Recovering Your Plants from the Drought

If you’re feeling a little like you’re a victim of a long, hot summer, you’re not alone. Not only was it hot, but the smoke from the fires contributed to many of us feeling more heat stressed than usual. It’s the same way for your plants and getting them to merely survive, much less thrive, through this summer has been a challenge. Even though the air has begun to cool off a bit and fall is just around the corner, there will still be plenty of warm days to come. Here’s how to help your plants transition well through the changes ahead or help the newly planted fall additions survive and get established.

The most obvious thing that you will notice in your garden is that many of the plants are stressed from the lack of rain last winter and through the summer. Leaves may show this by appearing yellow, drying out, or falling off of the plant. Branches on your trees and shrubs may appear the same way and there may be root damage underground that you can’t see but may end up being the eventual cause of death for that plant.

The longer the dry conditions persist, the more damage you’ll see and even though we’ve begun to get some rain, in most areas it’s not enough just yet. However, once the rains return, it’s time to get back in the garden, assess the damage, and get your plants back into the best shape they can be before winter arrives.

Ease your drought stressed plants back into health slowly. Remember, they’ve essentially been in shock over the past year. While the temptation is to drown them with water, start increasing the water slowly so that you won’t damage tender new roots that are trying to establish themselves. Keep the ground moist, but not wet, especially for newly planted trees, shrubs, and perennials. Roots need oxygen along with water, and saturating soil will suffocate new growth. While you can’t control the rain, you can control your sprinklers or hand watering and in this case, slow and steady is what’s called for. Aim for an inch of water per week per plant or slightly more if they are in quick draining soils.

Prune selectively. Although it’s tempting to prune trees and shrubs back when they are stressed and looking poorly, you’ll need to remember that severely pruning them can cause more stress. In some plants, the top canopy, no matter how bad it looks, still will provide much needed shade for the rest of the plant. Instead, wait until the drought has lessened, then prune the brown or dead sections back.

Fertilize lightly, if at all. At Four Seasons, we don’t recommend fertilizing trees or shrubs after August 10th, because they are preparing for dormancy and trying to stop growing. Fertilizing them sends the incorrect message that it’s time to grow and can burn roots if applied too heavily right now.

Give your garden a thorough inspection as stressed plants are often targets for pests and diseases. Dealing with anything you spot now, will help the plant to recover instead of continuing to weaken. Remove any weeds. Weeds compete with desirable plants for the water that is available and since you are working to create ideal conditions to revive your garden, the weeds will begin to thrive again too.

Mulch thoroughly! I know that most people only apply mulch in the spring, but a second application in the fall will help tremendously to keep roots cool and moist as we move through the Indian summer days to come. By keeping these roots protected, you will create the ideal conditions for your plants to recover from the drought.

If you have some in your yard that just aren’t going to make it, despite your best efforts, consider replacing them now with something more drought tolerant. Because the ground is warm now from the summer sun, trees, shrubs, and perennials all do well when planted in the fall because there is less transplant shock. Group plants with similar watering needs together so that you can better control the watering next year. Don’t forget to add organic matter when you plant. Compost, Back to Earth and other amendments will not only help new plants get a good start, but will also enrich the soil for your existing plants.

Cooler days are right around the corner and your plants know that too. The trick right now is to get them through and help them recover, along with the rest of us, from the long, hot summer!