Dry, dry summer

sunWe plant hardy, native plants in all of our restoration projects. In addition to playing important roles in our healthy forests, these species evolved to the conditions in the Northwest, and for the most part can thrive with a lot less intensive care than most plants. However, even these tough guys are struggling in this summer’s unusually hot, dry weather.

If you spread wood chip mulch at a volunteer event this spring or winter, right now our plants are saying a giant thank you. Like a natural buffer against extreme conditions, mulch helps slow down evaporation of water from soil, keeping plants wetter, cooler, and happier during dry weather. (Amazingly, mulch also keeps the ground warmer during cold winter days!) In many of our restoration sites, we are also implementing emergency watering measures to help extra-vulnerable new plantings from this past winter to survive the next months.

If you see your plants at home starting to wilt in the heat and dry weather we’ve been having, or worse yet, developing brown, dry tips or leaves, read on. Here are some things you can do to help your plants survive the summer:

Keep close watch: this summer has been much drier than usual, so pay a little extra attention and keep an eye out for signs of drought stress. You may need to water more often, especially if you have new plants that were recently planted. But remember that your neighbors will all be watering their plants more too, so follow the rest of these tips to conserve our water resources. As a bonus, you’ll be watering more effectively for your plants, too.

Water early, or water late: Watering your plants during the heat of the day will cause you to lose a lot to evaporation. Watering in the early morning, or late evening, when the sun is low and air temperatures are cooler, will allow more water to soak into the soil and get to your plants.

Water close to the ground: Instead of spraying high above plants, where it will quickly evaporate into the hot, dry air, point the watering stream as close to the soil as you can. Water slowly to allow it to soak into the soil instead of running off the surface. Soaker hoses, drip-irrigation setups, and tree watering bags can also help a lot.

Water deeply: a lot of water, slightly less often, is better then a little water more often. Water gets deeper down into soil and encourages plants to grow longer, stronger roots.

Think about shade: Very young plants that are having an especially tough time might benefit from partial shade covers made from lightweight cloth, narrow wood lattice, or old window screens.

More mulch! Something to cover the ground, like wood chip mulch, straw, or even gravel can help slow water from evaporating out of the soil. Mulch is your best friend for conserving water and helping your plants at the same time.

thisiswhatmulchlookslike Colman Mulch 2

Let us know what works for you, and good luck!

The Mulching Season

I work as a Forest Steward and Washington Native Plant Steward at a forest restoration site in the East Duwamish Greenbelt in South Seattle.  The project is part of the Green Seattle Partnership (GSP) and encompasses an area of a bit more than one acre.

I took this project on with three teammates who were in the same Washington Native Plant Society class in 2011 and we’ve been working on it ever since.  This coming August will be two years at the site and we’ve made some great progress.  But it has taken a ton of work, and a lot of support from many different people and organizations involved in GSP, especially Seattle Parks and Recreation, Forterra, Student Conservation Association, and EarthCorps.

Photo of mulched bareroots, Green Seattle Partnership
Recently mulched bareroot plants on our Green Seattle Partnership restoration site

Earlier this month we held our regular work party, and I was very pleased with how our bareroot plants were looking.  OK, admittedly, for some reason the Oregon grape doesn’t seem to be doing so well on our site, but really everything else is growing well.  And in early April in Seattle, most of the new native plants were already showing a lot of new leaves!  Of course the best plants were the bareroots that we planted about a year ago, but even those that we planted earlier this year seem to be taking to their new home.  So for this particular work party, a group of about 7 of us spent 3 hours filling buckets with mulch and making sure that these new plants are “tucked in” for the coming dry months.

I felt compelled to share our success with the world, because it seems that many people invest all of the time and energy to remove invasive plants from a site and get them replaced with what promises to be a batch of beautiful native plants.  And they stop there.  But it isn’t planting that is the most valuable part of the process; rather, it is the three years after the plant is in the ground that is critical.  And though moving mulch for three hours on a Saturday morning may seem more mundane than tearing out ivy or demonstrating our dominion over armored blackberry canes, there is a quiet satisfaction in knowing that this simple task is what will make the site great.  The simple act of spreading mulch around new plants will help enrich the soil and hold valuable moisture around the plant’s roots while it establishes its root system.

So here’s to the power of mulching!  I encourage anybody who reads this to find a work party in any Green City and help spread some mulch before things dry out for the year.