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We all face challenges in the garden this summer

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, July 7, 2012, at 7:21 a.m.
  • Updated Monday, Oct. 15, 2012, at 4:08 p.m.

In the past week, little chances of rain have sneaked into the forecast when no one has been looking.

I’ve been looking, because I sense it whenever a cloud floats into our patch of the world, and I don’t want one moment of a chance of rain to go by without my enjoying some hope. I start the prayers going right away, and I start haunting the radar for a splotch of rain shower. I scowl at the Internet weather page when it hasn’t changed its sunny icon to note the fact that clouds have momentarily, mercifully shaded our town.

The fact that a chance can materialize out of seemingly nothing gives me hope. And now a real, predicted chance hovers over the weekend. Thirty percent chance, don’t let me down.

We all have our challenges in the garden this summer, and whenever I write something about one of them, other questions pop up around it like weeds.

One was from a woman who has an extremely mature cottonwood, with roots growing 10 to 14 feet out from the base of the tree. Does sticking a hose on trickle at the base of the tree catch enough of it? she asked.

Ward Upham of K-State has addressed this with some good advice about using a soaker hose. Some of it will be a review of last week:

Trees should be watered to a depth of 12 to 18 inches if possible. Water from the trunk out to the edge of the branches.

You can use a soaker hose for this. And you can make it provide a more uniform watering if you connect it to a Y-adapter. Use a female-to-female connector on the female end so that both the beginning and ending of the hose are connected to the Y-adapter. This will equalize pressure. It also is helpful if the Y-adapter has shut-off valves so the volume of flow can be controlled. Too high a flow rate can allow water to run off rather than soak in.

On larger trees, circle the tree with the soaker hose, pulling it out from the trunk at least half the distance to the dripline, farther out if possible. The dripline of the tree is the outermost reach of the branches.

Though this will not reach all the roots of a tree, it will reach enough of them to make a difference. Trees normally have at least 80 percent of their roots in the top foot of soil.

On smaller trees, you can circle the tree several times so that only soil that has tree roots will be watered.

Shrubs should be watered to a depth of 8 to 12 inches, Upham says.

Check the depth of watering by pushing a wooden dowel or metal rod into the soil. It will stop when it hits dry soil.

Another reader has young trees that he has recently planted, watered and fertilized. When they didn’t perk up, he replanted, watered and fertilized. They’re still not looking so good.

First of all, I wouldn’t fertilize in the heat, with the exception of annuals that are getting plenty of water.

Second, you have to get to know your soil by checking the depth around each to make sure they’re getting enough water. If they’re getting enough and are still droopy, they may be getting too much water.

“New trees do need more careful attention,” extension agent Bob Neier says. The rootball needs to be kept moist and not allowed to be either too dry or flooded. Apply enough water to wet the rootball and a little around it several times a week during the first season if we are not getting enough rain, Neier says.

“Don’t depend on the lawn sprinkler for this water. Sprinklers may apply too little or too much. You have to dig a little with your finger and a screwdriver in the rootball to check moisture levels occasionally.

“The first year you do not expect much growth, but be happy when they leaf out with a good bunch of leaves and hold them through the summer. More growth will come in the second year, and normal growth patterns usually start in year three.”

Apart from water, the heat alone can play a factor in the health of some plants, said Jason Griffin, director of K-State Research and Extension’s John C. Pair Horticulture Center in Haysville. I almost had forgotten this from last year. (If you are experiencing deja vu at any point in this column, you’re in good company.)

Griffin says that some plants can benefit from being shaded. I remember a few years ago when some people put umbrellas over hostas. The umbrellas looked like large versions of the tiny umbrellas you might get in a cocktail. They added a splash of color that was not unattractive.

“You can directly affect the temperature of a plant by shading it,” Griffin says. “Obviously, this is a labor-intensive step. But I’ve seen people use everything from bedsheets to screening to umbrellas in order to reduce the temperature of leaves. And, as ridiculous as this sounds … it’s worked.”

Occasionally misting foliage during the mid-afternoon also can help, he said.

“Nurseries with overhead irrigation sometimes turn on the water for five minutes per hour through the day’s peak heat. This lowers the air temperature surrounding the plants without overwatering.”

Reader Tom Waldschmidt reminded me of another reader last year who picked tomatoes through the heat wave because she had a 10-foot misting line on them when the temps soared into the upper 90s to 100. Waldschmidt found the mister equipment at Menards and has his own going this year, with success.

For the long term, Griffin recommends that homeowners shop for plants with heat- and drought-resistance, plus take advantage of any microclimates in their yard that provide wind and sun protection for more sensitive plants.

Reach Annie Calovich at 316-268-6596 or acalovich@wichitaeagle.com.

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