Posts Tagged drought adaptations

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.

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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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