You can see it in the broad landscape, and you can see it in your own backyard. It may be only February, smack in the middle of winter, but everything is looking thirsty despite a few wet days.

It's the driest year on record. And unless a March miracle occurs, it's going to be a sober spring and summer, not just for gardeners but for any homeowner trying to maintain a landscape.

"This is not just a drought year. This is the severest drought that we've ever had, and I'm scared because last year we got all of our rain in November and December. And in January it stopped. This year, we really haven't had any significant rain for 13 months. It's scary that might happen again," said Sonoma County Farm Adviser Paul Vossen.

Sandy Metzger, a garden educator with the Sonoma County Master Gardeners, said that without significant rain over a sustained period -#8212; not just a few rainy days -#8212; gardeners may find themselves not only conserving water, but also performing triage to protect their most vulnerable or most valuable plants and trees. And that may entail making tough decisions about which plants to save and which to let go.

Looking ahead to the upcoming season, she said, gardeners would be wise to prepare now by thinking about how to dramatically cut down on water consumption while also helping their landscapes survive. Gov. Jerry Brown has officially declared a drought emergency and has called on citizens to cut back water use by 20 percent. In Sonoma County, Healdsburg and Cloverdale have already imposed mandatory cuts in water consumption.

Gardeners can take steps now to install more efficient drip irrigation systems, invest in some rain barrels to capture any rain that might come along, throw down mulch to keep the soil moister longer, or make this the year they let their lawn die for good.

And people who grow their own vegetables should think seriously about forgoing certain thirstier crops this year, like corn and leafy greens, in favor of food crops that can withstand drier conditions. The good news is that tomatoes are fine to grow with less water.

People aren't in the habit of watering plants in the winter. But many plants are stressing now. Leonard Diggs, manager of Santa Rosa Junior College's Shone Farm, suggested giving those in need at least some water once a week. Those would include non-deciduous plants and trees that should be green year-round.

If you do water, Diggs recommended doing it in the evening when more water will remain with the plant or lawn. It's not necessarily optimum under better water conditions, since late watering can leave a plant wet longer and more vulnerable to disease. But it's a trade-off to consider in a very difficult year.

Another thing people can do now is add mulch, which helps retain moisture in the soil and keep down the weeds that compete with the plants you care about for precious water. Usually, 4 inches of top dressing is recommended. After that, the benefit doesn't tend to outweigh the cost.

But Robert Kourik, a landscape designer who was a pioneer in the xeriscaping movement during the severe drought of 1977, said it might be worth it to add even more, given how dry it is.

It's usually not a good idea to irrigate oak trees, because warm, moist conditions invite root fungi. But it's less of a threat in winter. And during this dry winter, it would help reduce oaks' stress to give them some water, said Sebastopol arborist Ron Wallace.

"I recommend slow watering out to the drip line, but be sure to keep water at least 3 feet from the trunk, where the root fungus is most likely to affect the tree's roots," he said. When adding mulch to trees, make sure you keep it a foot or two away from the trunk to discourage root fungi.

Consider removing nuisance plants, like ivy or invasives, to leave more water for your more important plants.

If conditions remain super dry, this may be the year you forgo any major landscape installations. Even drought-tolerant plants need supplemental irrigation for the first year until they get established.

It would be better, experts say, to use this time to sheet mulch, kill your lawn and plan your new landscape, while holding off planting until fall when rains may return.

But if you are determined to do some planting, stick to very drought-resistant plants, said Kourik, like lavender, euphorbia and rosemary, as well as California buckeye, western redbud and desert willow. Urban Tree Farm in Santa Rosa (www.urbantreefarm.com) has an excellent list of low-water-use plants.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.