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Our Driest Times Are Starting: Be Prepared

Remember that song about April showers? Remember clay soil that was too wet for planting when you were dying to start your spring garden? Forget both of them in Florida. April and May are usually our driest months and the soil often turns to dust as the days get longer and warmer and the plants pant with thirst or wilt away altogether.

It is amazing the amount of growth and color and vegetable production we get in spite of this annual drought. Some plants love it more than the summer rains.

It means much of our garden time will be spent with the hose even if we only water newly set plants and those in containers, but such time can be very pleasant. These months prepare us to welcome those summer rains. Here are some of the things we can do in the meantime to minimize the stress of the dry months on both plants and the gardener.

Buckets catching rain will help you save and use every drop.

1. Use wisely every drop of water you have whether from rainfall, from the hose, from your sprinklers once a week, or from indoors.

If you don't have rainbarrels already, get some. You can do this by attending a Rainbarrel Workshop at the Extension office, by buying them at USF's plant shop or from a drum company. T & R Drum on US92 a few miles east of Plant City has both barrels and buckets. Until you get the big barrels, put out trash cans, scrub buckets, dishpans, milk jugs with the tops cut off for a wide opening but the handle left in place. Set them under the downspouts or anywhere that the water runs off the roof in quantity. I have much information about rainbarrels in several of my books, in an article that appeared in Florida Gardening Magazine, and in columns found here some years ago. I was going to write another whole column just about rainbarrels, but as late as it is, that might jinks our chances for any more rain before June.

If you have an "automatic" sprinkler system, check that all the sprinkler heads are working and make sure that the rain sensor is working as well. It is the law that you have to have a rain sensor, but many of them must not be functioning because we often see sprinklers wasting water during or just after a rain.

Keep a bucket or pitcher on the sink to catch wasted water, the cooking water you pour off vegetables or the water you use to wash oranges before you make juice. Save the water when you clean the fish bowl. All of these are rich in nutrients. Someday we will have houses with greywater systems to use the water from laundry and showers for watering the landscape. In the meantime, carry out what you can. Every drop will count.

If you see this on the side of the road, take home as much as your vehicle can hold.

2. Mulch around your trees, shrubs, flowers and vegetables. Use leaves, grass clippings, or pine needles from your own yard or gather any that are left out for trash pick-up. The leaf supply will soon run thin for the year, so gather as much as you can as quickly as you can. Recycle old newspapers under such mulch, overlapping the sections so weeds will not slip through.

If you don't want to use the free mulch, you can buy it by the bag or the truckload. Take your truck and your driver's license and your last property tax receipt along to the Faulkenburg landfill site and they will fill it with well decomposed mulch, almost good enough to use with potting soil, for less than $20 a load.

Spread mulch as deep as 12 inches around the base of plants, but not quite touching the trunks or stems if possible. This will keep the moisture in the soil from drying out and make any added water last that much longer. It will also keep the soil cooler, the weeds much fewer, and the earthworms and beneficial microbes working harder to help your plants thrive.

Maybe since I wrote about dry times, it will rain more than usual this year. We can only hope and be ready to make the most of it.

A mulch of leaves look neat, helps retain the moisture in the soil, and eventually
breaks down and becomes humus, which helps the soil even more.