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Gardeners should plan now for Washington’s hotter, drier climate

Until rain began falling Friday, the only thing coming from the skies across western Washington lately has been ash. Anxious homeowners have been glancing at their landscaping the last couple of weeks and filling online garden forums with questions about drought, fires and ash.

But garden experts say there’s little to worry about — if you’ve been caring for your plants. And there are steps to take to make a drought resistant garden.

Western Washington is experiencing “abnormally dry” weather, according to the Pacific Northwest Drought Early Warning System, a collaborative government effort that monitors weather conditions for the Columbia River basin and surrounding region, including all of Washington state.

Central Washington is experiencing a moderate to severe drought, according to DEWS. Many parts of Oregon are in extreme drought.

Get used to it, experts say. It’s climate change.

“It’s definitely gotten hotter,” said Linda Chalker-Scott, a Washington State University professor, urban horticulturist and author. “Maybe not every summer. But when you look at long term trends, we know that the average temperature is going up in summer, and we’re getting less rainfall.”

There’s nothing from stopping homeowners from watering their thirsty landscapes, except maybe the water bill. But, Chalker-Scott suggests planning and planting landscapes that are less dependent on supplemental water.

The weather has changed to the point where spring planting season is something to be avoided unless gardeners are installing a vegetable garden or putting in annuals, she said.

“Spring is a really bad time to plant. Summer is the only worst time,” Chalker-Scott said. “The tree is not able to put out a lot of root growth because there’s just not enough water to support that.”

Instead, fall and winter are the seasons that are best for planting trees, shrubs and perennials. She suggests mid-October as the start of the planting season. Even deciduous plants, those that lose their leaves, will grow roots during fall and winter.

Fall colors might be arriving sooner than usual, said garden designer and author Sue Goetz.

“Some trees kick out fall color early if they are super stressed,” Goetz said. “If trees are stressed, it is usually because they are newly planted in the last few years and just need to get their roots deep in the ground.”

Homeowners concerned about fire should concentrate on where they plant more than what they plant. Chalker-Scott debunks lists of “flammable plants” put out by governments and other agencies.

“It’s just not really based on science,” she said. “It’s based on anecdote, just conjecture, nothing else.”

Fire defense experts suggest creating a defensible space around homes that might be subject to wildfires.

Homeowners concerned about air quality should plant more trees, Goetz said.

“It is well studied how dramatically trees can help reduce air pollution,” she said. “So, I imagine our large trees are working hard.”

Keeping plants healthy means avoiding bare earth, Chalker-Scott said. The best way to do that is with ground cover or mulch. She recommends wood chips, not bark. Chips will absorb water, bark sheds it. Raking up leaves and using them a mulch saves effort and will help plants, she said.

There are some plants that are naturally thirsty. The hydrangea, a Pacific Northwest staple, has water in its name, for instance. Chalker-Scott suggests grouping plants together by their water needs. The same goes for annual flower gardens.

“It’s kind of important to have those (for pollinators),” she said. “Put them someplace where you can do spot watering and you don’t have to do the entire landscape.”

Craig Sailor has worked for The News Tribune for 20 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He previously worked at The Olympian and at other newspapers in Nevada and California.

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