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

Dry Weather Strategies

"Worse Drought in 200 Years" proclaimed weather forecasters recently in describing the dry conditions that have been plaguing the area since last year.  The severe drought that has persisted for the past two years vividly contrasts the climactic extremes that can occur in south Florida from one year to the next.  This year's historic dry spell has left many gardeners struggling to supply water to their tortured landscapes.  In some instances, homeowners have seen tender plantings succumb to the excessive heat and drought.

Such extreme patterns are merely part of a natural cycle that characterizes our south Florida weather.  While there is nothing that mere mortals can do to change the weather, incorporation of certain principles and practices into landscape designs can help gardeners more easily cope with hot dry conditions while reducing the environmental impact of our gardening activities as
well as the effort needed to maintain an attractive landscape.  The term xeriscape, combining the Greek word xeros meaning dry and landscape has been coined to describe this approach to landscaping.

While the xeriscape concept was initiated in the parched southwestern United States, it does not mean stone mulch and cactus. Xeriscaping is a natural common sense approach to beautiful and productive landscaping that makes it easier to maintain a lush green landscape while using less water, fertilizer,  pesticides, energy and time.  Studies have shown that xeriscaping can reduce
water requirements by 30 -80%,  fertilizer by up to 60%, and herbicide usage by up to 22%.

How do you get started in xeriscaping?  You are probably using some xeriscape practices, like mulching and soil improvement already.  Like a lot of  good ideas, it involves an understanding of the technique and then a commitment and plan of action to implement xeriscaping at home.  A great aspect of this concept is that xeriscape features can be built into new landscape designs as well as incorporated into existing landscapes.

Start with a plan.  This is best done on paper and should consider such features such as placement of permanent structures, such as buildings, driveways and walks, location of irrigation or water source, and the position of all trees, shrubs and plantings.  Make note of microclimates - wet places, dry spots, shady areas, cold pockets etc.  The next step is to then create irrigation zones and then locate plants in their proper places.  Tender species that need the most water and rely on regular irrigation should be grouped together in what may be termed the "oasis" zone.  These plants are often the most colorful and are often most effectively placed near the house or in areas where they can be easily seen and enjoyed and where there is irrigation in place or easy access to a hose outlet.

The next zone might be called the "drought tolerant" zone.  In this area, plants that only need water infrequently in dry times or at certain critical times, such as fruit trees during periods of bloom or bearing, should be located.  The "natural" zone is located furthest from the hose and should contain only plants that will thrive on natural rainfall, once they are established.  By grouping plantings, water requirements can be greatly reduced and made much more efficient.

Plant selection is important - the right plant for the right place.  Xeriscaping emphasizes greater use of natives and species that are tolerant of the vagaries of our Florida weather.  It does not rule out the use of exotic tropicals - rather groups them in according to water requirement so that none is over watered or under watered because of it's neighbors requirements.

Soil improvement and mulching to improve the water retention capabilities of the soil is a basic principle of xeriscaping.  Since our native sands do little more than hold up your plants, generous additions of organic matter will increase water holding ability and fertility of your soil.  Mulch will allow rain to soak into the soil and help keep the soil and plant roots cool and moist longer
after a rain or irrigation.  Compost and recycle yard waste back into the landscape.

Reduce turf areas - turf grasses require more water and maintenance than any other part of the landscape.  Lawns should be placed and shaped for ease of mowing and maintenance.  In the past, many landscape designs incorporated islands of plants in a sea of grass.  Plan for smaller areas of turf strategically placed among permanent plantings of trees and shrubs.  For efficiency
and ease of maintenance, connect grassed areas and avoid isolated little bits of turf.  Employ ground covers and mulches as cover where possible.

In addition to good design and plant selection and all the other xeriscape techniques, adoption of more efficient irrigation practices can reduce water use.  Where possible use soaker hoses, trickle, drip, or micro-sprinklers to conserve water.  Use a rain gauge and plan to water the oasis zone only when rainfall is less than one inch per week.  Water deeply and slowly, so water sinks in and does not run off.

Xeriscaping makes a lot of sense and will impart a Florida-look to your yard.  In addition, it will save you time and money that you can devote to more enjoyable leisure activities than cutting grass.  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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