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In times of drought, help your plants and yourself

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, August 4, 2012, at 7:44 a.m.
  • Updated Monday, Oct. 15, 2012, at 4:08 p.m.

After waking one early morning to the sound of a rain shower that dried up after a few minutes, I fell back to sleep and dreamed I was driving. And the roads were slick. Suddenly I realized why.

“I didn’t know it was supposed to snow!” I exclaimed in my dream.

Not-so-hidden meaning: I wouldn’t be any more surprised to see snow than rain at this point in our second scalding-dry summer.

So we move into another, deeper phase of the drought. Many plants, even watered, look wan, because the heat is hot enough to bake them. Trees and shrubs that haven’t gotten enough water — or too much — are starting to brown on the outside and, perhaps, on the inside, to die. We shudder at our water bills, yet shudder even more at the alternative.

It’s hard to plan in these conditions. Normally, in July, I would have written about killing out Bermuda for replanting in fescue this fall. This year, that was never on the radar screen. First of all, it’s hard to imagine planting thirsty fescue in a drought. Second, the Bermuda is mainly dormant. And you can’t kill Bermuda when it’s dormant.

And while it’s always wise to consider planting drought-tolerant plants, my death-wish side can’t help but think we’ll have a flood next summer, and root rot will be all the rage.

In some ways, this is good. Planning is important, but living in the moment has its benefits. There’s something strangely calming in knowing that this is beyond our control.

On the other hand, just maintaining is not growing. Just surviving is not thriving.

So there are some things we can be doing besides watering.

Look for bright spots

A pot of annual esperanza (aka Tecoma stans, yellow bells, yellow elder) is the best-looking thing in DeAun Johnson’s yard, she says. “Esperanza” means hope. We need some of that. "Extremely heat tolerant. I put it up in the garage in winter and it loses its leaves but comes back obviously beautifully,” DeAun says. It was purchased at Hong’s.

Care for wildlife

In my talks with plant and wildlife experts this week, I was taken with a common refrain, even while we try to conserve: Water is the most important thing we can be doing for plants and wildlife.

Keep birdbaths — or plant saucers or any other shallow bowl-type containers — filled and freshened as often as possible during the day. Keep nectar plants watered. Put out brightly colored, sweet fruits such as cut watermelon and orange halves near your colorful nectar flowers (if you have any) to help along any butterflies that may be out and about. Naturalist Jim Mason says to put out the fruit before the sun’s rays hit your yard in the morning.

Make summer spaghetti

6 medium, very ripe tomatoes

2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

10 fresh basil leaves or 1 teaspoon leaf basil, crumbled

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 pound spaghettini (thin spaghetti)

2 tablespoons butter

Dip tomatoes in boiling water for 15 seconds; peel; chop. Put tomatoes in a strainer over a bowl; let drain about 1 hour.

Combine drained tomatoes, parsley, basil, lemon juice, oil, garlic, salt and pepper in large bowl; reserve.

Cook pasta and drain; add butter to pasta.

Toss half the sauce with buttered pasta, working fast to keep the pasta hot. Place dollops of the remaining sauce atop individual servings. MAKES 6 SERVINGS.

Enter our photo contest

Look at your garden with new eyes and find a spot of beauty or whimsy to photograph for the online garden gallery at kansas.com. If you upload a photo by Aug. 13, we’ll enter you, along with others already in the gallery, in a drawing to win a $40 gift certificate to the garden center of your choice. Upload your photo at www.kansas.com/upload along with a brief description of what is pictured. Desiree Read, who had the largest tomato in perhaps all the history of Tomato Day last week, uploaded a photo of the tomato as it grew (pictured above).

Shop farmers markets

If you think you have a hard time watering, consider those who grow food for the markets. Right now, there is a bumper crop of tomatoes that benefited from good conditions early in the season, and other vegetables also are pretty strong. But this bounty is expected to peter out toward the end of August before picking up again in September and October, weather permitting, extension agent Rebecca McMahon says. Let’s support the growers and enjoy the fresh produce as long as we can.

Prepare ground for the future

I know I just said that Bermuda-killing was off the radar, but it’s back on if, indeed, you want to do something else with your yard. That could be planting native grasses and wildflowers — or fescue.

To do this, bring Bermuda back with a couple of good waterings, throw on some fertilizer when it starts to green up, then hit it with Roundup, Rebecca says. You will have to wait a little longer into fall than normal to plant — late September.

If you have weeds in the landscape, hoe as best you can now, extension agent Bob Neier says, but, in general, wait until it gets cooler before tackling weeds. Crabgrass, for example, is tough to pull up now. But it will yield easily come September.

Donate the surplus

If you have more produce than you can eat, consider donating it to the needy through Plant a Row for the Hungry. Like water, food shouldn’t go to waste. You can take the produce to these locations during their business hours: Kansas Food Bank, 1919 E. Douglas; Augusta Ace Home Center, 316 W. Seventh Ave. in Augusta; Brady Nursery, 11200 W. Kellogg; Hillside Nursery, 2200 S. Hillside; Hillside Feed and Seed, 1805 S. Hillside; Johnson’s Garden Centers, 802 N. Ridge Road, 21st and Woodlawn, 2707 W. 13th St.; Valley Feed & Seed, 1903 S. Meridian.

So far, donations are up a good deal this year over last, Kevin Enz of the food bank said — 43,910 pounds this year compared to 17,030 pounds at this time last year.

Watering tips

•  If you have an automatic watering system, run it between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m., says Kay Drennen of the city of Wichita. For those who water with a hose, 6 to 9 or 9:30 a.m. is the time to water. Consider putting a battery-operated timer on your spigot if you can’t get up that early, Kay says. If you water in the evening, be sure to keep the water on the ground and not on leaves. Sprinkler systems should be tested once a month in the daylight to check for misaligned or broken heads or water being blocked by shrubs. Water once or twice a week long and slow, Drennen recommends.

•  Trees should be your watering priority. If you question the money spent on water, remember the property value of trees, the expense of removing them, and the cost and the time it would take to replace them. One good way to water trees is to place a hose on a trickle at the base of the tree, moving it to water slowly and deeply under the tree’s canopy, or placing a soaker hose in the outline of the canopy. Turn the water off whenever it starts to run off rather than soak in. But then come back and turn it on again until the soil is moist 12 to 18 inches down.

•  Your lawn may go dormant, but it still needs some water to stay alive. In the extreme heat, for fescue, water half an inch a week, put on at one time, extension agent Rebecca says. (In a more normal summer, that would be half an inch every two weeks.) For a warm-season lawn of Bermuda, zoysia or buffalo, water an inch or so a week to keep it semi-green, or water half an inch every couple of weeks keep it alive.

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

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