- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 3, 2002

Spring has arrived and seasoned gardeners and beginners alike may spend hours on their knees, planting, weeding and watering, doing their utmost to nudge their flowers and trees along.This year can be particularly challenging for gardeners because despite the recent refreshing showers winter and spring have been very dry, local horticulturists say.
What are the keys to successful gardening in hot and dry conditions?

Water is crucial but in times of drought, gardeners should consider offbeat sources, says John Walters, a horticulturist who takes care of the 5-acre grounds around the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
"You need to water your plants a lot, but remember there are many ways in terms of watering," Mr. Walters says. "Instead of using your hose all the time, you can use the water [released] from a dehumidifier or air conditioner."
Other "gray water," such as an old pot of coffee or tea or water you have used to rinse or cook vegetables, also can be used to water your plants.
The placement of water-loving plants also can make a difference, says Bill McLaughlin, a horticulturist with the U.S. Botanic Garden. "When planting a garden," he advises, "put the water-loving plants near a hose and in small confined beds." Water-loving plants include the annual impatiens and the perennial geranium.
Small confined beds have the added benefit of being manageable from the sidelines. If the bed is no larger than 3 or 4 feet wide, the gardener won't have to step on the cultivated soil while pruning or planting. Stepping on the soil can compact it, which makes it more difficult for the soil to absorb water.
Another watering tip is to water shrubs and trees deeply, Mr. McLaughlin says. If you water superficially, the roots may creep up closer to the surface in search of moisture, he explains.
Applying a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch also will help plants retain moisture and stay cool during the hot summer months, he says. Be careful not to place mulch on top of the plant base, he advises, or crown rot can occur. Instead, place the mulch around the plant base.
In the end, how do you make sure the soil is watered adequately?
"I do it the old-fashioned way," Mr. McLaughlin says. "I stick my finger in the ground and feel the soil. Any moisture below an inch deep, and you probably don't need to water anymore," he says.

One more key to gardening in heat and drought is to choose plants that are drought-resistant. Some of these plants are native to this area, such as the ground cover moss phlox with its lavender-pink flowers. Others are normally associated with the Southwest, such as agave, Mr. McLaughlin says.
"I think Americans are finally developing more pride in their native flora," Mr. McLaughlin says. "Traditionally, American gardeners have taken their cues from European gardeners … but I think that's changing."
Roses are a perfect example of the power of the European influence. They do well on the Continent, and American traditionalists are crazy about them.
Roses are difficult to grow in the District and surrounding areas, however, because they don't like the humidity in the air during the summer, says Cindy Brown, a horticulturist at Green Spring Gardens Park in Alexandria.
Roses, she says, are disease-prone and need lots of tender love and care. If you want to spend only one hour a week in your garden, they may not be for you.
"You have to make sure that your garden fits in with the number of hours you want to spend in it," Mrs. Brown says during a recent talk at Green Spring Gardens about spring gardening, which about 40 people attended.
However, Mr. McLaughlin says, European-style gardens are still possible so long as the plants are chosen carefully. Gardens built around oily Mediterranean herbs, for example, can survive in this area without a gardener's doting on them.
"Sage, thyme and rosemary are all very drought-resistant," he says. "Plus, you get the benefit of something for the kitchen."
As for most spring planting, Mr. McLaughlin recommends planting the herbs in early May. Other plants that do well if they are planted in May are tender annuals and perennials and vegetable plants, he says.
"You want to make sure that you get a few good rains in and get them well established and deeply rooted before the summer drought starts," he says.

In addition to watering, mulching and planting, spring gardening also includes dividing and fertilizing plants, cleaning, pruning and weeding.
Gardeners divide plants with a knife or a shovel to rejuvenate them. A plant such as an ornamental grass will let the gardener know when it's ready for division: Its center will begin to die.
Once the plant is divided into two or more parts, you can replant the grasses. So, aside from rejuvenating the plant, dividing also leads to a larger number of plants.
Before fertilizing the soil, gardeners should check its condition with a soil test kit they can buy at nurseries, Mrs. Brown says. The kit tests for levels of phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen.
Sometimes a fertilizer is needed, but often a good leaf mulch can be enough to emend the soil, she says. The types of plants that are most likely to need a fertilizer include plants in containers, annuals and vegetables.
The soil in the Washington area most often consists of clay, which is not as bad as its reputation, she says.
"Don't remove the clay, because it has a lot of good nutrients. Just add organic material, like leaf mulch, to emend the soil," Mrs. Brown says.
The need to weed, of course, never ends. At this time of year, weeds include nettles, crab grass, chickweed, wild onions and dandelions. Some of them such as chickweed and dandelions actually are edible.
"It's great. You can get rid of your weeds by eating them," Mrs. Brown says as class participants laugh.
Spring also is a time when a gardener should clear flower beds of winter debris and carefully prune shrubs. Some plants should be pruned lightly in early spring and then again when the blooming is over.
"It depends on what kind of growth you want," says Mary Frogale, another horticulturist and instructor at Green Spring Gardens. "You will get virgorous growth if you prune in the early spring. Prune later in the year if you don't want that kind of growth."

Does it sound like a lot of work?
Gardening is a lot of work, Mrs. Brown says, and that's why it's important to analyze what kind of a gardener you are and how many hours you want to spend in the yard.
Once you figure that out, plan before you plant, Mrs. Brown says. Gardening can be expensive, and it helps if you have a plan and don't end up with flora you later have to dig up because you accidently placed a sun-lover in the shade.
"I'm not saying there is a right and wrong. It just helps if you ask yourself whether [a particular type of garden] fits your personality," she says.
"Remember, no garden is low-maintenance. There is always maintenance," she says. "The only low-maintenance garden I can think of is a silk flower garden."


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