Coping with severe winter drought

It’s official. The experts who monitor groundwater well levels and rainfall data have decreed that my part of the piedmont region of North Carolina is in a severe drought. As a gardener, this scares me to my bones, and it should worry anyone who lives here. Without winter groundwater-recharging rains, the upcoming summer will be one long sweltering nightmare.

As of today, I have officially activated Plan B for this year’s garden. Some little voice in the back of my head told me not to order the asparagus, rhubarb, and strawberry plants I had been planning to add this spring. Ditto for the cherry trees I was contemplating. I think my weather-wise gardener’s instincts —  honed by 40+ years of gardening in the southeast piedmont — were telling me about the trouble ahead.

Establishing new plants requires extra water. New roots need coddling; young plants die if roots dry. And plants that have trouble handling heat — like rhubarb and asparagus — need even more water to survive July, August, and September. So no new perennial crops for me this year — except for the blueberry bushes we already planted last fall. They are in a beautifully prepared bed covered with a thick layer of leaf mulch. I think I can keep them going.

I”ll still plant the vegetable garden. I’ve already got the seeds. The mulch and compost piles are ready. It may be a short season, however. When the garden well goes dry, the veggies will decline. I’ll focus on maximizing their initial burst of productivity.

For those of you who garden with municipal water rather than wells, you still need to be proactive.  Water use restrictions will impair your ability to give your plants what they need; so will your rising water bills.

If I were in a suburb gardening with city water, I’d be doing the following:

  • Maximize deeply mulched natural areas while reducing lawn size. Lawns are resource hogs and botanical deserts. These non-native monocrop grass zones require vast amounts of chemicals and water to maintain.
  • If you have formal flower beds, invest in thick mulch now. If you have fussy flowers that need extra water and nutrients, consider replacing them with tougher plants.
  • If you grow vegetables, do so in raised beds if you aren’t already. Raised beds allow you to concentrate your water and fertilizer resources in smaller areas while maximizing your yields.
  • If you haven’t been mulching your vegetable beds, seriously reconsider this decision. Mulch is your best defense against dry soil, and it suppresses weeds.

While I’m on my soapbox, one more point about the deleterious effects of lawns. Watered lawns maintain a shallow layer of moisture near the surface. When nearby trees and shrubs can’t find the deeper groundwater resources they usually rely on, they develop shallow roots to exploit the lawn water you’re adding. Over time, this creates weaker shrubs and trees that are more susceptible to drought, disease, and root damage. And shallow-rooted plants are much more likely to topple in ice storms and hurricane winds.

Today, the local radar screen glows green with the promise of rain to my south. I rejoice at the sound of light rain on my roof. But we are in a deep drought hole, my friends. This event won’t fix it.

So, does anyone know any good rain dances?

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