Drought & Fall Rains

Like most people in Maine this year, (80% of the population), we experienced severe to extreme drought. Our well was not up to supplying enough water for the household and the containers in the nursery. It certainly was not up to watering the display beds. Luckily the sheep were at another location where the well was ample for their needs. Since the display beds were on their own, It was interesting and informative to see that some plants actually did quite well while others definitely did not. Those that were stressed, like the deciduous ferns and astilbes, simply went into an early dormant state and started to drop their fronds or shrivel up in an effort to conserve moisture to the crowns and roots for survival. We cut them back, as it was happening, to help them out. Since no appreciable rain came or was in sight in September, we started to cut back more and more of the perennials. Plants with large leaf surfaces like hostas, Ligularias, and Rodgersias lose water faster than others, and the larger leaves heat up more as well, calling for more moisture to stay turgid. Since we do not have regular hours for the nursery in October, we decided to cut back all but the evergreen perennials. The evergreen ones, hellebores, male ferns, gingers, and some epimediums seem to be faring much better. Probably by going dormant early, and employing the same mechanism that allows them to keep their foliage through the winter and not dedicate. I have full confidence that the plants we cut back will have set enough new eyes, buds, and roots for next season. With the rain we are having now, and watching the leaves from the trees fall, I’m going to offer this piece of advice based on an observation; with fall clean up, many gardeners rake or blow out all of the leaves from the gardens. We never take the leaves out of our display beds, allowing them to stay as mulch and as a natural fertilizer. Considering how bad the drought has been, how dry the roots of your plants could be, and no guarantee of how much more rain and snow we will get, I would not remove the leaves, and let them hold in as much moisture as possible through the fall and winter. If your garden does not have leaves falling into it, I’d mulch it with shredded leaves or another good mulch. Your plants will thank you for it. Remember that this is a time of year when the roots of plants are still very active and will benefit immensely from this rain. I believe it is very important to retain as much moisture as possible in the soil now before it freezes and can no longer accept water.

Watering Cans

Providing a drink to a recently planted Azalea

Providing a drink to a recently planted Azalea

In this very dry period, we have tried to reduce the use of water from our well on the display beds and some newly transplanted shrubs. If we notice signs of wilting, we try to give each plant just enough water to get through until the next rain, (not that we’ve had one or truly expect one in the near future, ugh!). What has worked well is to take a large can (a quart at least, or small bucket) and poke a very small hole in the bottom of it near the edge. We then place the can next to the plant with the hole as close to the stem or crown as possible and fill it with water. The water will then slowly drip down to the roots and not run off as it would if just poured on the ground around the plant. All of the water goes to the plant. In our display beds, some plants do not handle the prolonged drought as well as others. This way we can selectively deliver water to them and not have to water the whole bed. It has been very easy to do and has kept many plants from shriveling up without using a large volume of water.

We have not had a good rain in weeks. Here in the northeast, drought is not something we consider common. We are lucky to have a fair range of weather….the right amount of sun, the right amount of overcast, the right amount of rain. Lakes, ponds, streams, and rivers spread across this state of Maine, we are water rich. This year, however, those precious water holes are a bit stressed, water tables are low, the lakes and ponds are well below normal levels. Our well here at the farm is a good one. We are very fortunate to be located above a healthy aquifer, but still, we conserve. Let’s consider water as it should be…. a precious, life-giving, absolutely necessary resource, that everyone needs. Let’s consider water as nine-year-old Gabriel does….

Gabriel and the Water Shortage

When the water shortage comes along
he’s been waiting all his life for it,
all nine years for something to need him as
the water needs him now. He becomes
its protector–he stops washing, till dirt
shines on the bones behind his ears
over his brain, and his hands blaze like
dark blades of love. He will not
flush the toilet, putting the life of the
water first, until the bowl
crusts with gold like the heart’s riches and his
room stinks, and when I sneak in and
flush he almost weeps, holds his
hands a foot apart in the air and
says do I know there is only about
this much water left! He befriends it, he
sits by its bedside as if it is a dying
friend, a small figure of water
gleaming on the sheets. He keeps a tiny
jar to brush his teeth in, till green
bugs bathe in its scum, but talk about
germs and he is willing to sacrifice his health
to put the life of the water first, its
helplessness breaks his heart, the way it
waits at all the faucets in the city for the
cocks to be turned, and then it cannot
help itself, it has to spill

to the last drop. Weeks go by and
Gabriel’s glazed with grime, and every
cell of dirt upon his body is a
molecule of water saved and he
loves those tiny molecules
translucent as his own flesh in the spring, this
thin vivid liquid boy who has
given his heart to water element
so much like a nine-year-old–you can
cut it, channel it, see through it and
watch it, then, a fifty-foot
tidal wave, approaching your house and
picking up speed as it comes.

Sharon Olds