September 01, 2012

Garden lessons learned: summer 2012


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.


Lessons unrelated to 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!

55 comments:

  1. I might just try that "heat dumping" one of these days! Ha :-) I'd probably just end up with chigger bites in unmentionable places and still be hot! Glad you survived your hot, dry summer. It is good to have these times so that we can learn how to make our gardens better.

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    1. Tee hee, yes I was thinking the same thing. I guess it's kind of like planking, which was all the rage a couple of years ago. ;-) To me it makes more sense to spray myself with water, sit by a pool, or go into the cool house. But then, I can. And I don't have to dart around the woods gathering nuts for the winter!

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  2. I'm so glad the Epsom salts work! I buy a bag/box at the grocery store every year for the garden. I really hope all the drought stricken areas have wet winters to help fill their aquifers. I've never seen a squirrel heat dump but my dogs do it on our tile kitchen floor. :o)

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    1. Yes, thanks so much, Tammy! With all the things I've learned this summer, I'm hoping I'll have a healthier, lusher garden next summer. I hate to wish for snow, but we're going to need it. Sounds like your dogs have the right idea!

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  3. Great post! Lots I can identify with, including how tiring it is keeping a garden alive during a hot, dry summer. I learned many similar lessons during NC's drought of 2007-2008. The most pleasant surprise was that most native perennials that seemed to die during the drought just went dormant and came back the next year. And forget about hydrangeas in hot, dry conditions... That is fascinating about the squirrels and heat dumping. I've seen birds appear to bask in the sun, spreading their feathers. I wonder if they're doing it for similar reasons or they really are enjoying the sun, as I've assumed?

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    1. Thanks, Sheila. I wish we didn't have to learn these lessons, but maybe they help us prepare even for normal gardening seasons. I've seen birds do that, too. I always figured they were taking advantage of the sun to dry their feathers, but maybe as you say they're heat-dumping, too.

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  4. I raised a squirrel before..their little hearts beat like crazy they have a high metabolism

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    1. Sharon: They seems pretty frenetic, so I'm not surprised their heartbeats and metabolisms are fast/high. Before I got to the window, there were two of them stretched out on the table. One left, and then I thought I'd better snap the photo and not risk running outside to get it.

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  5. So many lessons learned related to your dry summer! From over here in London the only thing I can say is that I agree we have had a bizarre summer…the wettest June, July and August on record (more than 100 years), so my lessons are very different this year. And I have also felt the support and encouragement from fellow garden bloggers this summer, it has been heart warming and touching. Let’s hope for a ‘normal’ autumn for us all!

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    1. Yes, Helene, that would be wonderful if we both had comfortable, "normal" autumns. I still can't get over the fact that we're experience extreme opposite conditions this summer.

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  6. Vines seem to be hard hit this year lacking water. I noticed far less bloom than other years. And I noticed more squirrels prostrate on my block walls. I guess that was cooler for them. My husband raised squirrels too like Sharon. They were a little overly friendly and would jump on people entering the garden (at his mom's house).

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    1. Yeah, it seems like most plants struggled this year. That must have been fun to actually raise squirrels! Although, I have to say even the "wild" ones are pretty tame around here. When I walked out in the garden this morning, one of them scampered up to within four feet of me to grab some acorns. And he didn't seem fazed at all that I was there!

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  7. Good post. Love the picture of the squirrel. On Hydrangeas, the last time we had a drought I had one that I never watered and it died down to the ground - then came back the next year. I think they are hard to kill.

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    1. Thank, Jason! Good to know about the Hydrangeas. I won't worry about them so much in the future. But they sure are sorry-looking when they wilt!

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  8. I've learned a lot, made some notes, and will bookmark this post for next spring. Droughts are not fun, for us, for the plants, or the animals...but thankfully we are through it soon.

    Jen @ Muddy Boot Dreams

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    1. Thanks for your kind words, Jen. Yes, as soon as we get our next rain (hopefully today and tomorrow) the temps are forecasted to cool down again. That is always a relief!

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  9. Heat-dumping was a new term to me, but I think I did a lot of that this summer, too, especially when our A/C went out:)

    I think we all learned many lessons from the drought this summer; the trick of using Epsom salts and Sea Kelp was a new one to me that I'll have to remember. Yes, garden bloggers have been so supportive; so many of us were in the same boat this summer that it helped to have a sympathetic audience to commiserate with.

    I'll be joining in this meme sometime before the equinox!

    Also, Beth, I don't know if you ever saw my reply to your question about the 'Zowie Yellow Flame' zinnias I've shown several times. You asked about height--they're shorter, about 18-24 inches tall. I did cut one stem for a small bouquet, and it lasted longer than any of the other zinnias I brought in. I definitely think they would be great blooms to cut for bouquets.

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    1. Good to know about the Zinnias--thanks, Rose! They are such sturdy, colorful plants! I guess I've experienced "droughts" before, but this was by far the worst I've ever seen. I never thought I'd wish for lots of snow, but we're going to need it this year. Ugh. I'm glad you're joining in the meme!

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  10. Hi Beth, I just linked to your post :)

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  11. I'll be joining in next Monday...I learned a lot but I fear my young trees and hydrangeas will not fair well next year even watering daily..we shall see...veggies need lightning? ...now I know what happened this year. Great post Beth!

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    1. Thanks, Donna! My next post will be Seasonal Celebrations! I'm worried about the fate of trees, shrubs, and plants during the next few months. They're all stressed, and winter isn't far off. :( Regarding the lightening: I was reading a few articles today that describe how lightening "fixes" the nitrogen in the air so it's usable for the plants. I've always noticed how my veggie garden seems to leap after a lightening storm!

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  12. Great post and interesting to see how things compare over here in Seattle. I can say that heat dumping looks about the same. Or at least my old dog has it down as a refined art!
    One perennial I have found to be truly drought tolerant here is Gaura. Might be worth considering if it's hardy in your soil and zone.

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    1. Thanks, Karen! Several others mentioned their dogs heat-dump, too. I guess my cats do it as well, but lying prone on the couch is their default activity so it doesn't seem as odd for them. :) I'll look into Gaura: I noticed several other bloggers recommend it, too. Thanks!

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  13. Thanks for a great post which will remind every gardener who reads it to learn from the positives and negatives - and posting it publically is a good way to help you remember to do something about it! Also interesting from here in the UK to hear about YOUR weather and the gardening dilemmas it generates!

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    1. Thanks! Yes, you folks seem to have had the opposite problem this summer. And this will definitely help me to remember and to hopefully have a healthier garden next year.

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  14. Well! It is good you sum it all up. It is indeed great to learn a lot. Great blog indeed. I enjoyed learning from you. Thanks!

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    1. Thank you, Loren. I just checked out your website--a very impressive selection of garden sheds and other equipment!

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  15. An extremely useful post Beth and especially the tip about Epsom salts. Thought the squirrel had had a dose of it and certainly looks like he's flaking in the heat. A far from ideal summer both sides of the Atlantic - the opposite weather here which was ideal for for hostas and hydrangeas but not the drought tolerant plants we've been encouraged to grow based on climate change predictions!

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    1. Thank you, Laura. I agree--it's hard to know what plants to go with when they predict drought and then you get a season-long soaking like you did. I'm not planning to change things up too much, but I won't be planting anymore Hydrangeas. I can handle two near the house, though, because they are so lovely!

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  16. Your lessons learnt are information gained for me. The squirrel look so fatigue or is he sunbathing?

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    1. Hi Autumn Belle: I thought the little squirrel was sick. He didn't look too well. Actually, two of them were stretched out on the picnic table. But then he popped back up in a minute and seemed fine. And then my son and I did some research on the behavior and discovered it's somewhat common during hot weather.

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  17. I am here in the nw, and we havent had rain for about two months....the lawns are done...but the garden gets water every two days. (every day if its gonna be over 80) Thanks for all the tips that you learned. what a good way of keeping track...I've just posted my top performers from my garden. But the things you've learned is a good idea:) thanks for sharing.

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    1. My husband was just out in Washington state and he said the plants and lawns were dry. Things aren't as bad here as they were, but June and July were scary hot and dry. Thanks, Candice, for your comment and kind words.

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  18. Some wonderful and important lessons here, Beth. I echo many of your sentiments concerning this summer. It has not been as pleasant for me as in previous years either. We are getting some rain now, but it has been a very dry summer. And I have had to work very hard to keep the garden healthy, with a few losses here and there. Thank you for the personal invitation to join in your wonderful meme. I would not miss it! I will prepare something this week and join in. I wish you lots of rain...soon!!!

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    1. Thanks, Michelle! We're getting a wonderful rainstorm tonight! It's such a wonderful feeling each time after the hot, dry summer. I'll look forward to your post, and thanks for joining in!

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  19. So sad you had to learn so many lessons about drought. It is stressful for the garden, the gardener, and all the animals in the garden, too. I hope you start getting rains soon. It's amazing the difference a rain will make vs. watering from a hose!

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    1. Big thunderstorm tonight! Yippee! As long as there isn't too much damage--every rainstorm helps. The worst part of the drought was in July, but since we were running a deficit, we really need to catch up. Thanks for your kind thoughts, Holley!

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  20. Interesting observations. How much nitrogen is provided to plants during a lightening storm? Just wondering.

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    1. Apparently most nitrogen gets to plants via microorganisms (and of course fertilizers), but lightening is a contributor, too. I always notice my plants leap after a good rip-roaring lightening storm. Here are some good articles on the topic: http://1.usa.gov/4wQiy http://bit.ly/lxGts http://bit.ly/Oc8PUC

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  21. I SO hear you!!! We've experienced the same conditions in Colorado as you describe there. 70+ days above 90 degrees when we usually only have 30. Combined with zero rain, it's been challenging. I'm ready for some relief from the 90's too but not for fall & winter! So funny you said you feel cheated ~ I think that too. I spent a lot of time viewing the garden from behind glass which I hardly ever do. I hope we get a nice fall to make up for it but I know I can't "count" on it!!!
    You learned some good lessons ~ it seems Mother Nature is forcing us to learn those whether we like it or not. Happy September!

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    1. Frustrating, huh? I'm excited though, that the heat wave broke again. Hope it breaks soon for you too. Wishing you a spectacular, comfortable autumn, Kathleen!

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  22. Great post. I tried growing vegetables in pots this summer because the deer ate what was in the vegetable garden. Bad idea for this summer because the hot, hot weather really stressed the plants in the pots. I replanted them in the garden and they are doing much better though my harvest is minimal.

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    1. Thanks, Mary. Same story here with the vegetables. I don't know whether to blame the drought, the mulch, or some other variable. But I hope to have at least a few Tomatoes and Cucumbers!

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  23. Great information. I have to second your description about hydrangeas. Mine have really been struggling. I've also come to appreciate rain. Hope the recent moisture is a sign of things to come!

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    1. Thanks, Karen and thanks for joining in with your link. Today we had a gentle, misty rain all day--it was wonderful. I'm starting to feel a little more relaxed and hoping we're truly turning the corner on the drought.

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  24. I can certainly use some of your thoughts! Thank you! The picture of the squirrel is priceless. And now, thanks to you, I will get several containers of water and drive to one foreclosed house not far from us to water one miserable hydrangea. It's dry, and nobody takes care of it... Thanks again!

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    1. Yeah, that squirrel seemed almost human-like--grabbing the edge of the picnic table. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry for him. Poor thing was working so hard. That's so kind of you to take care of the neglected Hydrangea. :)

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  25. Great post. I am a bit late to the party but I found it very interesting. I knew that you could spray Epsom salts on vegetable blossoms to help them withstand the heat (I have never done that) but intend to keep the salts and the kelp on hand for next summer. How do you apply them?

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    1. Thanks, Ruth. You're not late--the meme runs through the equinox. Here's how TS at Casa Mariposa suggested using Kelp and Epsom salts: "Add 1/4 cup Epsom salts for every gallon of water along with several big glugs of liquid Kelp. Drench the soil every two weeks." I actually used dried Kelp and Epsom salts directly from the box and sprinkled them around the base of the plants. It has helped my Tomatoes, which are extremely late but are producing now.

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  26. Here is my contribution to Lessons Learned, Beth. Thank you for hosting this wonderful meme.

    http://www.thesagebutterfly.blogspot.com/2012/09/seasonally-thinking.html

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    1. Thanks, Michelle, for joining in with your beautiful post!

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  27. Just posted my thoughts on what I learned this season. Thanks for hosting this, Beth; it's always fun to look back at the past season, even such a challenging one as this summer.

    http://www.prairierosesgarden.blogspot.com/2012/09/garden-lessons-learned-summer-2012.html

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    1. Rose, this is an excellent entry, as well. Thanks for joining in!

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