Whew! That was a bizarre summer!
After a typical summer here in southern Wisconsin, I feel refreshed and renewed. Maybe not always ready for fall, because our summers are usually pleasant and carefree. But this wasn't a typical summer.
So I feel robbed of my favorite season. I spent a good portion of it away from the garden in air-conditioned buildings—at work and at home.
Again, I can't say I'm looking forward to fall because that means winter isn't far behind. But I am tired of hauling around hoses and watering cans to hydrate rain-deprived plants. As I write this, the remnants of Hurricane Isaac are skirting just to the south of us. (The sunset last night was incredible.) But no rain again, until next week.
Before this becomes a sob story (and that certainly is not my intention—especially when some folks are still in extreme drought and others are flooded), it's time to share my lessons learned for the summer passing by my rear-view mirror. Because of the drought, I'm dividing my lessons learned into three categories: what I learned unrelated to the drought, what I already knew but witnessed firsthand, and what I learned from the drought.
• Honey Locust leaves are a poor choice for mulching my vegetable garden—at least the way I applied them. I dumped a layer of them on the garden in late fall last year, thinking they would slowly break down and form a perfect mulch. Either the layer was too deep, the nutrients aren't right for veggies, or some other factor just wasn't quite right (see later point about rainwater). I won't use them again this fall. Instead I'll stick with my old reliable Marsh Hay.
• Hyacinth Bean vine is perfect for my arbor. But I need to start seedlings inside and plant in late May, or get the seeds into the ground in mid-May. (See my previous post for more on my new favorite plant.)
• Wisteria needs plenty of water if you want to encourage vigorous growth. Somewhere along the way I read that you shouldn't pamper Wisteria, and to avoid fertilizing and watering. But I've since learned that advice applies only if you're encouraging blooms. A side benefit of watering my Hyacinth Bean vines is that the Wisteria made more progress this year. (Duh. I feel kind of embarrassed about this lesson.)
Things I knew but witnessed firsthand:
• Plants need lots of water—especially when it's really hot. Obvious, right? Most plants do quite well in temperatures from about 40F to 120F...if they have water. During a normal summer, my garden hits a near-perfect equilibrium—highs in the 80s, lots of sunshine, and rain every few days—a pattern that repeats from late May through September. This year, we broke heat records in the high 90s and 100s. That would have been fine for the plants if they'd had rain. But we had none for about eight weeks straight. That's an unfortunate science experiment played out on a large scale. I'm amazed the community didn't lose more plants and trees.
• If grass is healthy before a drought, you can neglect it and focus on saving plants and trees. If grass is struggling before a drought, plan to re-seed or re-sod after the drought. Guess what I'm doing this fall to a few patches on my lawn?
• Native perennials hold up well or go dormant, even during extreme drought. In my garden, Echinacea and Rudbeckia were troopers (although I did water them along with the rest of my small sun-garden plot). Mayapples, Jack-in-the-Pulpits, and the native Ferns—which usually stick around for most of the summer—disappeared from the landscape. But I expect to see them back again next spring.
• Vegetables prefer rainwater and nitrogen bursts from lightening. I watered my small "kitchen" garden at least every few days throughout the drought. Most of the flowers were fine with water from the hose, compost, and natural soil amendments. But the vegetables struggled. I don't have the best conditions for veggies to start with—a small strip of soil on the west side of the house that gets afternoon sun. And then the lack of rain and lightening really stunted them.
• Stay ahead of the drought. When you haven't had rain for a week and there's no rain in the extended forecast, start a metered plan of watering annuals and perennials every few days. Give them a good soaking and then let them dry a bit so the roots won't be too shallow or rot. If you wait too long for that first soaking, or too long between waterings, it might be too late. This almost happened to me after coming home from a week-long vacation to find a new Hellebore and a small Hydrangea flattened and nearly lifeless.
• Hydrangeas won't survive a drought unless you water them—a lot. Enough said.
Lessons learned from the drought:
• Don't worry about Cotoneaster, Pachysandra, Daucus carota (Queen Anne's Lace), or Cichorium intybus (Chicory). I didn't water my Cotoneaster, barely watered the Pachysandra, and watched the other two plants take over dried-up lawns, fields, and roadsides around the county. All are non-natives. The Cotoneaster is a noninvasive landscape plant. The merits of the other three are debatable. But they all thrive in extremely hot, dry conditions.
• Hostas in the shade are drought-tolerant; those in the sun fry during a drought. Most of my garden Hostas showed little sign of stress, even after weeks without rain. Some never even felt a drop from a garden hose. But several in the sun—in my garden and others—curled up and turned brown.
• Try the IV-drip method of sustaining young trees. While even established, large trees feel the effects of extreme drought, young, recently planted trees don't stand a chance. "Gator bags," which slowly release water around the base of a tree, started cropping up around town in mid-July. I didn't try them myself because I don't have any new trees. But reports by meteorologists, homeowners, and garden centers extolled the virtues of this technique.
• Squirrels and chipmunks heat-dump when they're hot and tired. Unfortunately, I took this photo through a window so there's a glare. But heat-dumping is a sight I'd never seen before. I thought the poor guy was sick. Apparently, it happens more often when the little critters are busy gathering nuts during a hot day. Heat-dumping helps them release heat from their bodies to cool down.
• Feed plants Epsom salts and Sea Kelp to boost their drought-tolerance. I learned this trick from Tammy at Casa Mariposa. I have to admit I didn't start the Epsom salts until about a week before we got our first summer rain shower in mid-July. But they seem to have helped several plants perk up and thrive after application. I didn't use Sea Kelp this year, but I have in the past. In addition to boosting drought-tolerance, it provides beneficial nutrients to plants even in a normal growing season. Note to self: Invest in Epsom salts and Sea Kelp next spring. Thanks, Tammy!
And finally, I learned that fellow garden bloggers will support and encourage you during a drought. I guess this isn't a surprise, but I actually experienced it for the first time this summer. Thanks, guys!
Please join in this "Lessons Learned" meme by clicking here or on the tab at the top of the page, or just share your link in the comments. I know you all have many lessons to share from this crazy season. Even links to past posts about your techniques, joys, and challenges are welcome.
To gardeners in the Southern Hemisphere: Happy spring!
This meme will be active until the equinox, when I'll post a wrap-up.
Please also join my friend, Donna, at Gardens Eye View for Seasonal Celebrations!