Organic stuff, mulch, water make excellent birthday gifts

Three weeks ago, I lamented about the poor snowpack, the dismal drought forecast and the potential ramifications that these situations could have on our growing season.

And I may have mentioned that my winter break and what is winter break all about? When I was a kid, winter break was called summer was spent in Hawaii. But theres no point in bringing that up again.

So how can we as home- or landowners, renters, farmers, ranchers and even consumers be proactive in our approach to water conservation?

First off, if the dry and droughty weather continues, then we will have to look at our landscapes in a maintenance and conservation approach. Certain crops, or plants, have a higher water need. Our annuals, with their shallow root systems, may struggle with limited irrigation. These annual crops include the beloved vegetable garden, where we are trying to grow a relatively large plant (corn, squash, potatoes) in a short amount of time (120 days or fewer) with a goal in many cases to take that crop from seedling to fruit. That can be challenging in a typical season.

Newly planted perennials, trees and shrubs can also be quickly stressed if adequate water is not given to them. By no means am I saying that 2013 is not the year to establish or add to your landscape, but it may be the year when you focus on waterwise, or xeric, plants, or buy plants grown in smaller containers or pots. The establishment period for these plants is typically shorter than those in larger containers.

Organic matter. Add it, promote it, ask for it for your birthday. Our clayey soils are typically low in organic matter and have a tough time allowing water to percolate all the way to the root system. With the addition of organic matter (compost, leaf litter, decomposing mulch and animal-based compost) our clayey soils, over time, form aggregates (clusters), which in turn promote pore spaces. These spaces create more opportunities for plant roots to access water, nutrients and oxygen, and in turn grow into stronger, more drought-resistant plants.

Mulch. Im asking for mulch for my birthday (May 2 for all of you, just in case your calendars are handy), and if you arent already asking for organic matter, so should you. In addition to slowly decomposing into organic material, organic mulches (shredded bark, wood chips, grass clippings, leaves or straw) can greatly reduce soil temperatures, erosion and weed competition while decreasing the amount of water needed to apply. In the beds, apply no more than 3 to 4 inches; walkways can be closer to 6 inches.

Its amazing how many xeric plants are now available at our local nurseries. I would highly recommend going to one of them and finding those that fit your space and climate. At the Durango Library Demonstration Garden, and in many gardens around town, perennials such as columbines, coreopsis, iceplants, echium, torch lilies, primrose, salvias and penstemons do amazingly well on little or no water once established. Woody trees and shrubs may take longer to establish, so water requirements will most likely be higher during the first couple of years. But once established, natural precipitation may be all that is needed. Some potential waterwise stars would be hackberry, Kentucky coffeetree, serviceberry, junipers, bigtooth maple and bur oak.

And pray for rain, or at least ask for it at birthday time. or 382-6464. Darrin Parmenter is director and horticulture agent of the La Plata County Extension Office.