Cooperative Extension Service 
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Extension, P.O. Box 68, LaBelle, Florida 33975-0068   Phone (863) 674-4092

Hendry County Horticulture News

Coping with Drought in Florida

Drought is likely to occur in every part of Florida at one time or another. Because of Florida's sandy soils, plants may experience drought stress after only a few days without rain or irrigation.

We are currently in the midst of one of the most severe droughts in recent memory.  The South Florida Water Management Districts has already begun to institute water restrictions. The restrictions are designed to be equitable, but high priority is given to water use for human consumption, agriculture, and industry. Irrigation for commercial and home landscapes is under phase II  restrictions and indications are that restrictions could get even tighter unless significant rainfall is received over the next few months.  It is unlikely that this will happen. With these limitations on water, the landscaper or homeowner must decide how best to use the limited water available for landscape irrigation.

The following  recommendations are given as suggestions for management practices during drought.

Irrigate highly visible and intensively managed areas first. Drought sensitive plants should have high priority, but turf should have lower priority. Although turf is drought sensitive, it is cheaper to replace turf than to replace trees and shrubs.

Water early in the morning. Less water loss occurs from evaporation and wind drift in the morning because of cooler temperatures and less wind.

Irrigate deeply at long intervals rather than frequent, shallow watering. Deep watering improves drought resistance by promoting deeper, more extensive root systems. Depth of watering should be six to twelve inches for turf and bedding plants, and twelve inches for perennials, shrubs, and trees. One inch of irrigation wets a sandy soil to a depth of about 12 inches.

Examine the irrigation system and repair leaks promptly.

Keep weeds under control; weeds steal water from plants.

Don't fertilize or, if you do, do so with a low nitrogen fertilizer. Fertilization stimulates growth and increases water needs.

Avoid unnecessary applications of pesticides that require ``watering in.''

Irrigate turf only after about 30% of your lawn starts to wilt. Signs of wilting include footprints that remain in the grass long after being made, a bluish gray appearance to the lawn, and a large proportion of leaf blades that are folded in half length-wise.

Raise the cutting height of turf. Although taller grass uses slightly more water than shorter grass, a higher cutting height promotes deeper rooting and maintains turf quality longer.

Mow less frequently. Mowing stresses the grass plant by increasing respiration and reducing root growth. In addition, never remove more than one third the length of the blade to prevent too much stress on grass.

Use a sharp blade when mowing. A sharp mower blade produces a cleaner cut that heals more quickly and loses less water than a cut made by a dull blade.

Add mulch to beds to reduce evaporation from soil and to moderate soil temperature, reducing stress on roots. Final depth of your mulch should be 3 to 4 inches after settling.

If possible, don't use overhead sprinklers for shrub and flower beds; hand water, flood irrigate, or use trickle irrigation. Greater water loss can occur with overhead irrigation because of evaporation and wind drift.

Irrigate trees and shrubs after they start to wilt. Drooping leaves and a change in leaf color are signs of wilting. Many trees and shrubs can survive drought without irrigation, providing they are well established and were irrigated prior to the drought.

Move container plants to shaded areas so their water needs will be reduced.

The following recommendations should be followed when drought is so severe and water use is so restricted that landscape plant survival is in question.

Only irrigate plants when they start to wilt.

Apply chemical wetting agents to soil so it will absorb water uniformly and prevent dry spots.

For bahiagrass lawns, stop irrigating and allow the grass to go dormant. Bahiagrass will turn brown, but it recovers well when irrigation resumes.

Prune plants severely to reduce leaf area.

Remove weak plants.

Thin dense beds of plants to reduce competition among plants.

These precautions may help you minimize loss or damage of your valuable landscape plants. For more information on coping with the drought, be sure to visit the Southwest Florida Research and Education Center drought information website. This resource provides links to articles and publications on a variety of topics, from irrigation and citrus to wildlife and vegetables, as well as links to other useful web sites.

List of drought tolerant plants for S Florida.

Good luck and good gardening.

Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service.  Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975,  e-mail - or phone 863-674-4092 or  863-983-1598.  You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle.   Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is an Equal Employment Opportunity - Affirmative Action Employer authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function without regard to race, color, sex, age, handicap or national origin.

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