Gardeners urged to use caution

Drought-ravaged Carolinas gardens are seeing a bit of relief this spring, as recent rains prompt communities to mull relaxed watering restrictions just as planting season begins in earnest.

Though the region remains in a Stage 3 drought, Rock Hill city officials plan this week to discuss loosening water restrictions -- potentially allowing irrigation once a week in the late evening or early morning.

But officials warn that relaxed restrictions could change as quickly as the weather. Current restrictions for Rock Hill, Fort Mill, York, Tega Cay and York County water customers prohibit the use of sprinklers and irrigation systems, and allow hand watering only in the late evening or early morning.

Area gardeners should proceed with caution as they plan their spring and summer plantings, said Paul Thompson, an agent with the Clemson Extension Service in York County.

"Last year taught us a lot of lessons," Thompson said, referring to the severe late-summer drought. His advice: "Do things to try to conserve water in the landscape, and probably don't do a lot of plantings that are going to require a lot of additional water."

We've compiled some advice from Thompson, two local master gardeners and a local nursery owner on how to cultivate the planting season when water resources are uncertain. Here, we offer seven tips for the season:

1. Oh, you've heard it a thousand times: Mulch, mulch, mulch. But it does make a difference. A 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch over planting beds will help prevent moisture's evaporation from the soil. It also will help moderate the soil temperature, enabling the growth of healthier root systems, Thompson said. Top off beds with a fresh batch of mulch every year; he said, it's not necessary to remove the old stuff. Marilyn Hakim, a Rock Hill master gardener, said her habits have changed -- she now mulches heavily, and she hasn't lost any plants to the drought. Hakim said she just uses the leaves that fall and moves them to her planting areas. Other organic mulching options are pine straw, bark mulch and pine nuggets, all of which hold moisture well. And don't use rocks -- they won't help conserve moisture.

2. Consider simple practices that help conserve water. They include minimizing turf areas -- which require more water to maintain than trees, shrubs and other ornamentals -- and creating ornamental beds or natural areas, especially in places where grass doesn't thrive. Another alternative is hardscapes, which may include patios, pavers, flagstone and other outdoor living spaces. Group plants with similar water needs together, so you don't end up wasting water on plants that need less water. And plant those that typically need more water, such as annuals, in a small confined place closer to the house, where it's easy to douse them with a hose.

3. Fall is always the best time to establish woody plants and trees, but the arrival of warm weather prompts many people to plant them in spring anyway. It's true that some plants are more drought tolerant than others, but all new plantings will need regular watering and extra attention for the first year or two, until they have deep, established root systems. If you must plant trees or woody perennials this spring, choose one or two things that you'll be able to care for properly. It's probably not a good time to do extensive new plantings, which won't survive if they don't get enough water, said Barbara Grant, a Rock Hill master gardener. "Don't deny yourself totally," Grant suggested. "But just know that you're going to have to pay more attention to it -- so get something that you really want and that you'll really enjoy."

4. As you choose plants for spring or fall planting, consider those that require less care and need less water once they're established. This will make it easier to maintain your garden in the long run. Most gardeners are time crunched and are wanting to have low-maintenance gardens, said Steve Crump, owner of Rolling Hills Nursery. Popular low-maintenance plants include a variety of ornamental grasses such as pink muhly grass, which sports pink blooms in the fall, and evergreen shrubs such as dwarf yaupon, a small round leaf holly, Crump said. Above all, avoid impulse purchases -- choose plants instead after considering where you plan to put them and what type of growing conditions they need. Too many people have a "hodge-podge method of creating the landscape," Thompson said, treating all plants the same. Know what your planting area's sun exposure is, what direction the bed faces and how much room you have for the plant to grow. If you need some advice on choosing, Thompson said, take a picture or a diagram to the nursery with you and ask for help. Or invest your time in a bit of research before you buy -- there's a wealth of information on the Internet.

5. Add soil amendments if you create any new landscaping beds. Existing beds can't be amended without destroying the roots of what's already there. But if you're planning a new bed, preparing the soil is a crucial step. Till the soil as deeply as possible and add a 3- to 4-inch layer of compost or a commercial soil conditioner, Thompson said. Till the compost or conditioner in to the bed to create an amended planting bed that's about 12 inches deep. Amending the soil in this way will help create a food source for beneficial organisms that live in the soil, like earthworms.

6. If irrigation and sprinkler use is permitted once again, evaluate what you're using to make sure it uses water most efficiently. Many newer sprinklers produce a large droplet or a stream that's less likely to evaporate or to be carried away by the wine. Pop-up spray heads, often placed in shrub beds, on the other hand, produce a fine drop that evaporates quickly.

7. Beware of overwatering. Believe it or not, it's more of a problem than watering too little, according to Crump. Hakim confesses to being a former over-waterer. When she started watering less last summer because of mandated restrictions, "I had things blooming that I hadn't had bloom in years," she said. Now she only waters by hand. Wait until plants need water before you douse them, said Crump -- "just stick your finger down beside the plant, and if it's dry, water it." Check for watering needs every couple of days, Crump said. How you water also is important. Water less frequently, for longer periods, rather than more often for short periods. Shallow, frequent watering encourages plants to develop shallow roots, which aren't healthy and make it more difficult for the plant to survive. Longer watering less often is best. If you're allowed to use an irrigation system on your lawn, early morning is best, from around 4 to 8 a.m., because less evaporation occurs.