Garden View: Drought – what to do about it now

by Jean Kuehn

Yes, we are in a drought period. I am not certain who officially makes that declaration. But any reasonably intelligent person can surely figure this one out, even if you don’t have the numbers from the weather bureaus.

We are dry, dry, dry and the lack of snow cover is not helping our plants. We need to know what to do now. Hopefully, you watered well into the fall season to give plants some of the moisture that was lacking even then.  Mulching seems to be the mantra of the year – and for good reason. If mulch is good in the summer to help plants hold moisture, it can also help in the winter. Usually, when most of us think about mulch in the fall we are thinking of protecting plants from extremely cold temperatures, but that is not really why we should mulch.

Our cold hardy plants can ordinarily deal with the cold temperatures. It’s the warming temperatures in the middle of their dormancy which is then followed by cold temperatures that cause problems for our plants. Mulch cover helps to moderate these temperature variations so the plant does not start forming buds when there is an unseasonably warm spell and then the buds freeze a week later.

Our strangely warm weather can bring plants out of dormancy and probably the most vulnerable are the spring blooming plants and shrubs. Mulching them now may help these plants. At the very least, it will make us feel like we are doing something to help them. Mulching will also help to maintain what little moisture is still in the soil and prevent further drying. Bales of straw or bags of leaves can be used to cover your delicate plants. Watering now, while the ground is frozen, will probably not help plants.

Native plants have an edge over newer hybrids and cultivars, as they have developed deep roots and mechanisms to tolerate fluctuations in temperatures and moisture. Plants with a root crown at the surface are most vulnerable to damage without snow cover.

When spring finally arrives, be ready to slowly pull back the mulch. Do not rake all the mulch cover off your plants the first warm day. Cold night temperatures and cooler days can still cause damage. Start by loosening the compacted mulch to expose the growing plant to the sun’s warmth, leaving mulch loosely around the base to protect it and yet let it adjust to the warming temperatures.

We will all need to practice our patience when spring comes and we’re looking for signs of life in our plants. Wait until shrubs, like burning bush, show signs of life before beginning to trimming. And do water the plants when the ground thaws.

The Master Gardeners of Anoka County welcome your questions by telephone at 763-767-2891. Additional information on a variety of topics is available at the University of Minnesota website: http://www.extension.umn.edu/.

Jean Kuehn is an Anoka County Master Gardener.

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