Drought tough on new plants in Chattanooga area

Drought tough on new plants in Chattanooga area

July 28th, 2012 by Associated Press in News

2012 Chattanooga rainfall

Average rainfall to date: 31.04 inches

Actual rainfall to date: 27.04 inches

On this day last year: 36.28 inches

A remarkably rainy July in the Chattanooga area can mislead home gardeners because a lingering drought grips most of Tennessee and is expected to deepen across much of the state.

That's why plant nursery owners and weather forecasters caution that recent improvements in moisture don't signal a need to let up on watering newer plantings.

"Just because the grass has greened up doesn't mean the drought is over," said James LaRosa, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service office in Nashville.

Chattanooga has received about 2.5 inches more rain than typical this month, Morristown National Weather Service Meteorologist Derek Eisentrout said. But overall, the city is still drier than usual: recorded rainfall is about 4 inches below the yearly average.

And it's been hot -- the city's average monthly temperature, 83.1 degrees, is 3 degrees higher than July's normal average.

So if more recently planted ornamentals -- dogwoods, azaleas and the like -- are struggling, don't feel alone. Even the professionals are having a tough time.

"The drought and early winds in March and April were very devastating to spring plantings," said David Hillis, owner of the Little River Nursery in McMinnville.

The nursery, which is a wholesale growing operation, had a 50 percent loss of new plants this year.

"As my dad used to say, 'That's agriculture,'" Hillis added.

Hillis and retail nurseryman David Bates of Bates Nursery & Garden Center in Nashville offered homeowners advice on keeping newer yard plantings alive through the drought.

Knowing when and how much to water are key, both agreed.

"Newly planted specimens are essentially container plants until their roots grow into surrounding soil," Bates said.

They will need to be watered until wetter weather sets in, probably in late November. Long and slow is the way to go.

"Long, slow waterings are more beneficial. Plants need an opportunity to dry," Bates said. "Most things don't require daily water. Two to three times per week is usually adequate."

Hillis said the best time to water is in the early morning. If you see water running off, turn down the pressure.

"Watering at night could cause fungus on the leaves," he cautioned.

Both nurserymen recommend mulching but don't let it touch the tree trunk and spread it to the drip line of the leaves. Avoid building a "volcano" of mulch around tree trunks.

If the drought has already claimed an ornamental on the lawn, Hillis says, wait a few months before replacing it.

"Do any major planting after November," Hillis said. "Let it acclimate over the winter."

Hillis also cautions that most new plantings need to be staked so they aren't blown over or the roots blown loose by the wind. He also recommends using good topsoil and testing it to see if any nutrients should be mixed in.

And keep the garden hose handy, even into the winter months.

The latest U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook through October shows the drought is expected to persist or intensify in the western half of Tennessee with some improvement likely over the Cumberland Plateau and southern Middle Tennessee.

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows extreme drought conditions from the Reelfoot Lake region across the northern counties of West Tennessee as far east as Clarksville. The greater Memphis area is also shown in extreme drought. Most of the balance of the state was shown in moderate to severe drought with less impact in the eastern Tennessee River Valley and the mountains.

LaRosa said the outlook through August predicts temperatures will be above normal and rain will be spotty.

There is, in fact, an indicator that the coming winter could be drier than usual.

"There is a developing El Nino pattern," LaRosa said. "That tends to create a wet transition from summer to fall, but then it turns dry for the winter."

Times Free Press Staff Writer Shelly Bradbury contributed to this report.