Roots and Shoots: Weather Is on Our Minds

Questions from readers about the garden

By Pamela Doan

Should I be watering grass during this dry spell?

Lawns are looking a little brown at this point, and that’s OK. Grass will go dormant for a while during periods of drought and look brown and dead, but it can turn green again when there’s rainfall. Unless there’s an extended drought period, grass won’t die.

If a green lawn is a deal breaker in your household, then measure the amount of water the lawn receives from a sprinkler system. It only needs 1 inch of water per week. Use a tuna can set in the ground or buy a water spike for accuracy. Water from rain barrels is good for lawns, too. Capture runoff from the roof downspouts and connect a hose.

Other ideas for repurposing water: Since I had a baby and she moved into the bathtub for daily baths, I’ve started using her bathwater to fill the watering can and water plants in containers on my patio. I can reuse about 10 gallons from every bath to take care of the flowers.

Get creative and you’ll notice there’s a lot of clean water going down the drain that thirsty plants would appreciate. Washing lettuce? Waiting for the hot water to come through the tap? Even dishwater can be repurposed.

It’s considered to be “gray water,” and some houses are built with systems to collect water from washing machines, dishwashers and showers to be used for plants. I use natural cleansers without harsh chemicals and don’t worry about anything passing through.

Newly planted trees, shrubs and other plants should get regular watering, too, but established plants and trees can tolerate some dry weather. Our weather patterns have been fairly consistent with dry spells this time of year for a while.

The easiest plants to maintain are drought-tolerant and can also withstand heavy rains. It’s something to consider when landscaping. Choose wisely based on your willingness to do the work to keep the plants alive and on the natural resources available.

Late-season blooming: What else is there other than mums?

Chrysanthemums are hardy to zone 5 and can be grown as perennials here, but they tend to be treated like annuals. Landscape centers crowd their shelves with them around this time of year, but if you try to overwinter them in the ground they probably won’t make it.

Chelone lyoni, or turtlehead, flowers in fall and attracts butterflies. (Photo by P. Doan)

Chelone lyoni, or turtlehead, flowers in fall and attracts butterflies. (Photo by P. Doan)

They are shallow-rooted plants and do best when planted in the spring. Then they have a lot of time to establish themselves and get settled. Planting a perennial during its blooming time with a harsh winter ahead means that it is putting all its energy into flowers, not root systems.

There are a lot of nice fall blooming plants, though. Here is a short list of native, hardy perennials that have nice color, and most of them will also attract beneficial insects and birds as an added bonus: yarrow, hyssop, several types of milkweed, including swamp milkweed and butterfly milkweed, trumpet vine, turtlehead, buttonbush, echinacea or coneflower, joe-pye weed, Jerusalem artichoke, ironweed, many varieties of rudbeckia or black-eyed susans and goldenrod.

There are at least a dozen varieties of asters in many hues that will delight. For trees and shrubs, try witch hazel, dogwood, serviceberry and bearberry, an evergreen.

Is it too late to plant shrubs or trees?

Late summer and fall are a great time to plant trees and shrubs, as long as they are watered consistently through October. Evergreen trees can be an exception. Since they don’t lose their needles like deciduous trees lose their leaves, they are susceptible to drying out during the winter anyway.

They have a better chance of going into winter with deeper roots when they are planted in spring and can establish their root systems all summer and into the fall. A mild winter might not do any damage, but that’s impossible to control.

A few factors give it a better chance of survival. Plant conifers soon — don’t wait. Put them in a protected area out of the wind, which is drying. Fence them if you live in a high-browse area for deer. Deer will even eat Colorado spruce and Norway spruce if food is scarce, and it’s really hard to put up deer fencing in the winter.

Mulching any new plantings will keep moisture in and help control ground temperature, reducing the heaving effect of freeze and thaw cycles.

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