Posts Tagged weather challenges
Perhaps you’ve heard? It’s been raining a lot in my area for the past several weeks. Actually, it’s been pouring — veritable waterfalls from the sky cascading in fat droplets the size of marbles. I’ve lived in this part of North Carolina for well over 50 years. It has never rained like this. Not ever.
The local meteorologists back me up on this. They’ve noted record rainfall amounts that triple our “normal” accumulations. Talk about your mixed blessings. The photo above was taken about 9:00 a.m. after a day and night of rain. I’ve lost track of how many inches fell, but it was more than enough to push the creek that forms one of our property boundaries out of its banks — in at least a half dozen spots — and onto our floodplain.
It looks a lot like a raging river, doesn’t it? Muddy water tears by in multiple interweaving currents. But it’s not even the sights you notice when you step outside. The smell assaults you first — mucky, decaying, fungus-filled deep humidity. Then you notice the roar of the water as it leaps over the bank of the creek onto the floodplain, currents scouring paths in the silt, carrying fish, driftwood, and assorted bits of trash deep into the swamp, where the currents finally weaken, morphing into a murky pond.
The floodplain is on the south side of our property. The creek banks on the north side are higher. The only time the creek ever leapt out of its banks there was during Hurricane Fran, when fallen trees forced the water sideways. This time, the water backed up a bit on the north side:
The water in the foreground covers the trail beside the creek, where we usually walk. The creek breached the bank further downstream, then back-filled itself up the path, right up to our back fence line.
We count ourselves deeply fortunate. Our power was never off for more than a few hours at a time, and we experienced no strong wind gusts during the unrelenting downpour. Our completely saturated ground could not have held the large canopy trees upright, if strong winds had bullied them. We did lose one canopy tree on the floodplain: a large Ash. Its root ball was completely undercut by rushing water.
Alas, the Ash fell smack onto my Sweet Bay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), which was covered in swelling white flower buds. The Ash sheared off one of the two main branches of the Magnolia. If the mud on the floodplain ever dries up enough for us to walk on, we’ll try to clean up the damage to the Sweet Bay. For now, all we can do is share our sympathies with the maimed Magnolia.
By about 2:00 p.m. on the day I took the above photos, the creek had grudgingly retreated — mostly — back to within its banks, leaving only a few thin streams running across the far southern end of our property beside the swamp. I took a picture to show how it looked.
That’s the creek in back, just barely where it’s supposed to be. The foreground shows one of the spots where it overflowed with rushing current, hence the flattened vegetation and the abundant fresh sand/silt deposits. I gave up walking pretty quickly. I was sinking past my ankles in my boots, and it was very difficult to pull myself out — one foot at a time — to move anywhere. I knew if I fell over, the mud might swallow me whole, so I retreated.
We’ve had two whole days without rain now, maybe three, but the floodplain is still nothing but mud. Too muddy for Wonder Spouse to try to cut up the fallen Ash and trim up the wounded Sweet Bay Magnolia. He was able to cut up the other tree we lost — a dying Black Cherry at the top of our hill. It simply fell over, pulling down some of our deer fencing that encloses the north side of our yard. The root system was weakened by disease and the ground was wetter than it may have ever been before. Eerily, Wonder Spouse had mentioned to me the week before that he wanted to take down that tree anyway, noting its sickliness. I guess the tree wanted to save him the trouble.
The most astonishing thing to me through this crazy wet summer is how the plants and animals have responded. I knew we had been living in varying states of drought for the last 17 or so years, but I hadn’t realized how thirsty the plants were — until I’ve seen how they’ve responded to basically unlimited water. I am almost afraid.
Don’t get me wrong, the trees look great. Instead of the raggedy brown look they’ve been sporting most summers by this time, they look nearly as freshly green as they did when they leafed out in April. In recent years, the Tulip Poplar leaves have been turning yellow and dropping by now, their response to insufficient water. Not this year.
And, good golly, the weeds. Have mercy, the weeds! As I walk from my front door to the vegetable garden at the top of the hill, I try to look straight ahead, focusing only on the path before me. Because if I look anywhere else, I see flowers struggling in a jungle of Japanese Stilt Grass approaching four feet tall, Pokeweed the height of pro basketball players, Poison Ivy plotting to grab me by the ankles and pull me into the overgrown areas full of ripening blackberries and volunteer tree saplings. The green areas I call lawn are requiring me to mow them (weather permitting) weekly. Usually by now I’m mowing every 6-8 weeks, as the drought forces lawn plants into slow-growing survival mode.
The birds are deliriously happy over the abundant wild blackberry supply. And the bugs. Gnats form sky-blackening clouds. Biting flies slam into my hat-covered head like bullets as I traverse the path to the garden. Mosquitoes bite me through my clothes. Ticks dangle hungrily from every blade and branch. It is a bona fide jungle out there, folks. And I am completely outnumbered.
Despite the plagues of weeds and bugs, my garden is hanging tough. The tomatoes are finally thinking about ripening. They needed sunlight — a commodity in very short supply these last few weeks. Now it’s a race between the moisture-loving fungal diseases and the ripening of the fruits. I’m not sure which will win yet. I’m still picking squashes daily.
Despite the usual bug attacks, the plants are still producing. I think the abundant soil moisture is allowing them to hang tough longer than usual. Ditto for the Fortex pole beans. Never have they produced so abundantly for so long. The pepper plants grow heavier with fruit daily, but no signs of ripening yet.
In short, for the first time in my gardening life, my vegetables have all the water they could possibly want.
As usual, the Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes are ripening first, but we have eaten a few wonderful Bella Rosas, a couple of seed-grown Early Goliath fruits, and a couple of Viva Italias.
Despite competition from out-of-control weeds, the later blooming daylilies have looked lovely. Case in point:
I can’t close this too-lengthy post without showing you how my Plumleaf Azalea responded to the abundant water. This summer-blooming deciduous azalea is always the Grand Finale to my procession of beautiful azaleas, the effect of its flowers somewhat muted by the presence of leaves. All the others bloom before the leaves emerge in spring.
I took these photos last week early in the morning. We had received another three-quarters of an inch of rain the night before, so it was misty outside.
Here’s a closer view of the flowers. The leaves are a bit damaged, but the flowers more than compensate as far as I’m concerned.
Finally, I’ll leave you with a fuzzy Monet-esque shot of the Plumleaf Azalea in my landscape. If I had skill with watercolors, I would try to paint this.
Here’s hoping the meteorologists are over-estimating the amount of rainfall predicted for this weekend.
My apologies for the somewhat fuzzy pictures. I ventured out early the day after the very frightening wind storm that damaged many areas of my state last week. The Slippery Elm above was actually a casualty of the previous week’s weather. Just 40 or so miles to my east, adjacent counties received 7 inches of rain in 48 hours. We only got about four, and that was a very good thing.
During the prolonged rain event, the creek adjacent to our property overflowed onto our floodplain in numerous spots. This is the first time that has happened in several years. Chronic drought conditions have been a way of life far too long around here. Not this year, at least, not so far. In fact, for the first time in very many years, the National Drought Monitor folks report that my entire State of North Carolina is not in any kind of drought; no county is even listed as abnormally dry. My wetlands are actually wet!
But late last week, a frontal boundary packing hurricane-force winds slammed into my area. The damage was done in about a half hour, but, my goodness, what a wild half hour that was. I did not know that my great canopy trees — all 70 feet or taller — could bend nearly in half without breaking, but most of them did just that. To my east, rain-soaked ground weakened tree roots too much. The winds brought down many trees — large and small. Power outages there lasted a couple of days. At my house, it was a couple of hours, and not related to any damage on our property.
But that doesn’t mean we got off completely. In addition to the flood-downed tree above, a number of large branches from canopy trees were ripped and twisted off and plunged into the ground. Collateral damage was not too severe. But Wonder Spouse and I are more than a bit stiff today after a long weekend of chain-sawing, raking, and hauling of many loads of debris to the brush piles.
Friday morning, while the sun was not yet high and the plants were all wet from the rains the winds carried, I ventured out to survey the damage. First stop: the vegetable garden.
I’m happy to report that all the vegetables were undamaged. Bits of tree litter — leaves and branches — were lying about here and there, as you can see with the squash plant above, but nothing problematic.
Rain drops clung to every leaf, and I was especially struck by how lovely the Bronze Fennel (now taller than me) looked as the rising sun made it sparkle.
Reassured that all was well with the vegetables, I headed down to the floodplain to survey the damage there. Mostly, I saw small bits of branches and leaves littering the ground, but here and there, bigger branches blocked my way. A 15-foot-long branch of a Green Ash partially covered a native viburnum, but the viburnum turned out to be more crushed than broken, so I think it will bounce back. The Ash branch could have easily wiped out some nearby bird feeders, but didn’t. I moved on to survey the flood-toppled Elm.
The roots of this Slippery Elm were actually still in the ground, but you can’t pull upright a 60-foot tree, so Wonder Spouse sawed it into bits this past weekend. That task was made more challenging by the vigorous growth of massive poison ivy vines circling the trunk from its base to its top. Seriously, about half of the leaves at the lower end that you see here are actually leaves of poison ivy. Yikes!
To the right of the trunk is our Poinsettia Tree (Pinckneya pubens). We were very lucky that the Elm fell beside — and not on top of — this little native tree. It is blooming now, but not as much as it has in previous years. I think perhaps the dense growth of poison ivy on the adjacent Elm was inhibiting flower formation. Now that the Elm is gone, this little tree has much less competition for light. I’m hoping it will respond next year with many more flowers — a win to compensate for the lost Elm.
An aging, large Red Maple grows at the edge of the swamp where Atamasco lilies, Jack-in-the-pulpits, and Cinnamon Ferns flourish. It has been looking less vigorous for a few years now, and the strong winds took advantage of this, ripping off several sizable branches.
These branches didn’t crush anything of significance, and they’re not in the way. We’ll get to them when the mud becomes a bit less squishy.
The worst damage was on the north side of the yard, where a large Tulip Poplar and an even larger Sweet Gum lost several branches about twenty feet long. We think the Tulip Poplar was vulnerable because it had recently absorbed a great deal of water from the previous week’s rains, and because every branch was weighed down by heavy conical seed heads. The extra weight and 50+ mph winds were just too much for the Tulip Poplar.
One branch fell on top of our native Fringe Tree. The tree didn’t break, but one of its branches appeared to be permanently contorted, so Wonder Spouse removed it. We’re hoping the rest of the tree will recover.
Also on the north side, our 90-foot, double-boled Sweet Gum lost a few branches, one of which fell partially on a lovely blooming native hydrangea:
The leaves and bits of branches strewn everywhere made for interesting discoveries, such as the contrast between these Tulip Poplar leaves plastered by rain to our front deck:
Close examination of any deciduous tree in my area will reveal enormous leaves on the lower branches of large trees, while leaves higher up are much smaller. The big ones down low are shade leaves, so-called because they dwell in near-constant shade, while the small ones higher up receive direct sun. To compensate for reduced light, shade leaves increase their surface area, thereby maximizing their ability to capture sunlight for photosynthesis.
The rains and winds have definitely created more unexpected work for me and Wonder Spouse, but the up side to abundant water is visible everywhere I turn. I’ll close with a few examples of current wins.
I was beginning to think we were going to have another winter like last winter, which was no winter at all. Finally, last Friday, the Arctic Express, as the weather seers call the Canadian air delivery mechanism, chugged into North Carolina.
What began as cold rain morphed by nightfall into water-laden snowflakes. The ground was so warm from the 70-degree weather preceding this event that we knew the snow wouldn’t survive long, prompting Wonder Spouse to set out with his camera as soon as it was light enough for photo-documentation. We got about an inch, but by the time the above photo was taken, about a half-inch on the ground had already disappeared.
As I had described previously, my flowering apricots began blooming about a month ago. The snow arrived just as they approached peak bloom. It will mar open flowers, but the buds still tightly closed might live to bloom another day — maybe. Here’s a close-up of the snow on Peggy Clarke:
Snow does a fabulous job of highlighting the cascading branches of the January Jasmine I wrote about here.
But like the flowering apricots, snow-on-petal contact does damage open flowers. Unopened buds should likely be fine.
Evergreen plants don’t enjoy heavy, wet snow. The Florida Anise-trees seem especially prone to collapsing under the weight of even such a light snow event:
Snow does a wonderful job of accentuating the shapes of bare tree branches. Weeping and cascading forms look especially lovely. Our Chinese Redbud demonstrates what snow can do for a plant:
This was an ideal snow event — small amounts on warm ground, thereby minimizing road hazards and cabin fever duration. However, it seems that once the gate to the Arctic Express is opened, closing it may prove somewhat difficult. Here in the central Piedmont region of North Carolina, we are in for the first bitter cold week we’ve had in almost two years. And now the weather seers are threatening us with a sleet event for this coming Friday.
Unlike snow, sleet is never good for a garden. Its weight is too much for branches almost immediately, and if the temperature line dances between sleet and freezing rain, ice cocoons everything. Branches break, power outages abound, winter earns its reputation as least-favored season.
But if the ice comes, we gardeners will deal with it, as we do with every challenge thrown at our plant charges. And if I end up huddled with Wonder Spouse in a chilly, dark house, I will try to focus on the benefits of the cold outbreak: fewer spring ticks, mosquitoes, and garden diseases.
Spring’s sure arrival will seem all the sweeter after winter’s cold embrace.
When the alarm woke me this morning, I was dreaming of snow. Not the fluffy cotton candy variety. This was moisture-laden snow; the kind that weighs down branches to the ground, that makes killer snowballs and giant snow people.
It was glowing across the landscape in the light of a full moon, reflecting that orb’s light so brightly that night navigation sans flashlight would have been no problem. I remember my dream self saying, “When the sun rises, this will melt quickly, seeping down to thirsty roots, replenishing the water table. Then I woke up.
The unrelenting heat and drought has me feeling like this poor bedraggled Eastern Tiger Swallowtail:
Despite its shredded wings, this beauty was flitting between lantana clusters, drinking deeply in the noon-day sun today. I am trying to be inspired by its determination.
In fact, many of the plants in my yard and gardens continue to bloom despite the near total absence of soil moisture and a searing sun that fades flowers mere hours after opening. Look how wonderful the Chinese Pearl-Bloom Tree (Poliothyrsis sinensis) looks despite our hellish weather:
A less tattered Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is managing to find nectar inside this tree’s tiny flowers:
Coneflowers were made for this heat. I so admire their stamina:
And my well-mulched, barely watered ornamental sunflower mix, ‘Sun Samba,’ continues to wow me with every new bloom that opens. Check out this one:
Although it’s true that our temperatures have backed off from the 105-degree range to the upper 90s, the stagnant, humid air mass (code orange air quality) and snubs by nearby rain clouds mean my yard is suffering bigtime. I confess it’s beginning to drag me down a bit.
This kind of weather always challenges my spirits. It’s hard for me to watch the plants and animals in my yard suffer as they seek water, food, and shade. Some years back — at least a decade ago — I wrote a poem about how this kind of weather affects me. I thought I’d share it with all of my readers who are also suffering through the current heat wave.
The summer swelters are here.
Days that make me want to burrow
deep into the earth, praying hard
for the wet blessing of a rain drop.
Trees droop their shoulders,
leaves limp as fingers dangling
but the dragonflies gliding
through the thick warm soup
that once was air.
Hard to breathe.
Hard to care.
Caught in the doldrums,
I take baby breaths,
and dream of the quiet chatter of sleet
as it hits a tin roof.
Don’t. Seriously, don’t try to do any gardening when it’s as hot as it is in my part of North Carolina right now. We are predicted to see — and feel — a string of at least five days with highs hovering around 104 or so; humid nights may drop into the upper 70s if we’re lucky. No rain, of course, barring the iceberg’s chance in Hades of a random thunderstorm.
I chose the photo above, because the warm colors of the Cosmos flowers provide at least a faint reflection of the sun’s intensity. They have turned out to be lovely little annuals; I hope they survive the heat wave.
Several visitors to my blog have lately found their way here by searching on how to garden in this heat. My advice follows.
- Seriously, don’t try to do anything significant when it’s this hot. That means, no weeding or planting. Don’t do anything that will disturb the soil, because such disturbances will release soil moisture into the air and harm roots of plants you’re trying to help.
- Do all your watering and harvesting before 7:00 a.m. If this means you must get up an hour early, so be it. Plants will best be able to withstand handling from picking before the sun reaches full power. Watering just after dawn gives the plants time to absorb the moisture before the searing sun compounds the stress they’re under. Watering late in the day in this heat and humidity increases opportunities for fungal diseases and visits by snails and slugs. Water in the early morning, period.
- Water plants deeply and not every day. Although it’s labor-intensive, the best way to water during heat waves is by hand. You take the end of the hose, position it at the base of a plant, and add water until the ground stops absorbing it. That’s the ideal. If you are like me and water is a limited resource, time the amount of water each plant gets, and give the most water-sensitive plants more water than the tougher plants. In my garden, squashes and beans need more water than tomatoes and peppers, and peppers need less than the tomatoes. My remaining squashes (I’m down to four now) get 1.5 minutes of water; beans get 2 minutes; tomatoes are surviving on 1 minute; peppers have been getting 30 seconds of water every other day.
- Don’t overwater. Now that the heat wave is fully here, I plan on cutting back watering to every third day. In this kind of heat, vegetables go into a holding pattern as they fight to simply survive. Tomato flowers and other veggie flowers don’t set fruit when daytime temperatures exceed 90 degrees. Fruits won’t expand much beyond their current sizes; the plants just don’t have the resources to grow.
- Be proactive about harvesting. Fruits that reached a mature size before the heat set in will continue to ripen if the plants can hang on. It’s important to pick the fruits as they are ready to reduce the likelihood of fungal diseases and insect invasions. By harvesting just after dawn, you minimize stress on plants, and maximize the viability and nutritional value of the fruit.
If you didn’t mulch your vegetable garden, you are going to have a hard time keeping your plants alive. Old-fashioned row gardening, in which you hoe the weeds between rows, may have been how your grandmother did it, but it is not good for the soil, your plants, or your back. With the increasingly erratic weather patterns we now experience, and especially because those patterns tend to extremes like drought, heat waves, and floods (if you’re in Florida), the best way to ensure a productive garden is by using raised beds with mulched plants.
Mulching plants is hard work, I admit. But it is spring gardening work, when our weather is still bearable. The best mulch for a vegetable garden is last fall’s leaves. If you have a big yard full of trees like me, you can simply rake and save your own leaves. But if you live inside a city and have a smaller lot, every city I know of in my area collects leaves in the fall. In the spring, citizens can go get as many loads of composted leaves as they can carry, sometimes for a small fee, sometimes for free. When Wonder Spouse and I lived in Raleigh some 30 years ago, that city would deliver an entire dump truck load of leaves to your door — for free!
Gardening is always an act of faith, and sometimes, despite doing everything right, weather disasters happen, plants mysteriously die, a herd of rampaging deer storms and shreds your garden. You can never be sure that your hard work will pay off.
That unpredictability is part of why I remain an engaged, obsessed gardener after over 40 years of bumper crops and total losses, exquisite flowers and slimy slugs. I cherish the beauty intrinsic to the natural world all the more because I know it is fleeting.
Mother Nature is a temperamental teacher, and she does not tolerate fools. During this southeastern US heat wave, stay indoors where it’s cool, stay hydrated, and complete your essential garden tasks by dawn’s early light.
Rain dancing — although optional — is highly recommended.
Ornamental Care in the Heat
I’m adding this addendum to yesterday’s post, because I can see from the searches hitting my blog that folks are frantically trying to figure out how to keep their ornamentals alive. Here’s my quick-and-dirty advice.
If you are a lawn lover, don’t mow yours until the heat wave breaks. If that means it’s a little shaggy in spots, that’s still better than exposing freshly cut grass to the searing heat we’re getting. Stick to your regular watering schedule if your lawn is accustomed to supplemental water.
If you planted trees, shrubs, or perennials this spring, they will need supplemental water during the heat wave, if the ground around them is dry. Our clay soils hold water a surprisingly long time. Stick your fingers below the mulch layer to assess the moisture content of the ground around the plant. If you didn’t mulch these newbies, do so as soon as you can. Without mulch, they don’t have much hope of surviving.
If your new ornamentals are planted in full sun, they will wilt in the mid-day heat no matter how well-watered they are. This is an adaptive mechanism of the plants. If they have healthy, moist root systems, they will perk up when the sun goes off them. If your new plants aren’t adapted to full sun but they are getting a lot of sun, try improvising some shade for them somehow. It might improve their survival chances.
Don’t fertilize any plant during a heat wave. The roots will be damaged. Don’t spray any plant during a heat wave. You will do the leaves more harm than good. Your goal is to minimize the stress they are under by protecting them from the sun if you can, and by watering deeply once a week to encourage deep root growth. Shallow roots arise when plants are watered frequently for short periods. Such root systems are much more easily damaged during heat waves/droughts.
Good luck, folks!
Oh sure, the garden is thriving right this second. But I see Big Trouble heading this way like a runaway freight train. I’m talking about the 100+ degree heat wave promised for my area in two short days. Right now, the weather seers are calling for at least four days in a row with highs over the 100-degree mark, and five days in a row could easily happen.
I wouldn’t be so worried, if I had gotten the rainfall that so many folks in my region have been blessed with lately. But I didn’t; not even close. Take last night, for instance. A cold front uncharacteristically strong for this time of year blasted through, bringing a line of thunderstorms to just about every yard but mine. I’m really trying not to take the rain snubs personally, but it’s getting harder and harder.
Absolutely no rain is in the forecast during the heat wave. Only the slightest of chances are hinted at for a WEEK FROM NOW! That means my already-too-dry soil is going to be baked by a merciless summer sun without any respite except what I can provide with my hose.
I water my vegetable garden from a shallow well that draws from a perched water table overlaying my floodplain. It is not doing well; neither is the adjacent creek. Neither are the oak trees nearby; they are dropping young acorns by the hundreds in an attempt to reduce their water consumption. I am not sure how much longer I’ll be able to water my vegetables.
Trees that produce fruit early in the season have been more successful than the oaks. For example, my Florida Anise-trees bloomed prolifically this year, and their fruit set has never been so significant. When the seeds inside the fruits ripen, I’m going to carry them down to the floodplain and spread them around to see if new trees will appear next year.
I spent an hour in the uncharacteristically cool morning air thoroughly watering all the veggies. I’m hoping the good dose of water while it’s cool will allow the roots to maximize their use of the water, rather than lose it all to evaporation. I’m hoping this will fortify the plants against the imminent heat wave. I’ll water again in two days, next time at dawn so I don’t melt — if the well holds out.
Every summer now I go through this agony, wondering how long the well will hold out. Will there be enough so that the tomatoes — just beginning to ripen in numbers — can be harvested? Will the peppers have time to ripen? How long will the beans keep producing? When will the bugs overpower heat-weakened squash plants?
My yard has been in a drought for so many years now that I do not remember the last time my creek ran all summer long, when muddy spots on the floodplain would sink tractor tires during mowing, when summer nights were often accompanied by lightning flashes and pounding rain on the roof.
I know the poor folks in Florida are drowning in Tropical Storm Debby’s rains right now. How wonderful it would be if I could wish those clouds here. Five inches? No problem; that’s what floodplains are for. Piedmont topography and soils are better able to handle such amounts.
By this time next week, I expect to be hunkered down in a darkened house as I hide from searing sun and dream, dream, dream of rain.
Last Sunday night, a cold rain morphed into brief snow, just as the weather seers predicted. It began melting as soon as it stopped, so Wonder Spouse ran out with a ruler to document it: right at an inch — for about 15 minutes.
The next morning after the sun rose, I grabbed a few photos of the yard before the white stuff from our twenty-four-hour bout of winter vanished. In the above photo, those are chives that I grew from seed last year. They had already begun putting out vigorous new growth, and they are laughing at this bit of snow — probably enjoying the added moisture.
I told you about the onions I planted here. This is what they looked like yesterday morning:
You can barely see them poking through the snow, but they’re there, and they are just fine. Ditto for the skinny ones I planted on either side of the sugar snap pea trellis:
I am hoping the peas will emerge later this week during the bout of predicted 70-degree weather.
The rain that preceded the snow coated many of the trees and shrubs, and that water briefly froze as the snow fell, creating thin ice encasements for some branches and buds. But, again, it didn’t last long enough to hurt anything. Instead, the ice added to their aesthetic appeal, as you can see here:
Alas, the weather forecasters were correct when they backed off on their precipitation quantity predictions. All told, our rain gauge reported a mere 0.75 of an inch. Not enough to begin to quench the rising thirst of wakening vegetation. If the rains don’t come soon, it will be a very depressing growing season indeed.