Facing Reality: Summer gardening in the Piedmont isn’t what it used to be.

Summer's fecundity is waning fast...

OK, I’m overstating things a bit with the above photo. It’s not quite that grim here — yet. But searing record heat and worsening drought are making me feel it’s that bad.

A “cold” front came through last night, knocking our highs back down to normal, which for this time of year is around 90 degrees Fahrenheit. It certainly beats the 100+ degrees we were in. As has been the case all summer, the few lines of thunderstorms that accompanied the front entirely missed my yard and gardens. I swear, when I watch the green blips on the radar displays, the storms get almost to my house and then either evaporate spontaneously or deliberately steer themselves around me, re-forming after they’re past. Yes, I’m starting to take it personally.

Yesterday at dawn when I was watering my vegetables, the water stream emerging from the hose began coughing. I got chills despite the sweat rolling down my back. That cough was the shallow well we use for the garden telling me that it is just about done. There is no more water in the shallow perched water table that runs beneath the floodplain. The ashes and oaks have sucked it all up. There will be no more water in that well any time soon unless copious rains fall pronto. The rainfall outlook for the next week here: zero chance.

So now, just as my garden is reaching peak productivity, I will be forced to watch it die. The squashes were already declining, refusing to flower in the unrelenting heat. The cucumbers, despite additional water, refuse to fill out; the heat is just too much for them. The beans are still productive, but without water, that won’t last. The tomatoes are producing about a dozen ripe fruits a day. But without supplemental water, immature fruits will likely never fill out. Only the peppers may remain productive. I’ve noticed that once their fruits attain mature size, they don’t need as much water to finish ripening. In fact, less water seems to intensify their flavor.

I give most of the veggies two weeks tops before they all surrender to the new reality of summer Piedmont gardening: unrelenting heat and drought.

At the NC Botanical Garden earlier this week, I met a woman visiting from Alabama. Her summer gardening season ended several weeks ago, she told me. And that’s normal for that state, apparently. She bragged about all the tomatoes, pickles, beans, and jams she had canned for winter use. Now she’s done while Alabama sun bakes her earth into a desert until winter rains arrive.

I fear I must similarly adjust my expectations about gardening seasons in the Piedmont of North Carolina. No longer will year-round food production be possible, not with dwindling water tables and reservoirs, not with numbers of 90+ and 100+ degree days setting new records with every passing year. Flower gardens will change too. Summer rose lovers should probably learn to be satisfied with merely keeping their bushes alive from July through September.

And the lush summer greenness that clothes my great canopy trees, shading me and all the other creatures that live here, will continue to diminish. Larger and larger branches will fall as the trees self-prune in an attempt to conserve resources. Aging trees will fall to disease and insect attacks as their roots fail to find the water they need to sustain themselves.

In another decade or two, I pray the summer landscape doesn’t resemble the photo above that Wonder Spouse took a few winters ago. The black vultures had gathered to dine upon the carcass of a young deer that had become hung up in some tree roots growing into our creek. The creek had recently flooded (ah, how fondly I remember those bouts of raging brown water now), and we surmised that the deer had unwisely tried to cross the angry stream and drowned.

I hope I’m wrong, that my heat-addled brain is jumping to conclusions. But just in case, I’ll be starting vegetable seeds in my greenhouse even earlier next year, so that I can plant them out earlier. I may risk damage from a late frost. But I may succeed in gaining higher yields before searing sun and killing drought turn my green garden brown.

  1. #1 by Karen on July 14, 2011 - 6:20 pm

    Hello, I have been following the progress of your garden all season and am sorry that the heat and lack of rain has been unrelenting. I know you have been worried about the well…sorry the water has come to an end. I have family in Texas that are experiencing the problem.

  2. #2 by piedmontgardener on July 14, 2011 - 6:25 pm

    Thanks for your sympathy, Karen. Around here, folks have started praying for hurricanes. Such massive weather systems are truly our only hope of getting the quantity of water we need. Unfortunately, hurricane season for North Carolina doesn’t get going seriously until mid-August or so. By that time, my garden will be a dust bowl. 😦

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