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How your garden can thrive during drought

The perennial border in front of garden columnist

The perennial border in front of garden columnist Jessica Damiano's house has thrived all summer without any supplemental water. Pictured, Knockout roses, black-eyed Susans, anise hyssop, purple coneflowers, daylilies and lavender. (July 24, 2011) Photo Credit: Jessica Damiano

It's been hot and dry: not exactly a recipe for a thriving garden, unless you're growing cacti. And, yet, my perennials are putting on quite the show, though I don't have an irrigation system and I haven't watered them once all season long.

Sure, I water the vegetables and the containers like crazy, but my in-ground perennials don't get any attention whatsoever. With a little advance planning, you can relieve yourself of the burden of watering, too, and as a bonus, do your part to save one of our most precious resources.

What's my secret? Xeriscaping. If it sounds foreign to you, that's because it is: "Xeriscape" comes from the Greek word for dry -- xirós -- and "scape," so it literally means "dry scape." Simply put, xeriscaping is the practice of planting drought-tolerant plants.

Though there are exceptions, most plants suitable for xeriscaping are indigenous to the region. The more local the plant's home, the better it can survive in the climate without any outside help. Just think about all the wildflowers that grow on the side of the road; they can because the side of Long Island's roads is their natural habitat. Plants with origins in Japan, for instance, aren't as likely to behave well here or live independent of human help.

All plants, even drought-tolerant ones, need to be watered at least throughout their first entire season until they develop an established root system. But after that, with proper garden practices, they can pretty much fly on autopilot. First, be sure to mix plenty of compost into the soil before planting. Compost improves the water-holding capacity of sandy soil (and improves the drainage of heavy clay) while adding vital nutrients to enrich it. And a 2 to 3-inch layer of mulch over the soil will go a long way toward retaining soil moisture, while keeping weeds at bay.

Best watering practices

1. When you do water, do so only in the morning. If you wait until later in the day, when the sun is at its strongest, much of the water will evaporate before it can reach roots. And if you water in the evening, leaves will remain damp overnight, encouraging fungal, mold and mildew diseases. And soil that remains damp after the sun goes down attracts slugs and snails.

2. It's much better to water deeply and less frequently than to give your plants a light, daily sprinkle. That's important to keep in mind when setting irrigation system timers. Deeper watering promotes strong plants with healthier roots that will withstand hot, dry spells.

3. The goal should be to direct water only where you need it -- at the roots -- not on foliage, on the walkway or outside the pot. In general, watering cans are preferable to hoses, and hoses trump sprinkler systems. And when you see water running off instead of soaking into the soil, stop; it isn't doing any good. Be sure not to water so fast that the ground can't absorb it.

4. Consider using a covered rain barrel to catch water from downspouts. One inch of rain on a 1,000-square-foot roof will provide 625 gallons of water. So multiply the square footage of your roof by 625 and divide the product by 1,000 to determine how many gallons you could recycle.

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