Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Lessons of California’s drought from 1976

“What have you done to save water today?”

That leading question could be asked any day this year, but it’s an echo from California’s past.

On a poster hung in schoolrooms and kitchens across the state, that query came from 1976 and a public service announcement printed by the Metropolitan Water District. It listed “25 things you can do to save water and survive the drought.”

Some of the indoor water-saving tips seem quaint: “Put a plastic bottle in your toilet tank” (efficient low-flow toilets are now the norm) or “Don’t use your toilet as an ashtray” (who smokes indoors anymore?).

But the outdoor water-saving tips read almost exactly if they were pulled from a current copy of this Home & Garden section. “Water your lawn only when it needs it.” “Put a layer of mulch around trees and plants.” “Don’t water the gutter.” (Or my favorite, “Tell your children not to play with the hose.”)

It’s a case of drought déjà vu. It may have been nearly 40 years since “our worst drought in history,” but our bad water habits remain less than thrifty. And in the midst of the second-worst drought in our history, we’re coping with that now.

Recent legislation – and possible $500 fines – against water wasters may have gotten us to pay more attention (or pay the price). Landscaping, which accounts for an estimated 65 percent of our suburban water use, is the area where we have the most opportunities to save.

Mandatory 20 percent cutbacks, required in several local communities, have put our gardens on a water budget. But in our attempts to curtail water use, we may have pushed some plants too far. During July’s heat, our gardens are showing signs of stress.

What does drought stress look like? With summer lawns, it’s easy to tell when the grass is not getting enough water – it turns brown. Large-leaved shrubs such as hydrangeas visibly wilt before their leaves lose their healthy green color. It’s like a call for help – water! Now!

With other plants, drought damage is more accumulative. On deciduous trees, the edges of leaves turn brown and they drop as if autumn had already arrived. On evergreens, the needles turn yellow before gradually browning and falling off.

In roses, the leaves actually look burned. The tips of foliage appear scorched and crisp as if it got too close to the barbecue. The edges of flower petals turn brown and dry, too.

That burn comes from lack of water. The drought-stressed roots pull moisture out of rest of the plant, dehydrating the leaves. In extreme cases, the leaves and stem look toasted. Once burned, the leaf and stem damage is irreversible. Those leaves will fall off (or should be removed), allowing new leaves to take their place. Damaged stems should be cut back to healthy growth. With a little TLC (and water), the plant usually can be saved.

Many of our plants are tougher than we know. The drought is forcing us to test our garden’s limits.

Charlotte Owendyk of Roseville grows hundreds of roses in her large garden. She’s already replaced much of her lawn with low-water landscaping, so she could spare some for her favorite flowers. But now her roses are on a strict water diet, too. Faced with watering restrictions, she devised this system:

“Water all the roses and mark down the date on your calendar,” she said. “Then, wait and watch. When the roses start to droop, note the date and count back the number of days to when you last watered.”

Owendyk subtracts one from that total and makes that her watering guide. If it takes five days for the roses to wilt, she waters every four.

This method also encourages deeper root growth.

“Repeat this occasionally, and you will likely see you will need to water less and less as the roots push deeper into the earth,” she said. “Let the rose tell you when it’s thirsty.”

Container plants are the most susceptible to drought stress. They have only limited space for roots, which tend to get hotter than if they grew below ground. If the soil in a pot totally dries out, the plant’s roots restrict into a dense ball, trying to save what moisture they have left. So, when water is added to the dry pot, it runs straight down the sides of the container instead of soaking into the rootball.

The solution: Soak it. Set the potted plant in a sink, bucket, dishpan or tray filled with lukewarm water. Let the plant soak for 30 minutes to an hour so the roots and soil can absorb the moisture. Then, remove it from its deep soak and let drain. Don’t leave the plant in the water for an extended amount of time or the roots might drown.

“Although the drought is a challenge, our (gardens) may be better off in the long run,” Owendyk said. “(Plants) push their roots deeper, looking for water. Long term, our roses (and other plants) will be even more established and able to fend for themselves. … We each have to do our part to save water. It’s one of the few things none of us can survive without.”

That was true in 1976 and true today. Maybe now, we’ll remember.