I saw a disturbing site the other morning on a walk. It was a four-foot-tall Alligator Juniper. From a distance, it looked almost normal. I say “almost” because when I walked up and touched it, all the leaves (needles?) crumbled in my hand. It was dried out and dead. This was the first, but certainly not the last casualty of the drought. A closer look at others in the area showed they were hurting too. The really bad part was that this juniper was growing down in a draw and not on a south or west-facing slope where things dry out quicker. The effects of the drought and above normal heat are already here…and, it isn’t even spring yet.
Right now, all of Santa Cruz County is officially classified as being in “Extreme Drought” and is trending towards the highest rating of “Exceptional Drought.” This is not fake news or media hype. We and our plants are hurting and here are some things you can look forward to. Bad wildfires – think of 2002 with the Ryan Fire and many others locally. Oaks will drop their leaves and not releaf until summer rains, if they happen. No acorn crop which is vital to many wildlife species. Junipers and manzanita will drought out and die, adding to wildfire potential. Also, expect losses of native perennial grasses that didn’t receive the moisture last growing season needed to carry them through the hot spells of late spring and June. We are at the mercy of the natural weather patterns and right now the natural patterns are headlined by La Nina, an ocean current that brings drought to the Southwest. La Nina is predicted to last until at least April. By then it will already be too late for many plants. This really stanks. (Author’s note: when Jim uses the word “stanks” he really means “sucks” but doesn’t like to use inappropriate language in a public forum.)
We can’t change the weather patterns (please scientists, don’t even think of trying) but there are some things we can do to help our individual situations. The first and most important is to mow the grasses and vegetation around structures. I am not an expert in fire-wise management, but find out whatever the recommended mowing distance is around a house, then do 4 or 5 times that distance. Uncut grasses burn up to six feet high. Cut grass burns closer to six inches.
Another step to take is water existing trees close to your structures. You can’t take care of every plant in the West but pick a few that you don’t want to lose and water them properly. Trees still need moisture even in dormancy. Rain and snow usually take care of this but not this year. A monthly good watering should be enough. You might be thinking, “But Jim, some of these oaks are 150-250 years old. They have made it through times like this before.” The quick answer is, “No, they haven’t.” Most areas locally just went through the driest year since records have been kept and that is basically the last 100 years. Last year’s summer rainy season was a bust too. Couple that with the hottest years on record and we are in never been seen before territory.
Watering in this case means a deep soaking. The best way to do that is using a soaker hose placed just outside of a tree’s dripline. The dripline is where most of a tree’s feeder roots are and is located in the zone underneath the outer branches of a plant. Water slowly until the moisture has penetrated at least 24” deep. You can check this by pushing a piece of rebar into the ground. It will easily penetrate the zone of wetness. I watered some trees the other day in a heavy clay, rocky soil and it took about 6 hours to get the moisture down far enough.
Now I can see some “cowboy logic” cooking up here. “If once a month is good then four times a month should be great.” That is not a good idea. You are trying to keep things alive, not make them grow. If you do succeed in having lush new vegetation in the springtime, it will be the only place for miles and miles that has new growth. You can be assured that every insect pest in the area code will pay you a visit. Also, there is the water usage factor but that will have to be an article at another time.
We all know we will eventually get through this drought. It just won’t be a soon as we would like. Some of you all might be thinking, “Wow, sure wish you would have come up with a funny article instead of something this serious. I could use a laugh.” Well folks, sometimes things just stank.
Editor’s note: Jim Koweek’s latest book Grassland Plant ID For Everyone can be found wherever it is sold. In better times he can be found playing mandolin at local watering holes.