Dealing with drought

Drought conditions around the state of Kansas have gotten progressively worse this winter.  In fact, the last significant moisture event for many areas was all the way back in October of 2021.  Since then many areas have recorded little to no moisture and the lack of precipitation has resulted in expansion of moderate to severe drought. There will be an elevated potential for turf and woody plant damage by spring, so what can gardeners do to cope with dry times?

Kansas is in a drought, plan to keep your landscape plants healthy

Prioritize watering

With such dry conditions it is important to take advantage of a warm late winter day to water plants that could easily be damaged by such dry winter conditions.

The first priority for winter watering would be any newly planted trees, shrubs, or perennials.  A tree less than 3-5 years old is still considered to be newly planted.  Young trees or shrubs still working on establishing a full root system are more susceptible to damage during long dry periods.  Newly planted perennials can actually be lifted up out of the ground by the freezing and thawing of the soil and should be watered if needed to prevent damage from winter heaving of the soil.

The second priority for watering will be any evergreens.  Evergreen trees and shrubs lose moisture over the winter due to the winter winds.  Since the foliage remains on these plants, moisture loss can be a serious issue.  Especially pay attention to any evergreens growing in exposed locations.

The third priority would be established trees, shrubs, and garden plants that are foundation plants in a landscape and need to be kept in good condition. Mature trees and shrubs are often some of the most valuable plants in a landscape.  Preventing damaging winter stress is easier than trying to help a tree to recover after the damage has been done.

The fourth priority is the lawn-especially any fall seeded turf that has a very limited root system. Rehydrating the plant crown and restoring soil surface moisture back to a survivable level is the goal.

Watering tips

When watering be sure the soil is not frozen.  Look for a warm winter day when the air temperatures are forecast to be over 50 degrees.  Once the water soaks in, the temperatures can drop below freezing and there will be no harm to the plants. Water early enough in the day for moisture to soak into the soil and avoid ice forming over or around plants overnight.

Water enough to moisten the soil to six to ten inches deep depending on the type of plant (10-12 inches is a good depth to reach the majority of feeder roots for trees).  Watering slowly is necessary to allow all the water to infiltrate into the soil and avoid runoff which wastes the water.

Generally, a thorough watering once or twice during a dry winter on the plants mentioned above is enough to keep them healthy.  But if conditions continue to remain dry as plants begin greening up and growing, then irrigation as soon as plants begin growing will be critical to maintain health and get them off to a good start in the new growing season.

Mulch Everything

Soil that is exposed can easily lose twice as much moisture as soil that is covered with mulch. Take time this spring to mulch everything you can and refresh areas of mulch that may have become thin. Use wood mulches around trees, shrubs and garden plants in the landscape. Unfortunately rock mulch is less effective. When vegetable gardening time arrives plan to use organic mulches such as straw, hay, or leaf mulch-but be sure to wait to mulch around warm season vegetables until the soil is nice and warm.

If you are making planting decisions this spring be sure to choose plants adapted to Kansas and our challenging climate. Native plants are the most resilient and reliable choices and they offer benefits such as supporting pollinators and other wildlife. There are many great places to learn about native plants recommended for Kansas. Here are three great starting points:

Dyck Arboretum Native Plant Resources
Recommendations for all types of native plant projects, large or small
K-State Research and Extension recommended plant resources