By Karen Metz
I hate to be a Cassandra, foretelling futures filled with doom, but I have to admit Im worried.
Our hills are only a sickly grayish-green this year. The season to date rainfall is less than one-third of expected and this is on top of two already dry years.
Sonoma and Marin counties have announced water restrictions and some Central Valley farmers are forgoing planting crops this year.
Im not the only one seeing drought and water restrictions on our horizon.
So what is a gardener to do? Most of us dont have the knowledge or equipment for cloud-seeding. I personally dont know any rain dances. Should we throw up our hands or throw in the towel?
One thing gardeners are good at, however, is planning. We plan our spring vegetable gardens as we peruse seed catalogs in the dead of winter. We plan our landscapes so groupings of color and texture will be pleasing to the eye. We can plan for this drought.
First, we need to take stock of what we have and then draw up a watering priority list. Plants that delight you, that have strong sentimental value, that feed your family, or are rare and costly have a higher priority.
The gift plant that you never really liked, or the plants that take way too much effort or that are easily replaced fall much lower on the watering priority scale.
Plants that are extremely drought tolerant, are in the ground and are well established can also be low on the water priority list as they will probably survive on their own. Frequently these are the plants that are native to this area or other areas with a Mediterranean climate.
Making this list is not easy, as gardeners, we want to keep everything alive. Putting this list into practice will be a true sacrifice for most of us. But if a critical drought happens, it will have to be done.
In a severe drought, most watering should be done by hand. We can ensure that the water goes directly to the base of the plant with minimal waste or spillage. Watering cans work well or a hose with an on-off valve at the end so we can shut off the water between plants. Watering should not be done in the heat of the day, but in the morning or evening to minimize evaporation.
There are some things we can do to help our plants hold on to the water we give them. Mulch is a very valuable tool, whether our plants are in the ground or in containers. A thick layer of mulch will minimize evaporation from the soil.
Remember though to keep the mulch several inches away from the crown of the plant to prevent crown and root rot.
If the plants are in containers, it helps to group them close to each other. They can shade each other and shield each other from drying winds.
Also the choice of container is important. In times like these, plastic pots are better because they dont dry out as quickly. If your plantings are all in terra-cotta or clay and you cant afford to switch over, dont despair. Some gardeners have tried slipping their clay container into another larger clay container and filling the space between with bark or straw. This keeps the wicking action of the clay pot to a minimum.
Weeding is critical in times of drought. Each weed is an active competitor with your plant for any available water. The weed is genetically programmed to win that battle. You can help your plants by eliminating the competition.
We can all start saving water today. I have a plastic basin in my sink to catch the water as I am waiting for it to warm up. It also catches water that I use to rinse off vegetables before I cook them. This water that used to go down the drain is now being used to water my plants.
Planning ahead can help us feel more in control in the present. Even if we get record amounts of rain during the rest of our season and restrictions do not materialize, the planning process we have done will help us be better stewards of the water we do have. It never hurts to have contingency plans.
Karen Metz is a Master Gardener with the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Fairfield. If you have gardening questions, you can call the Master Gardeners office at 784-1322.