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Thursday, July 7, 2005 06:05 am

gardening 6-30-05

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Does anyone remember what rain looks like? According to the U.S. drought monitor (drought.unl.edu/dm/monitor.html), central Illinois is experiencing a moderate-to-severe drought. Some areas of central Illinois have received a little more of the liquid stuff than others have, but “little” is the operative word. In Buffalo, for example, we received one rainfall totaling just an inch during the entire month of June. Perhaps it’s time to consider growing cacti.

Of course, proper watering is essential to a healthy plant. Most plants will benefit from 1 inch of water per week. Avoid waiting to water until plants are heavily wilted. Signs of a thirsty plant are wilting leaves followed by loss of leaves (but the same signs apply to overwatered plants).

Let’s review some watering basics:

• Use organic mulches around your plants. Shredded hardwood bark, wood chips, composted shredded leaves, and compost will conserve soil moisture and moderate soil temperature. Mulches should be 2 to 4 inches deep and kept away from plant stems.

• Keep weeds, insects, and diseases under control as a means of reducing competition and stress, which increase a plant’s water demands.

• Water early in the morning, before 8 a.m., or in the evening, after 6 p.m., and avoid watering on windy days. As much as 30 percent of water may be lost to evaporation when watering is performed during the hottest part of the day. Watering in the evening may increase the disease problems.

• Watering newly planted trees and shrubs (planted in the last two years) should be your top priority. Flowers are easier to replace than trees. Don’t just water at the tree trunk; soak the entire area beneath the tree canopy, because that’s where the roots are growing.

• Most plants, including your lawn, prefer an inch of water per week. Depending on the soil type, 1 inch of water will wet the top 6 to 8 inches of soil. The frequency and amount of water applied are determined by weather conditions and soil characteristics. Use a rain gauge (they are inexpensive), and dig down to check soil moisture.

• A slow, thorough, deep watering is better than several light sprinklings. Deep watering encourages deeper root growth, which helps plants survive drier conditions. Lawn sprinklers, soaker hoses, and drip irrigation all add water to the ground slowly. Soaker hoses and drip-irrigation systems are generally more efficient and cause fewer disease problems than do sprinklers. Hand watering generally does not penetrate beyond the top inch of soil, wasting both water and time.

• Cool-season turfgrasses, such as Kentucky bluegrass, survive extended periods of drought by going dormant. Although the leaves will become brown, the roots and crowns may stay alive for four to six weeks. If you do decide to water your lawn, the best time to start is at the first sign of water stress: when footprints remain in the turf instead of leaf blades bouncing back. Once you have started watering your lawn, however, you must continue to do so.

• To help conserve water use on lawns, set your lawnmower blade higher (never remove more than a third of the leaf blade in a mowing), avoid traffic over the lawn, and avoid pesticide use on drought-stressed lawns. In the hottest, driest weeks, that means letting the grass get 3 inches tall before mowing.

• Consider replacing some of your lawn with ground cover, which requires less water than does turfgrass. >

Good bugs, bad bugs

Ask someone what’s in his or her garden, and the gardener will start listing all of the plants — the favorites, the ones that are flourishing, the ones that aren’t doing so well.

But a garden is not just a collection of plants — it’s a community of plants, animals, insects, and fungi. If you look closely, you’ll see a raging battle for survival pitting plants against bugs, bugs against bugs. Usually we’re cheering for the plants, but some bugs deserve our support, too.

“Good Guys/Bad Guys,” a class offered by the University of Illinois Extension, will help you differentiate between bad and beneficial bugs and learn ways of managing and eradicating true pests. The class, led by horticulture educator Sandy Mason, is offered at 1 p.m. Tuesday, July 12, and repeated at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 14.

There is a $2 charge for each session. Programs will be held at the U of I Extension Building, on the Illinois State Fairgrounds. To reserve a seat, call 217-782-4617.

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