rain

The Garden Goes On… And On

Gardens are collections of plants. No matter what the gardener does, plants grow, bloom, go to seed, and/or die, depending on the type of plant and whether it is getting the conditions it prefers. The gardener is a mere adjunct, trying with varying degrees of success to impose her idea of what the garden should be on a population of diverse plants. That’s the essence of gardening. It’s a constant struggle an intersection of plants, their needs, climate and weather, and the gardener’s desires and exertions.

Olympic Mullein -- gardener, look out!

Olympic Mullein — gardener, look out! Aaargh — too late!

Shortly after I retired at the end of March, I realized that as far as the garden was concerned, I was late to the party. Spring was early and warm, and growth was well under way before I had a chance to take a good look around. Too late for most pruning operations and moving plants around — two critical activities in this garden. Some plants — mainly shrubs — need frequent pruning, trimming and sucker removal. Others threaten to fade away unless moved to better spots, i.e., not overhung by trees or shrubs, in soil that isn’t full of maple roots.

I’ve spent the summer deadheading, watering, poking around and making plans for a grand game of musical chairs to be executed (what a word that is!) this fall and next spring. And a list of Things to Prune next winter. I’m keen to get going, but August isn’t the time for such exertions.

In the meantime, plants are going through their annual cycles, and so is the garden, which has entered what I think of as the brown season — late summer in a summer-dry climate. I’m getting tired of dragging the hose and hoisting the watering can. I know this happens every year. I know it will rain some day (and rain and rain some more). Hardy cyclamen will bloom. Mushrooms will sprout. Moss will green up. A few spring-blooming shrubs will send out a few flowers. The air will smell of coming autumn. But right now that seems far away.

Cyclamen, variegated hosta and hellebore

Cyclamen, variegated hosta and hellebore — in September, after rain.

 

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

Rain and Distractions

Rain at last! That’s the note in my garden record for October 12. Eight millimeters fell that day and a further eight yesterday. As I write it’s raining hard — ten millimeters so far today and much more to come, judging by the big green and blue rain blobs on the radar image provided by Environment Canada’s website.

The first major rain of the autumn begins the closing down of the garden year for me. There is still a lot to be done in the garden, notably the Rake Dance as leaves fall, but the active growing season is winding down in a wet welter of falling foliage and coloured collapse.

Fireweed (Epilobium) foliage in gorgeous decline

Fireweed (Epilobium) foliage in gorgeous decline

The close of the gardening season is the beginning of Serious Writing Season. From October to March is an ideal time to write. Darkness comes early and there are few outdoor diversions. The writer can go into her cave and create. So is this writer doing that? Not really. After a hot critiquing session last week I’m busy with revisions to one of my novels, muttering and grousing all the way.

A new word (for me) has been added to the list of Words To Avoid: was. A 3-letter word that’s ever so useful. I’ve had little trouble getting rid of “-ly” words, “some,” “just” and even “that.” But “was?” Just try writing a descriptive paragraph in past tense without using it. And I refuse to create elaborate word-structures to substitute for it. Hence the muttering and grousing. My solution in situations where a supposed Writer’s Sin doesn’t lend itself to a quick fix is the Delete key. If you can’t fix it, shoot it. Not a bad idea in a novel of 160,000 words.

In a post-crit snit, I started an entire blog post questioning the inherent, passive evil of “was.” But I’m not sure I’ll ever flesh it out into a postable screed that isn’t petty, snit-induced frothing. I have to do some research first. And just because I find stuff on the internet do I have to believe it? Only if it agrees with me. There’s the problem.

The business of revising and rewriting is serious, however. There is a real difference between the niggly, picky business of revising an old work and the white-hot flight of creativity involved in creating a new one. The writer’s brain (this writer’s brain, anyway) is in two entirely different modes, which is why it’s impossible (for me) to alternate a bit of revision with a bit of new writing. It has to be one or the other.

Endless revision is an inherent danger for the author whose works exist only as ebooks, which are infinitely revisable without the natural concluding effect of putting a work into print. I wrote a blog post about this once.

And then there’s blog post writing mode. I’m not sure what that does to the brain, but it’s a distraction from both revision and fresh writing. Which is why this post ends here.

The Garden Right Now

It has just started to rain a little too hard for working in the garden, so I decided to write this post instead. I’m certainly not complaining about the rain, though. In this part of the world rain pretty much fizzles out by June and doesn’t reappear until September, or at least (if we’re lucky) late August. As a gardener, I envy those who garden in places with summer rain. “Summer rain” — those two words have a magical quality for me. So rain in late May is something to rejoice about, especially in this rooty little patch. It’s predicted to continue tonight and all day tomorrow.

I just planted a Lobelia cardinalis “Queen Victoria” — very suitable, since this is the Victoria Day weekend — in the tiny bog that adjoins my pond. A few weeks ago, I dug out most of a huge plant of sedge (Carex something or other) that used to be variegated but lost most of its variegation in the course of becoming enormous. Removing it cleared out an entire square foot of space in soil that is perpetually moist, an exceedingly rare thing around here. Yesterday evening I purchased “Queen Victoria” as an impulse buy at the grocery store. So much for careful planning and “garden design.” Even at 4 inches high, her dark red foliage looks great next to the bright green leaves of a marsh marigold and an astilbe. I hope she grows and prospers, eventually producing scarlet flowers.

Another new acquisition waiting to be planted is Gaura lindheimeri “Cherry Brandy,” which I bought as a replacement for a couple of pink gauras that inexplicably died in the winter of 2010-2011. Those were a variety called “Siskiyou Pink.” “Cherry Brandy” is supposed to be compact and suitable for the front of a border. I had a spot picked out for it months ago. A plant of Lychnis coronaria would have to be removed to accommodate the newcomer, but that was OK because I have lots of those, and (in late winter mode) it looked pretty scruffy. Well, now it has new foliage and is getting ready to bloom, which makes it nearly impossible for me to dig it up and put it in the compost. So now I’m considering a spot that will involve removal of a young plant of Eryngium giganteum (of which I have way too many), a chunk of some carpet-like sedum, and a plant of the common sweet violet, which is a near-weed and right now getting that scruffy past-its-best look which almost invites planticide.

Sadly, I have not much good to report on the blue poppy front. My original plant of Meconopsis “Lingholm” is opening a single small bud, which may be it for this year. I’m pinning my hopes on eleven young plants, seedlings of “Lingholm” that I planted in a new bed on the north side of a big lily-flowered magnolia. They seem to be settling in quite well, despite recent strong west winds that wrenched off a few leaves. I hope they will bloom next year. I have pretty much given up on growing Meconopsis in pots, after losing just about all of the dozen or so plants I potted up a few years ago. The crowns succumb to rot, and that’s that.

Finally, I can’t say that the ex-vegetable patch is making a successful transition to anything but a weed patch. However, the weeds are of a better quality than they might be — self-sown California poppies, snapdragons and Verbena bonariensis. Also an arugula plant in full bloom. I think arugulas could be grown by discerning gardeners as ornamentals, because of their elegant shapes and the unique beauty of their white flowers.

Arugula in bloom; borage and kale in the background

According to the weather radar on Environment Canada’s website (one of the best things about the internet, in my opinion), the rain is about to let up for a while. Time to plant that gaura!

Winter Rain

Summer rain is a blessing here on the west coast of Canada, but from November through January rain is something else. That’s when we get the bulk of our annual rainfall, and it’s the reason many people refer to this fortunate part of the world as the “wet coast.”  The average rainfall in each of those 3 months is about 100 mm. (4 in.), but I have recorded amounts as high as 246 mm. (nearly 10 in.), in November 1998 and 297 mm. (about 11.5 in.), in November 2006.

Aside from problems such as flooded basements, this rain is annoying because it comes at the low point of the garden year, when not much is growing and watering is definitely not an issue. Rain barrels are kind of a joke here. In winter I don’t bother to collect water in mine; I move the drain hoses to the bottom tap and let the water run through, draining into the pond. In summer the barrels would be empty much of the time if I didn’t fill them with the hose, for hand-watering purposes. Winter rain is, in a sense, wasted.

The best solution would be to capture and store it somehow, for use in summer. I have visions of a huge storage tank somewhere near the garden shed, or a cistern under the house. The houses used by lighthouse keepers here on the coast (yes, we still have staffed light stations, despite sporadic initiatives on the part of the federal government to close them down), are equipped with cisterns. Water from the roof drains into the cistern and is used for household purposes. It works. So why aren’t cisterns standard in all houses built in summer-dry places such as ours?

In a way, my region does have a huge communal cistern, in the Sooke Hills to the west of the city. It’s the reservoir from which we draw our drinking water (and washing water, and swimming pool water, and garden-watering water).  Several years ago it was enlarged, a matter of controversy at the time. Usually it takes a couple of months to fill up once the rains start in fall, after which any surplus drains away. From May 1 to September 30, which is when rainfall becomes slight or nonexistent, the region is under watering restrictions. Because of this and other water-conserving measures, our total consumption has remained constant for the past decade or so, despite an increase in population. So I suppose that works too.

In the meantime, we are expecting a “pineapple express” here in the next couple of days, a period of heavy rain and warm temperatures from a monster weather system stretching from Haida Gwaii to Hawaii, tapped into tropical air and moisture. Floods may occur — it’s time to prime our sump pumps and get out that wet-dry vacuum! We don’t need to worry about our rain barrels; our lawns are green and lush, and are likely to remain that way through Christmas.

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.