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Tue, May 21

Healthy, robust gardens that use little water

Autumn Sage can go days without water in the hottest summer sun.

Autumn Sage can go days without water in the hottest summer sun.

After last weekend's water restrictions for the city of Prescott, I realized again, how fragile our relationship with water really is. To reduce water consumption I held off on washing the car, waited to clean out the turtle tank in my daughter's room, bought a blower from Sears instead of hosing off the back patio for my other daughter's 19th birthday, and only watered my container plants once. My plants have recovered nicely. Let me share a few of the tips I regularly use to increase water conservation and two of my favorite summer plants that never exhibit symptoms of water deprivation.

First, I am a strong advocate of shredded bark. I have a two- to three-inch layer of shredded bark over most of my flower gardens and around the bases of trees. This one environmental change drastically reduces the water needs of my landscape. I top-dress the hot spots in my garden with several more bags of bark so that those areas do well when I must turn off the irrigation clock.

Second is the bigger-is-better approach to gardening. You'll often find me on this soap box because, in our arid climate, the larger the root ball, the better a new plant's chances of tolerating heat and drought. I never plant a 6-pack of anything. I try to plant gallon size plants or larger. Because my flowers, herbs and vegetables are large when planted, before long they can go for several days before they need hydration. By last Monday, many of these plants were lying down from heat exhaustion but they perked back up with a little water. Plants with small roots would be dead from the same heat and drought exposure.

Third, be sure to apply deep, deep water with every irrigation cycle. Keep in mind that one inch of water penetrates six inches of soil, and that the average tree has a root depth of two to three feet. If you are only irrigating 30 minutes twice a week, your plants will have shallow roots and be prone to stress from heat and drought. As your plants become larger, increase the time each station runs but water less often and you will have plants that thrive in our summer heat. For more watering information, ask for the handy 'Mile High Water Guide' the next time you visit the garden center.

Shade is my fourth tip and it is the best defense against heat. As I said in last week's column, I am talking about deciduous shade trees. Trees not only reduce the amount of water needed for your landscape, they also greatly increase your air conditioner's efficiency on hot days. I water my established trees just once a week, but enjoy a yard that is under shade throughout the summer. It's well worth the investment of time and energy to plant another shade tree this summer.

Some plants just like the heat more than others, and you'll find these summer sizzlers at their best in garden centers right now. Most are sun-loving shrubs, perennials, and annuals requiring at least five to six hours of sun each day. These summer bloomers require a hot sun to produce great-looking flowers. More sun and these heat lovers produce more flowers with better color.

There are two sun-loving plants I think every landscape should have. Each has been blooming in my yard for at least a month and will continue well into November and never need water during a water crisis. The first is Russian sage, Perovskia atriplicifolia, a pretty little four-foot shrub covered with lavender flowers. Russian sage is not a native of Russia, but is named after a Russian general. Actually, this member of the mint family is native to Pakistan.

This sage's attractive flower spikes remind me of super-sized lavender. With its gray-green foliage, it makes a nice eye-catching addition to any herb garden or perennial border. Superior performance follows when the plant is placed on a drip system and watered once a week with about five gallons of water throughout the summer.

My second drought-hardy recommendation is Autumn Sage, Salvia x greggi. This short shrub can go days without water in the hottest summer sun. It's at garden centers now in colors of red, purple and my favorite: "Hot Lips," a red and white combo that looks like she is blowing kisses from the garden. Hummingbirds feast on this plant from the first day it blooms in June until the first hard freeze in November.

If plants in your landscape appear stressed, I highly recommend an application of 'Soil Activator' before the monsoons arrive in mid July. Also, within the next two weeks, I recommend the second feeding of the year with 'Start-N-Grow' granular fertilizer.

Now, here's a bit of info for you gardeners transplanted from the deserts. Several of you have come to me this week convinced that this is the end of the planting season ... WRONG. In our mild climate, we continue planting through the end of the year. In fact, this is the only time to put in all those lovers of hot summer weather. They're in full bloom now at your favorite garden center and ready to be planted. If you're sure to water new shrubs and trees twice a week, you will have gardening success with hot weather additions to your yard and garden.

I will go into more detail on all of these subjects during my garden radio show this Saturday from 7 to 8 a.m. Listen in at KYCA 1490 AM for local garden information from local gardeners. Call in with your questions and comments or just listen in for some good gardening talk.

Until next week, I'll see you in the garden center.

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