Drought has direct impact on gardeners

By Tom Seymour | Sep 24, 2020
Photo by: Tom Seymour Dry conditions made for smaller carrots.

Midcoast Maine is in the throes of a prolonged drought, the effects of which have greatly impacted our crops.

What amazes me is how quickly drought conditions can develop. Last spring was cold and rainy and water levels were at normal levels and in some cases, fairly high levels. But long stretches without rain turned what was a satisfactory situation into a very concerning one.

Water, without which life cannot exist (excluding some microscopic life forms), is a necessary ingredient for plant life, as important as sunlight. Plants can withstand shade for quite some time, but water causes the root ends to retract and for the plants, everything from bean plants to oak trees, to go into standby mode.

Of course, we can always water our crops, but when drought conditions prevail, using well water for crops may not be advisable. Drawing down water in wells to a precarious level can open the doorway for bacterial growth and poor water quality.

Containers Help

In recent years, I have become to rely upon container gardens more and more. More exactly, I use EarthBox products. I’ve written about these before. They have a bottom reservoir for water, over which a screen holds potting soil. As long as these are watered regularly, they don’t take an awful lot of water.

Compare that to the amount of water it takes to completely soak an in-ground garden.

This summer’s drought compelled me to stop watering my in-ground vegetables. My crops slowly died and I had no choice but to put the beds to sleep, far earlier than anticipated.

So I was left with my EarthBox stuff, which did quite well. Thank goodness for the EarthBox.

Don’t Transplant

Fall is usually a good time to transplant shrubs and other perennial plants. That’s because of cool temperatures and damp soil. But this year, our soil is anything but damp. It is dry, as in dry like a desert.

The amount of water needed in order to successfully transplant a shrub or perennial at this time is staggering. Consider this. The dry soil acts like a sponge, so when you finally succeed in getting the soil around the planting hole dry, surrounding soil, still dry, wicks the water away in short order.

I would suggest that anyone transplanting anything right now plan on using at least twice the amount of water than would normally be required. And that may be a low estimate.

Digging a plant from the parched ground can cause undue stress. The plant, no matter what it is, has hunkered down for the duration. Disturbing the roots now can set it back even further. So if it isn’t absolutely necessary, don’t transplant anything until the much-anticipated fall rains end the drought. And if the rains don’t come, then we are all in a whole lot of trouble.

Mulch Invaluable

Those who have mulched their gardens have far less to worry about than those who have not. Of course it is impractical to mulch large plots, but for the home gardener with manageable sized beds, mulching is something to consider.

It’s too late now to bother mulching, since a killing frost may hit us any day. But for next year, mulching might stand as a good option.

If you have never applied mulch, remember that loose, dry mulch cannot accomplish its goal of shading the soil to keep it cool and conserving water. A heavier mulch such as compost or even shredded leaves will work.

Seaweed makes a good mulch, but not everyone has access to the shore. Wheat straw works well, as long as it is wetted after being applied. Straw will eventually compact to some degree, which helps to conserve moisture. The reason for straw, as opposed to cheaper hay, is that hay contains all manner of weed seeds and straw does not.

Lawns Too

In addition to making life difficult for gardeners, drought has a negative effect upon our lawns too. Brown patches, resulting from a lack of moisture, appear and become more pronounced as time passes.

About the only thing we can do about this is to re-seed, but even that requires a significant amount of water in order for the seed to germinate and the grass itself to thrive.

However, it is possible to simply spread grass seed, tamp it down and let it sit untended until moist conditions return. To illustrate this, you can throw grass seed on the snow and come spring, the seed will germinate.

If there is any saving grace to all this, at least we don’t need to mow our lawns as frequently.

So hang in there. Better conditions will return. That’s just nature’s way.

Tom Seymour is a homeowner, gardener, forager, naturalist, Registered Maine Guide, amateur astronomer, magazine and newspaper columnist and book author.

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