You might think that conserving water this summer would entail less effort in the garden; you set the automatic sprinklers to irrigate deeply once or twice a week and let the lawn and plants adapt to drought conditions — or not.
But if you're following the UC Davis recommendations to irrigate only when plants and lawns show signs of drought stress, you'll be checking every plant every day for the first limp leaves and stepping on the lawn to see how long it takes a footprint to rebound. You'll also need to be constantly checking water delivery equipment and mulch levels.
The plants in my garden are grouped, somewhat, by water and fertilizer needs as well as by sun and shade patterns. The eastern side and the north, shady side of the house are planted with well-established shade-loving camellias, azaleas, gardenias, ferns, violets, campanula and hydrangeas.
During years with normal rainfall that allow for the normal three times weekly irrigation schedule, all the plants survive July's heat with minimal wilting, dieback and leaf scorch. This year the differences in each plant's ability to tolerate near-drought conditions are marked.
The thick camellias leaves are not scorched but they are discolored with signs of nutrient deficiencies. The roots are not drawing up sufficient iron (green veins with yellow interspaces) or zinc or manganese (yellowish blotches). The azaleas are looking scorched with lots of tip dieback. The gardenias and campanula are doing surprisingly well, but the violets have very small leaves with scorched tips as do the fern fronds. The hydrangeas are looking pitiful. All but the lower leaves that get water first are dead and the flowers look like a dried arrangement.
In the sunny southern part of the garden, the damage from heat and drought is getting ugly. Drought-tolerant yarrow plants go limp daily as do the coreopsis. The valerian is dead and the roses have stopped producing flowers and also have scorched leaves. The bare patches in the bermuda lawn are getting huge and the yellowing grass crunches underfoot.
What is becoming evident is that some plants that are grouped with others with similar watering needs will require more water than the others when irrigation is reduced. The roses, the yarrows and the gardenias should recover completely and quickly in the fall; the hydrangeas and the coreopsis ( a favorite bee pollen source) will need supplemental water daily when summer temperatures are high.
The camellias need a nutrient booster that contains sulfur, iron, zinc and manganese. A half cup each of citrus food (a great source of micronutrients for any sick plant) will help.
This summer the garden chore list includes daily monitoring of plant wilting and of soil moisture levels in each planting area, daily monitoring of irrigation systems for leaks, replacing mulches when they are less than three inches deep and making hard decisions about which plants to try to keep alive.
More work than you'd expect.