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Before we make any hard decisions about which of our favorite plants to save in the coming months and which ones to sacrifice, we want to know: How serious is this drought? And particularly, we want to know if it's any more serious than what we've faced in recent years.

Realistically, we can't know at this point, but we can prepare.

In reviewing my previous garden columns on the subject, I found one on this theme as recent as February 2009, "Preparing for a Serious Drought."

Five years ago, we anticipated below average rainfall, mandatory water rationing, and losing our lawns along with a good many garden plants as well. If our fears this year have changed, they've only deepened.

Throughout these past few years, many homeowners have sensibly removed water-hungry lawns in favor of hardscape and low-water plants, a huge step toward water economy and conservation.

Whether or not we're at the beginning or the end of our 2014 rains, our concerns should be the same, just as they were in 2009. Because water is in short supply in our climate, we can't risk wasting it on garden plants that don't belong here.

Altering our landscapes is a big step, but help is available. Professionals are eager for jobs of any kind in this economic downturn in the garden industry, and volunteer Master Gardeners are making themselves available for short-term consultations at home sites.

<strong>In the meantime</strong>

What will happen to our gardens?

Hopefully, they will morph into what they should have been in the first place — made up of plants from our own and other Mediterranean climates and of exotic plants that not only tolerate but thrive in our dry-summer conditions.

It will take a few months before we'll know how much water is available for our gardens this year.

In the meantime, we can do the same things recommended five years ago.

If we've been sensible in putting together a garden that withstands long summers with no rain, we already have a preponderance of California natives or at least of climate-appropriate species.

Even these, however, generally benefit from some summer water in garden situations.

It's good to consider how we should prepare now to deal with them in a drought year.

<strong>Cautionary steps</strong>

Install a drip system. If you haven't put one in yet, do it now if you plan to irrigate any part of the garden.

Drip lines put water exactly where it's needed — in the root zone. No water is wasted on the surface or as runoff.

Preserve residual soil moisture.

If you haven't added compost to garden soil, do it now or as soon as soil is dry enough to work. Follow a compost application with a thick layer of mulch over garden beds and drip lines.

No new plants. It goes against all of our instincts, but it makes sense not to plant now except in the vegetable garden.

New ornamentals need more water than established plants and are best planted in fall.

Avoid relocating existing plants. This also violates our gardening instincts, but moving plants disturbs their established roots and increases their need for water.

Provide shade. Plan now to provide summer shade wherever possible. A surprising number of plants get by with very little or no water in partial to complete shade in summer.

A patio umbrella in or near a planted bed may be all that you need.

Trim excess growth. Reducing the canopy or foliage mass of plants reduces their water requirements.

<strong>Successful gardens</strong>

We won't stop gardening altogether if the drought persists, but we will start thinking differently about gardens, their maintenance and their design — layouts with fewer plants and more negative or open space.

We'll add more hardscape where there's no need for irrigation and we'll keep very thirsty plants in containers where we can keep an eye on them. Some containers we'll leave empty as garden art.

We'll put more emphasis on a few low-water, bulky shrubs as specimens that cover more ground than small perennials. And we'll restrict the number of flowering plants that require frequent watering, which we can accomplish with recycled water from our homes.

Serious drought may well be in our garden's future, but we can be prepared.

<em>Rosemary McCreary, a Sonoma County gardener, gardening teacher and author, writes the monthly Homegrown column for The Press Democrat. Write to her at P.O. Box 910, Santa Rosa, 95402; or send fax to 664-9476.</em>