drought

dry leaves, drought

Coming to Terms…

This hot, dry summer — and the likelihood of even hotter, drier ones as the climate warms — has forced me to come to terms with the realities of gardening in this place: four big Norway maples on or near my 6,000 square feet; only six millimeters (about 1/4 inch) of rain from mid-June to mid-September; thin, sandy soil into which compost is instantly absorbed.

I’ve lost my inclination to struggle against these facts.

The essence of gardening is creating artificial environments — making plants grow in places they would never exist under natural conditions; tinkering with plants to change their natures; assembling plants into unlikely combinations for aesthetic purposes. That takes cleverness, imagination and energy. Doing what it takes to keep a garden going is the whole point of gardening. A garden is a place in which to dig, plant, weed, prune, edge, trim, water. And, for a few minutes every now and then — admire the results. That’s the payoff (and, of course, edibles in the case of food gardens).

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The trouble for me is that the combination of shade and dry, root-filled soil has made gardening here more of a slog than a pleasure. Those withered August leaves in the featured image perfectly represent the situation.

An obvious solution is to have all or most of the trees removed, but that’s a huge, expensive and disruptive undertaking. Moreover, the trees are inhabited by a myriad of life forms — bugs, birds, squirrels and others. And mature trees take up more carbon than young trees, so cutting them down — even non-native, “junk” trees like Norway maples — isn’t a good thing to do, simply for the rather frivolous reason of growing better perennials.

Another obvious solution is to give up. But I can’t even articulate what that would mean in practical terms, so it’s no solution at all.

No. The only solution is to work with what I have, adjusting my expectations accordingly (sort of like self-publishing, actually). I’ve already identified the plants that tolerate the conditions here. Any that can’t cope have either vanished from the scene or, in the case of must-haves, been moved into pots. Delphiniums, blue poppies and a couple of hostas grow here in pots (or barrels) or not at all. That’s the way it is.

October 2016

Potted Hostas near pond.

Another approach would be to dig up roots, pile on fertilizer and pour on water to counteract the natural tough conditions. But digging in rooty ground is a miserable business, and I already pay enough for water. Besides, the trees would love extra water and fertilizer.

I must accept the conditions as they are and use techniques that work within them to achieve results that meet realistic expectations.

In thirty-five years of gardening, I have learned how to arrange plants in beds and borders, and how to make those beds and borders look good, no matter what they contain. I could make a garden out of utter weeds if I had to — spurge laurel, thistles, dock, brambles and bindweed. “Weed” is only a label.

Some of the plants that do well here, that actually prosper despite the shade and the poor, dry, root-infested soil, are what I consider near-weeds. The two champs are campion (Lychnis coronaria or Silene coronaria) and toadflax (Linaria purpurea). Having worked with them for a couple of decades now, I know how to manage them. Left to themselves, they get seedy and show their inner weediness by midsummer, but deadheaded and cut back at the right times, they are long bloomers that maintain colour in beds that are otherwise a mass of blah by late July.

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Campion

In fact, I’m envisioning a set of posts for next year that will feature these plants and how to grow them well. With pictures showing the different growth stages and effects of deadheading/cutting back.

I recently read something that suggests true gardeners have an insatiable appetite for new plants. They pore over catalogues and nursery websites seeking the latest varieties. Well, I consider myself as much a gardener as anyone, but I don’t buy many plants. Many just can’t take the conditions here, especially since most nursery plants are grown in super-fertile, moisture-retentive growing mediums (or is it “media?”) that are the horticultural equivalent of steroids. Transplanted into my ground, even into spots prepared with hearty digging and added compost, many new specimens either cling to their original clump of super-dirt and slowly dwindle, or go into shock and don’t bother dwindling but die immediately. Any plant I buy now is one I have researched thoroughly and can reasonably expect to do well here. One piece of advice I’ve heard is to wash off the growing medium nursery plants arrive with and plunge them right into the dirt that will be their new home (after reasonable preparation, of course). They have to adapt or die, and if chosen wisely, they will prosper.

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Oriental Hellebore (in March)

 

Another fact I have to live with is that this is a spring garden, not a summer one. From March through May the soil retains moisture from the winter and early spring rains, but from June to late September, water comes from a hose or not at all. Late-blooming herbaceous plants (asters, dahlias, colchicums, autumn crocus) are fairly reliable, but shrubs and trees are not. I once lusted after Franklinia alatamaha, a small tree that produces white camellia-like flowers just as its foliage begins to turn red and orange. I wasn’t able to obtain one, which is just as well, as it’s native to the southeast U.S., where summer rain is not unknown, and it’s generally reputed to be hard to grow. In autumn and winter, my trees may be appreciated as colours and shapes, but forget about fall bloomers here.

Norway Maples

The Norway maples. Imagine the roots!

What about native plants? I planted Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) and snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus). They do well — too well, in fact. I’m always digging out their suckers. I also have some native ferns, camas, barrenwort or inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra), and a patch of salal (Gaultheria shallon). But this was disturbed ground long before I arrived on the scene, so making a garden of native plants alone wasn’t practical. Those Norway maples, remember? And anyway, our native landscape in late August is pretty brown and uninspiring. In spring it’s a different story, of course. So on my patch, natives and aliens have to rub along together.

Today I moved some colchicums to spots where they’ll show up better and add zing to the late summer scene.

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Colchicums, called “autumn crocus” by some, but they’re not crocuses at all.

Asters are starting to bloom.

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Aster frikartii “Monch”

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“Pink Cloud” and “Monch” asters with fading peony foliage and a few Rose Campion flowers.

October 2016

Those asters again.

As long as I can find a thrill in scenes like this as the seasons go by, I’ll keep gardening.

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setting sun through wildfire smoke, maple tree

Strange Days

The south coast of British Columbia is in the middle of a heat wave. High temperatures are in or near the 30s (degrees C; 85 to 100 F), but more than that, easterly winds have brought a haze of smoke from fires in the interior.

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The light has a strange coppery hue. As it rises and sets, the sun is blood red, and the moon is a rich gold colour even when high in the sky. Parts of the garden are on life support delivered by hose and watering can, and some plants are doing peculiar things.

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The foliage of this columbine plant has turned a dark purple, almost black.

Having an afternoon sleep (siesta?) is the thing to do, but on getting up I feel weirdly disconnected. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear chanting from somewhere in the neighbourhood, or to meet a small dragon in the woods. It’s as though some unknown prophecy is manifesting. And in those days the sun was the colour of blood, and fires sprang up, and strange beasts roamed the land…

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All this is fancy, of course. People close to the fire zones, who have been evacuated or lost property to the fires, are living the grim reality.

We’ll all welcome cooler temperatures — and rain.

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Rain Envy

When I hear about devastating floods, as in Louisiana just now, I wish rain could be better distributed around the continent. Especially now, when I have just spent an hour raking leaves. Not yellow and orange autumn leaves, but dead, dry green leaves jettisoned by the Norway maples, along with zillions of maple seeds, as the trees respond to what has become a hot, dry summer.

Norway maple seeds and withered leaf.

Norway maple seeds and withered leaf.

In April and May we had at least three hot spells, with temperatures freakishly above normal for several days. June and July were relatively cool, with just enough rain to stave off a drought, but the last six weeks have been totally dry. I delayed starting my usual summer watering program well into July, hoping to encourage plants to toughen up and send their roots well into the ground. That’s the advice of seasoned gardeners such Beth Chatto, author of The Dry Garden. She claimed never to water once plants were established, but I can’t make myself do that. At first, I limit watering sessions with sprinklers to two hours every two weeks for each area of the garden (noting dates so I can keep the schedule straight). Eventually, though, it becomes clear that this isn’t enough. Either I have to start watering at least weekly or give up and let the plants struggle on as best they can. By late August, most have made as much growth as they’re likely to, and most have finished blooming, so they really don’t need as much water as they do earlier in the season. (That’s what I tell myself, anyway). But parts of the garden look really bad right now. I’m not going to post pictures — too depressing.

One of the joys of gardening is to see the plants one has chosen doing well, growing to their maximum sizes and blooming when they’re supposed to. Participating in the cycle of sprouting, growth, budding, blooming, withering and dormancy is what it’s all about. But a drought short-circuits the process and leads to oddball scenarios like raking up bushels of dry green leaves under a hot summer sun. And instead of a graceful transition into fall colours, I’m seeing an abrupt case of the browns.

The weather forecast for the next week includes three days with high temperatures between 27 and 30 degrees C (81 to 86 F). After that it will cool down to 21 (about 70 F) but there is no rain in sight.

On the plus side, tomatoes are ripening on the vine, and in the front garden (less beleaguered by Norway maple roots), asters are showing a million buds, some of which are starting to open. That’s where I go to reassure myself that some things are working out as they should.

Aster "Pink Cloud" starting to bloom, with lots of buds waiting to open.

Aster “Pink Cloud” starting to bloom, with lots of buds waiting to open.

 

Purple aster, pink nerines and ornamental grass "Little Bunny"

Purple aster, pink nerines and ornamental grass “Little Bunny”

The (Once and Future?) Drought

Here are precipitation (i.e. rain) amounts for my garden for the past several months:

August (up to & including the 27th): 1 millimeter

July: 16 mm (which is a bit more than 0.6 inches)

June: 4 mm

May: 2 mm

The really atypical numbers there are the ones for May and June. Normal rainfall amounts for those months are closer to 20 mm, or almost an inch. Add to that the warm winter of 2014-2015, which resulted in low snowpacks in the mountains of British Columbia, and you have the Drought of 2015.

Not that it has affected this small garden very much. In fact, things here are more or less normal for late August — tired and messy in spots, not bad in others. With asters preparing to bloom, and the good old mulleins and delphiniums putting forth their second efforts, things generally look better than they have in other Augusts.

 

Dependable mullein with second flush of bloom

Dependable mullein with second flush of bloom

 

Delphiniums

Delphiniums

 

The reservoir from which the area gets its drinking water was enlarged some years ago, after much controversy. This has proved a real boon, because we have not gone beyond Stage 1 watering restrictions (which are pretty mild) since the summer of 2001. It’s like having a giant rain barrel in the Sooke Hills. Other areas, however, have not fared so well: the Sunshine Coast (well-named, except the sunshine comes in liquid form much of the year) was under Stage 4 watering restrictions for several weeks. That meant no outdoor water use at all. Only certified farmers could water anything. Some gardeners resorted to lugging bath and laundry water in buckets to keep plants alive.

Other effects of the warm winter and dry spring: low river levels and high water temperatures (bad for salmon), depleted reservoirs, brown lawns, dead shrubs, stressed trees, high water bills (mine for April through July was $224 Cdn), stressed farmers and grumpy gardeners.

The drought finally broke on August 28th. We have had more rain in the past four days than in the entire preceding four months. This may be an early start to the fall-winter rainy season, but a return to warm and sunny is likely in September.

The big questions are: how much snow in the mountains this winter? And what about El Nino? It has been predicted to be a “monster,” although this may be media dramatics. Then there’s the “Blob” — a huge area of warmer-than-normal water in the eastern Pacific. Lately it’s reported to have split into two smaller blobs, but no one knows what the combined effect of Blob + El Nino might be.

One thing does seem clear — the trend here is toward warmer, drier summers. It seems weird to have company in my perennial frets about drought. Usually when it comes to summers, it’s a chorus of “More, hotter, longer!” Maybe fears are developing that the California drought is creeping north. In any case, local and provincial governments are making noises about adapting and preparing. Cities are rethinking their choices for street trees and wondering about developing standards for grey water systems and cisterns in new houses. Gardeners may be thinking about cisterns and giant water tanks as well.

With plentiful water from the hose, this has been another good year for tomatoes after a whole string of bad years from 2010 through 2013.

Tomatoes and Echinops

Tomatoes and Echinops

Hopefully, sad scenes such as this won’t become more common.

Mostly dead Erysimum "Bowles Mauve"

Mostly dead Erysimum “Bowles Mauve”

 

Ending on that hopeful note…

Colchicums

Colchicums

The Garden in July

In July the garden starts to look tired. Individual plants put on a show as they come into bloom, but enough things are past their best that the whole thing gets a bit rough, like someone who got all gussied up for a party but stayed too long. And of course, July is one of our driest months (along with August and sometimes September). The watering can and hose can’t replace real rain. A couple of days ago we actually had 4 mm., ending a drought of several weeks, but the next week is predicted to be sunny and dry again.

Lavender and Thyme

Lavender and Thyme

Visits by urban wildlife have added to the roughing-up. A few plants were nibbled by bucks who arrived via the driveway, but the real damage, especially near the pond, has been done by a family of raccoons. Deer are like burglars who take valuables such as rosebuds, hosta leaves and other choice delicacies, but raccoons are like vandals who break in, drink your booze and trash the place. Despite my weekend repair and cleanup jobs, the place is soon a mess again — groundcovers stomped, taller plants broken and flattened, rocks around the edge of the pond rolled into it. Out come the clippers and rake and another cleanup begins.

But there are always some good things…

Daylily "Lucky Leland"

Daylily “Lusty Leland”

and unexpected delights…

Santolina in bloom

Santolina in bloom

It’s still prime time for bee-watching.

Lavender with bee

Lavender with bee

Even the most common plants, lit up by the sun at just the right angle, look great.

Fireweed (Epilobium) with bloom stalks of Stipa gigantea

Fireweed (Epilobium) with bloom stalks of Stipa gigantea

So all the deadheading, edge-clipping, raking and watering are worth it. Onward! (Hoping for more rain, though).

Summer Rain

Summer rain… Those words are magical for me, because I live and garden in a region where it’s a rare phenomenon. (To be truthful, we on the south coast of Vancouver Island have very little to complain about, climate-wise. But we complain nevertheless).

This summer has been relatively cool, but very dry. We had only one millimeter of rain in July, and the parts of our landscape without artificial watering have taken on shades ranging from brown to golden to bone-white and dead-looking.

My lawns (actually remnant patches of mixed grass and subtle weeds among perennial beds and vegetable patch) retain a bit of green, but have been gradually browning over the past few weeks, like their gardener’s increasingly suntanned skin.

The main gardening activity these days is watering — with sprinklers on designated “watering days” — Wednesdays and Saturdays on my side of the street — and with the trusty watering can almost every day. I have a lot of plants in pots — tomatoes, dahlias, delphiniums, Stargazer lilies (just coming into bloom) and a dozen Meconopsis (blue poppies). I grow all these things in pots because the open ground is too full of wretched tree roots — but that’s another story. The soil in their pots is all these plants have to draw on, so regular watering is vital.

After several weeks, watering becomes a burdensome chore. The gardener grumbles about being a slave to the hose and the watering can. Notes of complaint appear in the daily weather record: Very dry. Still dry. Extremely dry. NO RAIN. People who exclaim about the “beautiful sunny weather” are apt to get a dissenting lecture or at least a non-committal grunt.

But today it’s raining, for the first time in more than a month. The air is soft, moist and full of fragrances. A mist rises from the pavements. The rain barrels are filling up. There are three and a half millimeters in the rain gauge so far and the radar image on Environment Canada’s website indicates more to come.  We might even get a whole five millimeters before it ends and a predicted warming and drying trend takes over.

Five millimeters is the boundary between what I call “psychological rain” and Real Rain. Psychological rain brings a slight relief from the prevailing dryness, but is not a remedy for it. Beyond five millimeters, there is wetting of the soil below the surface. The gardener gets a reprieve from watering for a day or two, because the best thing about rain is that it waters the whole garden, all at once (except the parts overhung by wretched maples — but that’s another complaint).

Not everyone is rejoicing. Golfers and planners of picnics and outdoor weddings are no doubt gnashing their teeth. But I refuse to feel guilty. I didn’t make this summer rain, but I’m glad it’s here.

Hell Month Begins

Looking back at the weather notes I have kept for the past decade, I see it every year — “Garden looks like Hell.” The early bloomers have gone to seed, have been cut down or withered. The roses have black spot and more spent flowers than fresh ones. There are dry green leaves and twigs all over the ground, pulled from the trees by the latest windstorm. A scurf of withered leaves and faded rose petals covers the pond, in which the water lily leaves are starting to die and blacken from lack of light.  It’s Hell Month again.

It actually lasts more than a month, most years, from mid-July well into August, ending when we finally get rain, some years as early as mid-August, others not until September.

Remember re-enchantment? It’s really hard to achieve right now. There are days I’d rather go to the beach or stay in the house and work on this blog than venture into the blasted garden.

But I did spend a couple of hours this morning cutting things down and edging.

Results of a heavy deadheading session

Remember this: when in doubt, edge. A fresh edge to the lawn adjoining a perennial border will make that border look better, even if you do nothing else. And if you manage to whack down or pull up the seedy and weedy, the results may very well stave off Hell Month for another week or so.

Rain Barrels

Rain barrels are fashionable these days. If you want credibility as an environmentally responsible gardener, you install a rain barrel or two. For about $100 you can get a purpose-made model (plastic, of course) with various nifty features. Or you can make your own.  I have three home-made barrels — two used to be plastic garbage containers and the third is actually a genuine wooden barrel — very picturesque.

Funky Wooden Barrel

Former Garbage Can

There’s only one problem — it doesn’t rain here in the summer. In April and May my barrels actually fill up with rainwater, and I use it for the small amount of watering I do at the time — newly planted things or pots.

In June, rain becomes scarce and by July nonexistent. My rain barrels would be empty until late August or September if I didn’t fill them with the hose. How ironic is that?

Filling up with the hose does make sense. I do that only to the two plastic former garbage cans, which are open at the top. The funky wooden barrel stays mostly full of rainwater, because I draw from it very sparingly. Empty, it would dry out and crack. But the two plastic barrels are handy water reservoirs for filling my watering can, which gets daily use through the summer. It’s much faster to fill by dipping into the barrel than starting up the hose every time. I get through an entire hand-watering session (a zillion pots plus half a dozen especially water-needy plants in the ground) on one barrel fill-up.

In summer I think I should have been born under the sign of Aquarius.