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Hydrangeas

Hydrangeas need plenty of water to survive. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

If you’ve checked lately, you’ve seen that in some of the prime growing months (March, April, June and July) we’ve had less rain than we usually get. June in particular registered just over one inch at Brookhaven National Laboratory, while the average is almost four inches. This situation happened last year as well. The U.S. Drought Monitor (www.droughtmonitor.unl.edu) noted that as of the end of July, central Suffolk is in a severe drought and the rest of Long Island in a moderate drought. Riverhead Town has even asked residents to cut back on water use.

On average, Long Island gets about four inches of rain per month. On average, it rains once every three or four days. This is generally ideal for most plants grown here including lawns. But, we could get a week of rain followed by three weeks of virtually no rain. On average, we’re doing just fine but many plants will not make it through those three weeks of drought. So, gardeners need to be aware of not only the current weather but their plants’ requirements.

10 things to consider:

1. Is this a time of even mild drought? If it is, you need to make sure you water plants as needed. Follow local restrictions and recommendations on when to water.

2. Sandy soil lets excess rain drain quickly — if all the rain comes at the same time, there will be days or weeks when your plants are drying out.

Hydrangeas are literally “water vessels,” growing natively where they receive plenty of water. In times of even mild drought, they dry out quickly. Photo by Ellen Barcel
Hydrangeas are literally “water vessels,” growing natively where they receive plenty of water. In times of even mild drought, they dry out quickly. Photo by Ellen Barcel

3. Consider what are the ideal conditions for the plants you have selected. Geraniums are very drought tolerant, for example, while hydrangeas are not.

4. Native plants are more adapted to changing conditions. They are more accustomed to heavy rain or times of drought. This doesn’t mean that you can ignore them completely, but if you are away for a week or two, you don’t need to worry that your garden will be burned to a crisp when you return. Nonnative plants with similar requirements should do well here as well.

5. Lawn sprinklers don’t always give enough water for shrubs and trees. I have several hydrangeas that don’t get enough water from the sprinkler system. So, I need to be aware of when it rains (then all plants get watered). If it doesn’t rain for a few days, I start checking these hydrangeas and may need to hand water them even if the sprinkler was on. After all, hydrangeas are, quite literally “water vessels.”

6. Drip irrigation systems bring water to the roots, keeping leaves dry and therefore less likely to get fungal diseases. Also, less water is lost to evaporation, which can happen with sprinkler systems.

7. Plants with taproots (oak, catalpa, dandelions, etc.) do better in times of drought than plants with more surface roots. These taproots reach way down into the soil, where there’s more likely to be water.

8. Unless you have clay soil, you generally don’t have to deal with a situation of too much water. Long Island’s generally sandy soil drains quickly. If you do have a spot where water collects, consider a rain garden there, that is, plants that tolerate standing water.

Geraniums are drought-tolerant plants. Even in containers they need less water than most plants. Photo by Ellen Barcel
Geraniums are drought-tolerant plants. Even in containers they need less water than most plants. Photo by Ellen Barcel

9. Plants grown in containers need special consideration. Small pots dry out quickly. Clay pots dry out more quickly than man-made materials like plastic. If you’re going to be away on vacation, you probably need someone to come in and water your containers and hanging baskets at least every few days. Moving them out of the direct sun can also help. Look for self-watering planters that have a large water reservoir that you can fill up before you leave. Use watering crystals, which hold excess water and then release it as the soil dries out.

10. The leaves of plants grown in containers can act like umbrellas over the container’s soil. So, even if it’s rained a lot, check those pots to make sure that the rain penetrated down into the soil. I’ve seen bushy plants in containers easily dry out, even after a heavy rain. Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

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By Wendy Mercier

As summer fades into fall, many plants and flowers will continue to bloom until the first frost of winter. Annuals, such as geraniums, marigolds and begonias, can have an extended growing season with proper watering and pruning. Plants such as Montauk daisies, Black-Eyed Susans and hardy mums are just beginning to come into season, and are a sign that autumn is upon us.

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Hydrangea macrophylla. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

In many of my previous columns, I’ve talked about the benefits of using compost and compost tea on your plants. Let’s start with some basic information on what compost is and how to make it.

Compost is decayed organic matter. It’s full of nutrients and makes a great fertilizer for plants. Compost aerates clay soil and helps to hold moisture in sandy soil, so it improves soil structure. Making your own compost keeps waste out of the land fill. It also ensures that you can keep pesticides and other chemicals out of the compost and therefore out of your soil.

There are two types of compost piles, hot and cold. The hot pile raises the temperature of the ingredients to at least 135 degrees. There are several benefits of a hot compost pile. One is that many damaging organisms, like plant bacteria, are killed in a hot pile. Another is that the hot pile decomposes more quickly. Add equal parts green and brown matter, grass clippings and dry leaves, for example, all finely chopped and mixed together. Smaller pieces will decompose more quickly than larger ones. Add some manure in the ratio of 1/3 to 2/3 plant matter for a hot pile or add some blood and bone fertilizer.

A cold compost pile takes longer to decompose, but you need to be less concerned with ratios, manure, etc. Never put diseased leaves in a cold pile. You’re just saving the disease organisms for the next season. Actually, I never put diseased plant parts in any compost pile, just to be on the safe side. Make sure that you keep the compost pile moist or the plant matter will not decompose. Think about the Egyptian mummies, in the desert for thousands of years, yet not decomposed. Periodically turn the pile over. If you use one of the rotating composters on a stand, this step is very easy.

What goes in the compost pile? Any healthy green plant matter, but not woody as it takes too long to decompose, and lawn clippings; coffee grounds and used tea bags; paper towels; and kitchen peelings including apple cores, orange peels, etc. — keep a closed container in the kitchen to collect them and then periodically bring them out to the garden — crushed eggshells and manure from herbivores, such as cows and horses.

Do not add protein, such as leftover meat, which draws critters and is slow to decompose; fatty substances; manure from carnivores, such as dogs and cats, as it can transmit disease; and diseased plant parts.

Compost can be applied as a top dressing or lightly dug into the soil, being careful to avoid surface roots of plants. It can also be mixed into the soil when you transplant or add a new plant to the garden.

If you choose not to make your own compost, but acquire it from other sources, remember that you don’t know what has been used to make that compost. It may be exactly as you would make yourself or not. If you are keeping a strictly organic garden, this can be a problem. For example, whoever made the compost may have used insecticides on the plant matter or weed killers. I used to get compost from a local free source only to find pieces of broken glass in it along with pieces of wire. So, always wear your gardening gloves to protect your hands.

Next week, making compost tea.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.