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Care can keep a dry lawn thriving

Drought and water restrictions are not a death sentence for yard plants, if some pretty simple measures are taken.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 24, 2000

Caring for plants in Sandra Hoag's award-winning garden is a little like triage these days: The ones in the most pain get treated first.

Her impatiens, for instance, are thirsty little critters even in wet years. During a drought, they're downright parched.

So Hoag is careful to visit them a little more often with her watering can.

"I put the water where it's needed," said Hoag, a Seminole resident who is doing her best to abide by Pinellas County's latest water restrictions. "I take care of the more sensitive plants, and the ones that are more drought tolerant, I don't worry about. I just watch everything and give everybody a drink once in a while."

The county's restrictions, which limit lawn watering to one day a week, do not have to result in brown lawns, droopy flowers and dead plants, say those in the business of keeping flora thriving.

Grass may turn a little brown in dry conditions, said JoAnn Hoffman, a horticulturist at the Hillsborough County Cooperative Extension Service.

"But I think there might be a bigger problem with people watering to excess," she said. "The danger isn't to the plants. They're just wasting water."

In fact, less than an inch of water from a sprinkler system can keep a lawn healthy, she said. If grass gets much more than that, the roots cannot absorb all the water, and the runoff goes to waste.

Figuring out how much water your lawn is getting is fairly simple. Just set a few identical flat-bottom containers in the zone where you are sprinkling and run the water for 15 minutes. Combine all the water collected into one container, measure the depth with a ruler and then divide the total by the number of containers you had.

That will give you the amount of water, in inches, applied to that zone of your lawn during the 15 minutes. To figure out how many inches of water you apply to your lawn in an hour, multiply by four.

"One good application is going to be adequate if it's done at a slow enough rate and the water soaks in as opposed to running off," Hoffman said.

Horticulturists also recommend watering early in the morning, as opposed to late in the evening, to prevent fungus from growing on grass and plants.

"Evening watering, especially with warm, humid nights, has a tendency to enhance disease problems," said Dale Armstrong, coordinator of the Florida Yards and Neighborhoods program at the Pinellas County Cooperative Extension Service. "The grass stays wet all night long. The leaves of the plants stay wet all night long."

Other tips provided by horticulturists and local nursery workers:

When you cut the lawn, try to keep it about 3 to 4 inches high so the grass retains more water. Also, use a sharp blade when mowing because it produces a cleaner cut that heals more quickly and loses less water.

Irrigate grass only when it starts to wilt. Signs of wilting include footprints that remain in the grass long after being made, a bluish-gray appearance to the lawn and a large number of leaf blades that are folded in half lengthwise.

Scatter 2 to 3 inches of mulch around the bottom of shrubs and trees to retain water. Folded or droopy leaves indicate the plant is thirsty.

Stay away from fertilizers. They promote growth and increase the plant's need for water.

Move container plants to shaded areas to reduce their need for water.

Thin out dense beds of plants to reduce competition for water.

When planting new vegetation, pick native plants that are more likely to resist drought conditions.

Hoag said she expects most of her plants to make it through the dry months just fine, as long as she is vigilant.

"The drought will end," she said. "Like everything else, there's an end to it, and everything will be nice again."

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