Gardening in Gwinnett: Help the home landscape cope with water bans

The Atlanta region is presently in a serious drought, meaning the water content of the soil has reduced to such an extent plants are suffering and beginning to die. For this reason, the entire north Georgia region is under a total outdoor watering ban.

What is the homeowner going to do to help their plants without being able to water? Although there is no substitute for actually watering plants, the homeowner can take some steps to minimize the plants' need for water.

Mulching around trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants will help conserve water. The mulch aids in the retention of water and minimizes the evaporation of water from the soil. It also reduces the number of weeds, which compete with the plants for moisture.

Avoid fertilizer applications during prolonged droughts. Excessive applications can burn the plants as well as increase their need for water.

Also, avoid any heavy pruning of plants and trees. Fertilization and excessive pruning encourage new vegetative growth, and that growth needs water. New growth will wilt during prolonged dry spells, thus increasing the overall requirements for water.

However, sometimes selective pruning may be necessary when a plant begins to wilt, and has leaf scorch along with dead branches. The pruning helps reduce its foliar demands on the roots for water, and keeps the roots alive. Also, cut back wilting herbaceous annual and perennial flowers to reduce their moisture loss.

When mowing the lawn, let the grass clippings fall back to the ground instead of collecting them in a bag. The process is called "grasscycling." The grass clippings provide a source of natural mulch at the surface of the soil, and they also return nutrients to the soil.

For the future, several steps can be taken to reduce the need for supplemental water to be applied to your lawn and garden. Turfgrass areas have higher water requirements and maintenance needs than most other plants, and usually receive the highest amount of supplemental watering in the landscape.

Choose turf that has lower water needs, such as bermuda.

The turf will go dormant during prolonged periods without water, but then will turn green when it begins raining again. Also, consider converting turfgrass areas to beds of drought-tolerant trees, shrubs and groundcovers.

Use plants that are more tolerant to adverse conditions and have lower-maintenance needs. Select plants that are adaptable to the site where they will be growing. In addition to water requirements, consider the amount of sunlight the plant needs, cold and hot weather hardiness, fertilization needs and pruning requirements. Whether the plant is a native or an exotic, if it is adapted to the environment it will be growing in, it will be more tolerant to drought and other adverse conditions.

In spite of the drought and watering bans, the home landscape can survive with minimal loss of plant material. Hopefully the drought will break and we will receive beneficial rains.

For more information on taking care of the home landscape during watering restrictions, and for a list of drought tolerant plants, visit http://pubs.caes. uga.edu/caespubs/horticulture/drought.html.

For questions about drought-tolerant plants and water-saving landscape techniques, contact the Gwinnett County Extension office.

Timothy Daly is an agricultural and natural resource agent with the Gwinnett County Extension Service. He can be reached at 678-377-4010 or timothy.daly@gwinnettcounty.com.