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Get the most from the rain when it falls

It really is quite amazing. Toward the middle of last month, I was proactively writing this article about the severe drought conditions we were facing. And while it is amazing that I was actually two weeks ahead of schedule that is not what I am referencing.

We got rain, and in some areas, lots of it. In fact, in some areas we got more than what we wanted and in others we got the precipitation in the form of hail. The worst part is that there are some locations that got both those: hail that shredded plants followed by rains the next week that flooded yards (and even homes).

Like my grandma always said, “If it’s not your rear-end (but she used a different word), it’s your elbow.” To be 100% transparent, I’m not really sure that my grandma really said that – I just always preface that adage with the phrase “like my grandma always said … .” Someone needs to ask my mom, as I’ve been known to have a fuzzy memory as I grow older.

But back to the adage as it applies to this situation: Two weeks ago, we were desperate for rain. We were brittle dry and everyone was on edge about the real possibility of a summer filled with drought and fire. And while that still may happen, at least we have a respite here where soil moisture is up, the river is up and the fear of fire is down. But many locations had a destructive hailstorm that left plants in tatters. Fortunately, many plants, including some vegetables, will push out new leaves and new growth, and as long as the main stem was not damaged and the season is long enough, you can still get a crop.

The air seems cleaner and the plants look greener, which they probably are. If the rain is associated with lightning, then there could be enough energy in the air to break up the nitrogen gas (air is about 78% nitrogen). These “free” nitrogen atoms are then able to combine with oxygen and form nitrate, which can dissolve in the rainwater and hopefully be taken up by the plants.

By the end of June, I had received about 3.5 inches of rainfall, all of which fell in the past two weeks. That is very uncommon around here, as June is our driest month. Hopefully many of you were able to turn off the sprinklers, collect some rainwater in barrels for a (non)rainy day, or direct all this water to areas of your property that tend to be drier.

All of these are relatively easy ways for water conservation. If you have an automated irrigation system, install a rain sensor to your irrigation controller. You are able to adjust the sensor to interrupt the signal that turns on the sprinkler after a certain amount of rain falls. That way, you aren’t the one irrigating your lawn in a downpour.

As homeowners, you are able to collect 110 gallons of rainfall off a surface. Typically, collecting from a gutter downspout is easiest. Or you can direct rain from a surface – like a driveway, or patio, or roof – to an area that may be out of the reach of the sprinkler or hose.

Even though it may be a bit undesirable, next time it starts to rain – even a downpour – go outside and watch how it moves on your property. Does the soil absorb the moisture quickly, or does the precipitation just sheet off the soil surface? Where does the rain go? Where does the rain hit the ground near the trees?

All of those questions can lead you to being able to create a landscape that uses the small amount of precipitation we get every summer.

Darrin Parmenter is the director and horticulture agent of the La Plata County Extension Office. Reach him at darrin.parmenter@co.laplata.co.us or 382-6464.