Drought tactics: stop fertilizing, heap on the compost

The frightfully thin snowcaps on the majestic mountains surrounding the Puget Sound Basin speak louder to us than the voices of our elected officials. We see the drought and with close observation, the plants in our gardens are also showing the effects of this climatic change. Even if we were to get drenching rains this spring, the effects of the unseasonably warm winter weather have made their impact on our garden plants.

However, there are several remedial actions that can profoundly lessen the impacts of the climate change.

First, and foremost, would be to stop fertilizing your plants, especially with high nitrogen products. Nitrogen promotes soft, leafy growth that transpires a lot of water and becomes more susceptible to disease organisms.

When the plants are stressed, and then forced to respond to a dose of nitrogen, they become further unbalanced and oftentimes cannot restore themselves to a healthy equilibrium of moderate growth.

Organic matter is 'cashmere blanket'

The best remedy for the on-going health of your plants is to provide them with an annual application of organic matter, such as aged manure or garden compost. I think of it as a cashmere blanket for the soil. It protects the soil from becoming compacted so that air, water and nutrients are readily absorbed. And it attracts high populations of beneficial organisms and microbial activity. You can have a whole team of very well-behaved workers in your garden.

We know that earthworms aerate the soil and their castings feed the soil. What constantly amazes me is the speed with which they perform their miracles. Years ago I helped a neighbor reconstitute our shared side garden. The previous owners had fertilized and used weed killers extensively. The soil was in many ways worse than sand. It was just fine dry dust.

After removing the old woody plants, we covered the garden bed with 4 - 6 inches of coarse leafy garden clippings and some free woodchips from an arborist. Four months later when we went to plant the area, it was filled with big fat worms oozing their way through the damp litter.

That garden bed now supports maple trees, Arbutus 'Marina,' many different ferns and heucheras. It has never been fertilized nor does it need weeding. Yes, now and then there are a few shoots of ivy or cotoneaster, which are brought by the birds sitting in the trees. These little shoots are easily pulled each year when the new layer of compost is applied to the area.

Now there are some areas in every garden that do require some fertilizer and regular irrigation. These would be plants in containers, productive areas like fruit trees and vegetable gardens and any bedding out of annuals. How you choose to nurture these areas this year will have to be a very personal decision. Are you ready to re-use water from your showers? Commonly known as grey water, there are some inherent problems with this water source for productive gardens, but certainly could be used effectively for container gardens and bedded-out annuals.

The lawn

And finally, the lawn. I suspect that many people will hope that somehow some way they can keep their verdant greenswards. Good luck, and I would hope that a beautifully tended, edged and weed-free burnished turf would become a coveted icon, proudly informing all who see it that precious, natural resources are not infinite.

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