This summer’s drier-than-average weather is not going to ruin your landscape – even if you refuse to haul out the hoses and run sprinklers every day or two.

I’m a bit nuts on this subject, but I firmly believe that if you have a garden that can’t withstand a few weeks without rain, you didn’t plant a good garden.

I refer to the parts of your garden that are permanent and well-established, including trees, shrubs, perennials and the lawn. If you are growing vegetables, annuals, or containers such as window boxes and patio pots, you will have to water – but not as much as you think.

Let’s start with the lawn, which is many people’s main concern.

“Lawns can go dormant (turn brown) in the summer and do just fine, as long as we don’t have a really long drought that causes the crowns to die,” said Gary Fish, the state horticulturalist. Fish helped start the Maine Yardscaping Partnership (a public-private partnership that promotes gardens requiring little or no fertilizer, pesticides or watering) when he was with the Board of Pesticide Control and retained some of the Yardscaping duties when he took his new position earlier this year.

If a lawn has a lot of traffic, as a sports field would, during a dry spell you might have more problems with the crowns dying; crowns are the area between the blades of grass and roots from which new blades grow.

Part of it goes back to the kind of lawn you planted in the first place. If you amended the soil with compost and planted tall fescues, you will be fine. Perennial ryegrass and Kentucky bluegrass don’t do as well. Here’s another classic turn on the read-the-label instructions: Bags of grass seed must list what they have for seed content. In the long haul, you’ll save time and money by spending more for seed that contains mostly fescues.

All lawns do better if you mow them at a height of 3 inches or higher – the taller blades of grass give more energy to the roots as well as shade the soil from the heat of the sun, which conserves moisture and thwarts weeds.

So if the lawn is turning just a little bit brown during July and early August, consider it a badge of honor that shows your water-conserving merit.

If you are going to set up a sprinkler, use it only once a week in each area and measure so you put down a full inch (recycle a straight-sided, short can such as a tuna or cat food can to measure the water fall). Infrequent but deep watering is best because the water gets down to the roots.

I disapprove of automatic watering systems. If you already have one, run it manually as you would a sprinkler, except that you don’t have to drag the hose, to make the measurement get up to 1 inch a week. I get a bit testy when I see sprinkler systems running daily or, even worse, during a downpour. Newer sprinkler systems have sensors so they don’t turn on your water while it’s raining.

If you have chosen your trees, shrubs and perennials well, they won’t need watering. The native plants evolved in this area and have survived for generations. This year is drier than average but is nowhere near the driest on record. (The July 21 U.S. Drought Monitor indicates “severe” drought in parts of York County and “moderate” drought along the coast of Maine up to Belfast, with Portland reporting 6.85 inches below normal rainfall since April. The last time the National Weather Service issued a drought report for Maine was in 2008.) And most of the non-natives that are traditional garden plants in the area, like lilacs and most hydrangeas, will also survive.

Walk around your garden, and if you see a plant that is wilting, water it, Fish said. That is just common sense. Hand watering is often all that is needed.

Plants that you put in recently require more watering. Fish advised once a week and maybe every other day if it is hot and windy. I do our new plants daily for the first month and every other day after that – but I need the extra steps to meet the demands of my Fitbit, and I am using either water from our three rain barrels or tap water that we collect while waiting for the water to get to the temperature we want at the kitchen sink. (I haven’t started collecting used bath and shower water yet, but I swear I would if we lived in Arizona.) Fish said the extra watering for new plants can extend out to three years, especially if the garden soil is sandy and if the plant’s roots were potbound before they went into your garden.

The vegetable garden needs a lot more care. If the lettuce, carrots, peas, beans and corn do not get enough water, the plants probably will die and definitely won’t produce well. Even the fruits that come from perennial plants need regular watering. Our strawberry production was way down this year, mostly because I didn’t water the garden as often as I should have. The strawberry plants are healthy and should do well next year, but we got only a dozen quarts of smaller-than-average fruit.

While I set up sprinklers for the vegetable garden twice – once in May and once in June – I did hand water a number of plants I was especially worried about. I used pelletized carrot seed as an experiment, and – following the packet instructions – the carrots got regular watering until they got to a decent size. I also hand watered new asparagus and blueberry plants and all the transplants.

Watering containers is just like watering house plants – it depends on which pot. The sedums we have outside need to dry out between waterings, so I check the soil each time. The begonias, potted tomatoes, fancy annuals like digiplexis and begonias and the potted Japanese maple get watered anytime it goes two days without raining – which has been often this summer.

Again, these are all from our rain barrels. We have two on our patio and one on our vegetable-garden shed. Only once so far this summer has it been so dry that all of our rain barrels were empty – and we had a thunderstorm a couple of days after they went dry, which replenished them. I don’t know if we actually are saving much money by having rain barrels – but the righteous feeling I get is worth a lot.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: [email protected]

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