Those homeowners who relentlessly track the holy grail of suburban pursuits – a lush, green lawn and fertile landscaping – look back on 2007 with disdain. The sustained dry spell that stretched into the fall stressed lawns, landscaping and trees to the breaking point, leaving in its wake dead evergreens, patchy yards and frail flora choking for water.

And the impact on plants is not over yet, experts say. “Be prepared to see more damage as the spring approaches,” predicts Rick Hanna, Cincinnati manager of the Davey Tree Company. “We had an extended period of drought, into the extreme area.” Those in the lawn care and landscaping industry often cite the drought of 1988 as a high-water mark for plant stress; Hanna says 2007 will now takes its place. “Even in 1988, it started to rain in mid-September. But last year, we didn’t have a decent rain until the end of September, and we continued to have extremely dry soil into October. Once it started to rain, on the lawn care front it was almost too late.”

Scott Jones, an arborist with Bartlett Tree Experts in Cincinnati, agrees. The warm temperatures in late winter last year caused some plants to begin new growth prematurely, and then the April freeze killed the growth. That, followed by the dry, hot summer, was a double whammy for all plants and trees in the area. By the end of summer, when greenery had suffered for months, it was dying or going dormant. Then the rains came. But the ground was so hard and dry by then that much of it ran off.
The condition of your grass and trees might not have been obvious then, but it will be now. As your grass comes out of dormancy this year, you’ll see thin and brown areas where blades have died. And some trees that haven’t already died might do so this year from residual effects of the drought.
Irritated Enough to Irrigate?

“It was so bad last year that unless you had an irrigation system it was really hard to keep up,” adds Hanna. And indeed, many people did look into that.

“I quoted at least two to three people a day on systems,” says Henry Hoefer, irrigation systems consultant for the Kerlin Co. in Cincinnati. “It was crazy.” Particularly since even Hoefer admits that an irrigation system is not a common accoutrement for the average home around here. “Typically in Cincinnati it rains every three days, and the grass and plants are happy campers, and life goes on,” he remarks. But last year was an anomaly.

Irrigation systems vary, but they’re typically either mist or drip. Mist irrigation systems apply water above the ground with heads that come up above the grass. Drip systems allow water to come out of tubes that are installed two to three inches in the soil. ”You have to design what you need for that particular application,” Hoefer says.

But many of those who asked for estimates were shocked to find out how such a system might cost. “Someone will spend $1,500 on prep work before they even put a pipe in the ground,” Hoefer adds. That prep work includes a backflow device that’s required by the state and a controller to operate the zones or stations in the yard. So, as it turns out, many homeowners are still watering by hand. Will that change?
“I think after last year, irrigation systems are going to be much more popular,” adds Hanna. “We know some irrigation contractors who were very busy.”
Grass Is Greener With Seed

For the majority of people who don’t have gardeners or irrigation systems, some care is necessary to rejuvenate the yard. The thin spots that are now obvious in the grass make it critical to seed and fertilize this season. The best time to seed is in the fall, generally, but this spring is better than never. And when it comes to your grass, don’t skip seeding this year. “Nature abhors a vacuum,” Hanna says, so something will grow in those bald spots. If it’s not grass, it will be weeds and crabgrass.

“Get that seed down as quickly as you can, depending on the weather in the spring,” he implores. Seed germinates when the soil is 55 degrees, so March to mid-April is best. The earlier the better. “When you start to seed in mid-May, you’re pushing the edge of going right into another hot season, which will require more water,” Hanna warns.

Last year, many homeowners gave up on watering in the summer when they saw it would take a lot of water (and high water bills) to compensate for Mother Nature’s deficit. And people in other parts of the country have questioned the wisdom of spending all that money and water resources just for a lush, green lawn.

Hanna says that keeping the grass green isn’t necessary to keep it healthy. If there’s another drought and you’re more concerned about the green in your pocket than the green on your lawn, just water the grass every one or two weeks. Get it to the point that the water runs off, he advises. That won’t keep the lawn green, but it’ll keep the crown, near the base of the plant, alive and healthy for next year.

Drip irrigation, in which water is emitted slowly from an underground pipe near the plant’s roots, can save money and water by minimizing evaporation. It is widespread in the Southwest for that reason, Hoefer says. Without an irrigation system, you can minimize evaporation by watering in the early morning. Also avoid watering during the heat of the day: It can mean losing 10 to 20 percent of water to evaporation, and it is stressful for the grass as well. “When it’s 90 degrees and you jump into a swimming pool, that’s what the lawn feels like when you water it in that weather,” Hoefer says.

And if it is going to rain, even a little bit, prepare your lawn to take in that rainwater. “If the ground is hard and parched dry, the rain will sheet right off the top. So, to help capture nature’s water, prepare the ground,” Hanna says. “I don’t have any studies on that, but over the years I’ve seen that it works.” He even does it on his own lawn.
Wetting Your Beds

Landscaped beds often have different needs than those of your grass, so Hoefer suggests irrigating them separately from your lawn. “It may rain every three days and the grass may do just fine, but you may also have a big annual flowerbed that needs a lot of water,” he points out. With separate systems, annual plants — often a big investment — are protected even if your lawn goes dormant.

Customers tend to over water when irrigation systems are installed in beds, Hoefer says, so it’s important that the system is customized specifically for your plants, soil and bed design.

If you’re thinking of planting a new bed, Landscape Architect J.R. Thomas of J.R. Thomas Landscaping Inc. says that selecting plants that can better resist dry spells can be helpful. Tough, hardy plants suitable for our area include Knockout Roses, Boxwood, Viburnum, Coreopsis, Liriope, he says. “Keep in mind, however, that even with well established plants, when we have a drought like last year, supplemental watering is a must — not an option.”

Don’t Put Trees on Permanent Leave

Trees are in distress, too. “Norway spruce and a lot of the evergreens were really hard hit last year,” says Jones. “Young plants, recently installed, suffered heavily. So did the older trees.”

In fact, Hoefer asked many of those interested in an irrigation system why they wanted one. Often, they said it was to water their trees. Problem is, he says, an irrigation system is for grass, not trees. Most large landscape plants and trees need about one inch of water per week, according to Jones. Use a sprinkler to water them, or wrap a perforated or porous hose around the base and put it on a timer. Don’t water the trunk.

Fertilizer helps, too. It’s best to get an expert to test your soil so fertilizers can be specified for that tree and soil content, but a controlled-release fertilizer is in order. There are many on the market, including Arborgreen Pro by Davey Tree. Using a fast-release fertilizer during a drought can harm the roots of trees, Hanna says.

Even with care, you might find that it’s too late for some trees. If a spruce has lost all of its needles or it’s brown, hope is probably lost. “It’s not coming back,” Hanna says. But don’t rush to get rid of a tree without first consulting an expert, preferably one certified by the International Society of Arborculture (ISA), recommends Jones. But how do you know if a tree will recover? “Years of experience is the first thing,” responds Hanna.

There are a few telltale signs: Are there still healthy buds? Can you bend the stem without breaking it? Is there any moisture under the bark? “But it’s never a bad thing to get an expert to look at your trees,” Jones adds.

And if all else fails and you’re thinking that an irrigation system is your thing, better get going. Hoefer is typically booked months in advance. “I don’t see any sign of a recession,” he says. 
Build relationships
After an extraordinary backyard renovation, J.R. Thomas Landscaping Inc. returned to create a distinctive front landscape for this home in Montgomery. “That’s the beauty of long-term relationships,” says owner J.R. Thomas. “With our firm you get first-rate landscaping and superior customer service.”

Maintain your investment
Landscaping is a big investment, so make sure you can take care of it properly. This year, TinkerTurf Lawn & Landscape unveiled its new CompleteCare Grounds Management program, which offers simple maintenance packages with an array of benefits from lawn mowing and mulching to pruning and aeration. These packages make maintaining lavish backyards, such as this one installed by Tinkerturf’s trained design and landscape installation team, easy.

What’s the best way to water trees?
Just use a garden hose. Don’t use a sprinkler where water goes up in the air and back down because it can cause compaction of the soil. What we recommend is to get a garden hose and stick it at the base of the tree. If you’re on the hillside, put it at the top. Turn on the hose slowly and allow deep penetration.
How much water should I use on each tree?
I’m not ever going to give a gallon per minute rate, which a lot of people like to do, because the situation in West Chester may not be the same as the situation in Delhi. You want to be careful with different types of soils.
How do I know if the tree has had enough water?
Do a soil check. Dig around, check the mulch if your tree is mulched, and see how moist the soil is. If it’s dry, obviously it needs to be watered. If it’s moist, you could be fooling yourself and over watering in drought conditions. I did see a lot of over watering last year.
How can I  save money on my water bill?
I know a lot of people who catch rain water coming off their roofs in 50-gallon drums, but in drought conditions there isn’t going to be a lot of rain. But if you can keep that water stored since the spring, that would work out great.