From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on September 21, 2005

Drought Consequences Vary.

The severe flooding as a result of inordinate amounts of rain and the snow melt that visited most of our region on April 2nd and 3rd stays in our memory like a stain. We didn't want to see rain again. And, as a wish granted out of spite, we waited until the most devastating storm to ever visit American soil, Katrina, sent some precipitation our way in the final days of August. It didn't nearly make up the deficit, but it did give us some much needed rainfall.

Our summer has been droughty to a fault. The few episodes that gave us a quarter of an inch here or there are, by contrast, insignificant. The length of our drought lasted nearly 16 weeks. This is longer than the summer of 1997 that went 13 weeks. And, our near record setting days above 90F qualify us as the driest and hottest in most local people's memory. As if to add insult to injury, whenever we have so many drought summers so close together (five out of the last nine), trees become seriously endangered by insects, diseases and other stress related problems for the next five to ten years.

Recalling our recent visit from Gypsy moths and some fairly widespread defoliation, I wonder what the consequences of the moisture deprivation will mean to forest and shade trees. I'm already expecting to see some premature leaf loss, certainly on the shallow rooted maples and their colleagues, the dogwoods and hemlocks.

When damage is done to trees, the single most important need is sufficient moisture. Trees require it to defend themselves, repair themselves from injury, and to insure themselves from further attack since they are so vulnerable when they are so stressed. Next year, expect an increased incidence of canker disease resulting from these trees' inability to repair damages and wounds.

Whether newly planted or established trees, withhold fertilizers this fall. The drought stresses dictate that they not be pushed to grow. Rather, they should rest and recuperate. Remember, their photosynthetic processes were so severely disrupted in the absence of adequate water, that the necessary food, in sugar and starch form, was little manufactured by leaves, and little stored in roots. The consequences will vary. For example, high temperatures in fall may dilute the intensity of autumn's colors. The severity of our drought may delay the peak of our color display by weeks.

I've mentioned that stressed trees are susceptible to insect and disease damage, but I must emphasize, in this case, winter injury from cold, is a serious threat, too. Look at the crowns of mature trees. If you see any branch dieback now, expect to see more in the coming year.

I'm getting such a sense of doom and gloom, writing this. I think I'll save any talk of acid rain for another time. I don't wish to convey a mortal dread for all your landscape plants, or, for that matter, your lovely, canopy shade trees. I am certain that many of my readers have had the foresight to irrigate their favorite garden guests and welcome newcomers. I'm writing this, now, because any readers who have not, still have time to remedy many situations.

If you have already planted perennials, or are looking after your established ones, supply them with a gallon of water a week. If you have newly planted trees and shrubs or are looking to those already in your landscape, supply them with 5 gallons of water per week. Both of these are if there is not at least two inches of rainfall in a week to ten day period. I still urge the use of homemade or purchased rain-gauges to eliminate the guesswork. It may seem like it's raining "cats and dogs", but the rain-gauge may indicate the total event gave one-half an inch of moisture to your plants.

If there is a doubt, do not be hasty. Don't cut anything down or pull anything out. Water it until the ground is frozen; then, mulch it. Next year will reveal much. Remember, "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower..." (Dylan Thomas) is mighty!

On the positive side, needled evergreens can exhibit more vivid color, especially the blue-greens, because limited soil moisture prompts needles to produce more protective waxes on their surface to slow transpiration. Reduced rainfall also reduces weathering of the waxes. Score a minor victory.

Another plus we extract from droughty weather; there are very few infectious diseases that are spread or thrive in dry weather. They prefer wet weather. Score another victory, of sorts.

Just a reminder. Early leaf drop on deciduous trees, and needle fall on evergreens, are water conserving strategies that many trees employ as a result of drought. Nonetheless, we will be seeing the consequences of these close encounters with drought for several years to come.

Here are a few suggestions for dealing with drought: Apply mulch to a depth of no more than three inches. This retards moisture loss, keeps roots cooler, and discourages weeds. Weeds compete strongly for soil moisture, so keep them under control. Collect water in rain barrels, small kiddy pools, whatever is available, and use it to irrigate nearby valued plants and trees. If your gardens are extensive, use drip irrigation or soaker hoses. These techniques conserve water and preserve plant vitality. Remove dead trees as soon as noticed because they may harbor bark beetles. Same with dead limbs and branches.

The equinox is upon us, and the beautiful shortening days of autumn, too. Cooler temperatures are usually accompanied by more uniform moisture which is restorative. I'll talk to you next in October. The usual peak for fall color in our area is Columbus Day. See if it's early, on time, or late in your area. It's an indicator of things past, and maybe, of things to come. Enjoy it when it arrives.


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on September 21, 2005

© 2005 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.