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Grow vegetables with less water and beat the heat, too

Master gardener advice on how to keep your garden thriving this hot, dry summer

Squash plant and moisture meter
The moisture meter shows that this squash plant is in good shape to handle a heat wave. It's drip-watered and is mulched with straw. (Photo: Kathy Morrison)

Tuesday’s first day of summer likely was a taste of days to come: Hot and dry.

To start this new season, Sacramento will see a string of triple-digit days; that’s normal for August but not June.

In addition, we’re in a three-year drought. Water restrictions may be coming statewide.

Can your vegetable garden be saved?

Yes! Any vegetable can be grown with less water by following some simple water-wise tips, says UCCE Sacramento County master gardener Gail Pothour.

Water-saving methods are on display at the master gardeners’ Fair Oaks Horticulture Center. Pothour is an expert and former project leader in the vegetable garden. These same tips will help your plants thrive in summer heat.

– Switch to drip; it saves water while improving efficiency. “Drip irrigation is highly recommended,” Pothour says. “It puts water where it’s needed – at the roots. Hand watering is OK for new seedlings.”

– Cycle and repeat. When using drip or above-ground irrigation, run a cycle, let it soak in, then run again. “That way, you have a lot less runoff and don’t waste water,” Pothour says.

– Mulch, mulch, mulch! A 3-inch blanket of organic mulch (straw, leaves, wood chips) holds in soil moisture, cuts down on evaporation and keeps plant roots comfortable. It also cuts down on weeds.

– Before planting, build your soil with organic amendments such as compost. The organic material acts like a sponge and retains moisture. The soil is less likely to dry out, even with reduced irrigation.

– Prioritize what you water. “Fruit trees and blueberries are probably the most valuable edible plants you have,” Pothour says. “They’re expensive to replace and take a long time to grow. Make sure they get deep-watered.”

– Cut back on fertilizer. “Adding fertilizer stimulates growth that will need more water,” she explains. “Use low-nitrogen fertilizers.”

– Always check soil before watering. Does it really need it? Use a moisture meter or long screwdriver to test. “Most gardeners over-water,” Pothour says. “Even in our demonstration gardens, we discovered we could cut our water use significantly just by checking the soil and paying attention.”

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Garden Checklist for week of June 23

Get to work in the mornings while it’s still cool.

* Irrigate early in the day; your plants will appreciate it.

* Generally, tomatoes need deep watering two to three times a week, but don't let them dry out completely. That can encourage blossom-end rot.

* Let the grass grow longer. Set the mower blades high to reduce stress on your lawn during summer heat. To cut down on evaporation, water your lawn deeply during the early hours of the morning, between 2 and 8 a.m.

* Tie up vines and stake tall plants such as gladiolus and lilies. That gives their heavy flowers some support.

* Dig and divide crowded bulbs after the tops have died down.

* Feed summer flowers with a slow-release fertilizer.

* Mulch, mulch, mulch! This “blanket” keeps moisture in the soil longer and helps your plants cope during hot weather.

* Avoid pot “hot feet.” Place a 1-inch-thick board under container plants sitting on pavement. This little cushion helps insulate them from radiated heat.

* Thin grapes on the vine for bigger, better clusters later this summer.

* Cut back fruit-bearing canes on berries.

* Feed camellias, azaleas and other acid-loving plants. Mulch to conserve moisture and reduce heat stress.

* Cut back Shasta daisies after flowering to encourage a second bloom in the fall.

* Trim off dead flowers from rose bushes to keep them blooming through the summer. Roses also benefit from deep watering and feeding now. A top dressing of aged compost will keep them happy. It feeds as well as keeps roots moist.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushier plants with many more flowers in September.

* From seed, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, melons, squash and sunflowers.

* Plant basil to go with your tomatoes. 

* Transplant summer annuals such as petunias, marigolds and zinnias.

* It’s also a good time to transplant perennial flowers including astilbe, columbine, coneflowers, coreopsis, dahlias, rudbeckia, salvia and verbena.

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