Most of New England is not yet experiencing the severe drought we’ve seen in California and other Western states, but over the past several months, significant departures from “normal” rainfall are starting to impact our gardens. Symptoms of plant-moisture deficit vary — from off-color foliage; wilting, browning or dropping leaves; lack of vigorous new growth; even death. The severity of the damage relates to factors that include your soil’s organic content, soil compaction and water-retention capacity, sun and wind exposure, and the type of plant itself.
Facing life in drought-prone areas, many homeowners in Western states apply xeriscaping principles. Developed to reduce the need for supplemental irrigation, these also serve as valuable design and maintenance guidelines for us Easterners:
■ Select appropriate locations to suit the needs of the plants, grouping together types with similar water requirements;
■ Add organic materials like compost and peat moss to improve lean or sandy soils before planting;
■ Water plantings frequently in their first growing season to enable their root systems to become established. Form a saucer to hold water so it can penetrate to the roots, avoiding runoff;
■ Irrigate fully around the roots at planting to eliminate air pockets;
■ Mulch after planting, covering the ground at least 2 inches, but make sure the root crown is not buried.
In established landscapes, brief sprinklings daily only waste water. A deep application totaling an inch of water per week is most effective for plant health. Water the root area of individual plants using a hand-held low-pressure hose or a bucket (with recycled gray water if possible). Be sure to adjust overhead irrigation systems to cover only the needed areas, use them during the cooler parts of the day, keep the water stream close to ground level, and turn off automatic systems during wet weather.
TIP: Drip irrigation using a soaker hose consumes less water, focuses application at the soil level, and reduces evaporation.
You can enhance water penetration on powder-dry soils by adding a wetting agent or surfactant. Some moisture-retentive soil additives may also be helpful. Ask the experts at your local garden center.
Are you looking for plants that are more water-efficient? Search out plants with smaller and blue/gray-toned or hairy leaves, waxy surfaces, thick bark, and dense/deep root systems, along with many native plants. Here are some suggestions for plants that are drought-resistant once their roots are established:
■ Evergreen trees and shrubs: juniper, white, pitch and Jack pines, holly, and boxwood;
■ Deciduous trees: honey locust, elm, ginkgo, redbud, golden raintree, and our native red maple;
■ Deciduous shrubs and vines: rose of Sharon, smoketree, sumac, wisteria, and Virginia creeper;
■ Herbaceous perennials: succulents, salvia, yarrow, yucca, and many ornamental grasses;
■ Annuals: marigold, succulents, gazania, dusty miller, strawflower, and zinnia.
There’s really no substitute for natural rainfall, but a few overcast, drizzly, or rainy days might give the false impression that we’re getting sufficient moisture in the ground. Be wary: It will take some major rainfall to reduce the deficits now accumulating. Until that occurs, applying these design- and water-management xeriscaping principles will help improve any garden and increase the likelihood your yard retains its beauty and value.
R. Wayne Mezitt, a third-generation nurseryman and a Massachusetts certified horticulturist, is chairman of Weston Nurseries of Hopkinton and Chelmsford, trustee chairman for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society at Elm Bank, and founder of the advisory firm Hort-Sense. Send questions to Address@globe.com.