty to be potable for people or plants. As local population continues to burgeon, fresh water supplies will become increasingly problematic.

Well, you counter, temperate climates get lots of rain. That’s true, between 30 and 65 inches a year on average (not including the desert Southwest and the Olympic Peninsula’s rainforest). But ask anyone who lives in the Midwest, or Texas, or Florida: you can’t really count on it falling in gentle showers amounting to about an inch a week.

In one fabled week back in 1999, Hurricanes Dennis and Floyd deposited 40-plus inches of rain on southeastern North Carolina. While that number verges on apocryphal, it still serves as an example of how precipitation precipitates out around here. Yearly rainfall totals on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts depend on tropical systems, and they are notoriously unreliable. We haven’t had such a dousing since Floyd. And we've been in drought to some degree or another since then, too. 

Sand all the way to China
on Oak Island
(this is our neighbors' yard,
not the beach)

Even in good years, there’s still the factor of the near-instantaneous drainage of sand: just because 1.37 inches fell into your rain gauge Monday evening doesn’t guarantee your plants will have anything to drink by Wednesday afternoon, particularly in high summer. Aquifer replenishment doesn’t necessarily translate into readily available moisture in the top eight to 12 inches of soil. And, if your yard has one or more mature trees, their extensive root systems commandeer a lot of what water the soil manages to hold on to.

Sandy or not, the type of soil you have matters, because particle size influences how water enters and percolates through plants’ rooting zones. Sandy soils permit water to penetrate and drain away more quickly than fine-particled silts, clays and humic soils, or compacted soils like caliche and swamp muck. (“Caliche” refers to the calcified soils of much of the arid American Southwest.)

Shredded cocoliners recycled
from last fall's hayracks
make great mulch
A garden is by definition a managed environment, so take the trouble to design (or reshuffle) your landscape with efficient water use in mind. Position plants with similar moisture needs together. Keep a two to three-inch layer of organic mulch in all beds and borders to help hold in moisture and keep roots cool(er). Fine-bladed grasses like Bermuda and Zoysia handle drought well. The roots of broader-bladed centipede and St. Augustine grasses survive dry seasons as well as Bermuda and Zoysia; they just look awful on the surface, reacting to drought by turning a dull greeny-grey color and rolling their leaves into what look like tiny cigarettes. “Real” grasses—cool-season fescues, ryes, blue- and bent-grasses—dislike drought intensely, and may experience die-off.  


Drought-stressed centipede grass
chez Fitzgerald

Non-drought-stressed centipede grass
chez Fitzgerald


A mesic trio:
plumbago (Plumbago auriculata),
black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) &
Texas sage (Salvia greggii)

           Choose plants known to tolerate drought. Once established in the landscape, trees and shrubs like abelia, butterfly bush, crape myrtle, eleagnus, junipers and big- and small-leafed hollies do quite well for long periods without supplemental irrigation. (Berrying hollies won’t set as much fruit after a dry season, though.) Many perennials and annuals—annual vinca, aster, black-eyed Susan, blanket flower, butterfly weed, catmint, coneflower, gazania, globe thistle, ice plant, lantana, liatris, plumbago, salvias, Stokes’ aster, sunflowers; most anything with thick, waxy leaves like sedums and succulents; fuzzy foliage like lamb's ears or artemisia; very tiny or needle-like leaves like Serissa and Amsonia hubrictii—have mesic (requiring moderate amounts of water) or xeric (requiring very little water) qualities: hydric plants require heavy and frequent hydration. Generally speaking, xeriscapes are most often found in arid climates like the Southwest and high-altitude locations. Coastal areas are mesic because we get too much rain to be considered xeric. Thank goodness.

Mesic long-leaf aster
(Aster oblongifolius)

A xeric-once-established trio:
catmint (Nepeta x faassenii),
ice plant (Delosperma cooperi) &
lantana (Lantana montevidensis)

As demands on fresh water sources increase with population growth and the extravagantly wasteful habits of many Americans, planting and maintaining mesic- and xeriscapes become the only reasonable alternatives for sustainability-minded gardeners. 

This droopy coleus alerts me
to low soil-moisture

Learn to recognize early drought-stress symptoms; wilting, caused by transpiration (loss of water through leaves), and marginal leaf burn are the most recognizable and common. I always include “indicator” plants in the gardens we design, ones that provide timely warning of soil dryness. Coleus works especially well in this capacity; so do Shasta daisies and hydrangeas.

Paradoxically, too much water is just as bad as not enough. Without delving too deep into soil science, suffice it to say that both cause imbalances between air and water in the pores between soil particles. That’s why the wilting and leaf damage look exasperatingly alike whether the plant is drowning or gasping for water. Conduct the finger-in-the-ground test recommended below before taking remedial action.

The bottom line of supplemental irrigation is the achievement of a one-to-one ratio between the amount of water a plant needs and what it actually receives. Which brings us at last to the crux of this whole watering issue—even if you have a perfectly installed and vigilantly programmed and maintained irrigation system, you still need to pay attention

Tim finger-testing
the soil moisture in our
Tibouchina grandifolia
(the rain barrel in the background
is a teaser for next time) 

Begin by taking the time to understand the drainage properties your yard's soil. Watch the weather. (While it’s always amusing to see someone’s sprinklers running during a cloudburst, it’s not really funny, conservation- or plant health-wise.) Don’t assume that just because fall rolls around you're off the watering hook until April: in southeastern North Carolina, October is statistically the driest month of the year, followed by January. Find out the general water requirements of the plants in your yard, and group those with similar needs together. Most important of all, to ascertain whether or not you need to add water, go outside and stick your finger up to the second knuckle into the ground and check out how moist—or not—it feels. Then act accordingly. Get into the habit of really looking at your plantings and finger-testing your soil: you’ll have a better chance of spotting and addressing water problems before fatalities result.

There’s not a lot of information out there about how to best water lawns on sandy soils. Most sources advocate infrequent deep watering, which sand makes impossible. An inch a week is the rule-of-thumb recommendation; you’re advised to place empty tuna cans at various spots around the yard to measure how much water gets dispensed from the sprinkler or irrigation spray-heads. That’s ’way too much like work for me. I rely on watching the weather, scouting my plants for drought symptoms, and the stick-finger-in-dirt method to ascertain if I’m watering prudently.

A Water-Wise Quiz
1.      Do you keep the tap running while you brush your teeth, shave, or wash the dishes?

2.      Run the dishwasher (the machine, not the person) and/or the washing machine before they're fully loaded?

3.      Shower for longer than five to seven minutes and/or run the water while you’re soaping up and shampooing?

4.      Have dripping faucets inside or hose-bibs outside?

5.      Hose off your sidewalks, patios and driveways instead of sweeping them?

6.      Wash your car often?

7.      Have a leaky or poorly maintained swimming pool?

8.      Turn on the bathroom tap so the spoiled-rotten cat can get a drink but neglect to turn it off as soon as the young prince has finished? Tim? Sally?

9.      For those of you with in-ground irrigation systems: Do your spray heads water the house, driveway or road?

10.  Have you run the irrigation system during or just after statistically significant rain?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above, stop doing it/them right now.


Next time: a colloquy on in-ground irrigation systems. Thanks for dropping by. Stay hydrated.