Down the Garden Path: Dry fall weather means bring on the water

Imagine a podium or soapbox and me standing in the town square. Got that image?

OK. Here goes my “sermon.”

As of Sept. 16, the U.S. Drought Monitor reports our area as “abnormally dry.” Have you been watering your trees, shrubs and plants in the yard? We have had such dry weather that there are not just a few plants that need to be watered, but a whole lot.

Water all plants, not just the obvious

Some are obvious such as hydrangea or phlox, yet most plants do not show sighs of suffering from a lack of soil moisture. Needled evergreen trees show this year’s growth just hanging down, especially the lower half, as they are supporting the newer more upward growth. Buds are smaller than they should be, which already tells us next season’s growth will be impacted.

The same holds true for all plants. Here are a few examples:

  • Our oaks have seen a larger than normal acorn crop, yet those acorns are barely there and falling prematurely. Not enough water to fill those acorns out. So yes, even large, well-established trees of all kinds are in a state of drought. You may have noticed even the maple “whirlybirds” are smaller than normal.
  • In the flower garden, daylilies, which normally fade away toward the end of summer, may already be gone in the sunnier areas. Also, you likely have had to water impatiens and coleus more to keep them looking good.
  • Lawns are expected to go dormant as a cool season grass. If left too dry too long, the crowns will be completely desiccated and you’ll be left with brown dead patches or entire lawns. About ½ inch of water every three weeks should keep the crowns alive.
  • Normally, the best time to seed a lawn is from the middle of August to the first week in September for our area. If you have been waiting for our normal fall rains to get things started, better get the sprinkler out. Keep the upper ¼- to ½-inch moist, but not waterlogged, to get the seed to germinate. Once you start the process, you will have to continue to water to get the lawn established.

Water to minimize winter damage

While we get a do-over with our annual plants in 2022, the same is not true for our established and perennial plants. Watering our favorite landscape plants now, and well into the fall, will lessen overwintering damage come spring. This includes tip dieback, buds being damaged or killed and whole twigs and branches killed.

Water at a slow and steady rate

It is not just the upper few inches of soil that are dry, but well into the subsoil. Watering will need to be done on a slow and steady rate of flow. The best approach is using an open hose without any attachment at the largest rate of flow that does not run off the plant or area you are watering. Move the hose around to get water into the entire area you are watering.

Large shade trees should be watered from about 6 to 8 feet inside the canopy drip line to 6 to 8 feet outside that line. This is where the majority of feeder roots are. The same can be said of evergreen trees. Smaller shade trees and upright evergreens also have a drip line, but adjust that watering ring accordingly. Hint: Properly watering larger trees should take hours when done correctly.

Wrap up

I am about to get down from my soapbox now. But first, a quick summary, as every good lecturer will do:

  • Definitely water any newly planted trees, shrubs and perennials, but as you do, also water all of your older trees, shrubs and perennials. This includes evergreens.
  • Water those newly seeded lawns. If you don’t regularly irrigate your lawn, don’t forget to keep your grass crowns happy with at least a ½ inch of water every three weeks.
  • Conserve soil moisture with techniques such as mulching.

Want more gardening advice? Our Master Gardener Help Desks are now open for questions via email, phone, or visit. In Kendall County, volunteers are available 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 630-553-5823. For information, visit go.illinois.edu/HelpDeskMGdkk.

Resources: https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/CurrentMap/StateDroughtMonitor.aspx?IL

• Richard Hentschel is a Horticulture Extension educator with University of Illinois Extension, serving DuPage, Kane and Kendall counties. This column originates on his blog at go.illinois.edu/overthegardenfence. To get more tips from Hentschel, watch his “This Week in the Garden” videos on Facebook and YouTube.