Drought

I had hoped to begin this post with “Finally, some rain” but no luck- the drought continued right through August. We had a rainy April, then little rain from May through August. Normally, we would have gotten about 14” of rain in that four-month period, but we only got about five inches, leaving a deficit of nine inches. The state had declared that the Cape is in a Level 2 drought (of 4).

I have been doing some selective supplemental watering, focusing on young trees, newly planted perennials and shrubs, and a few non-natives like my one special rose bush. But now the town has tightened up the watering restrictions, even for those of us using well water, not town water, so I have reduced my watering further.

In the recent CCAN webinar on “Transitioning to a Climate Smart Landscape,” Kristin Andres made the very apt point that we are likely going to face more droughts, and that one way to learn which plants survive droughts is to take a look at our landscapes right now. In those areas that haven’t had supplemental water, which plants are suffering and which are faring well? Going forward, we can plant more of the ones that are more drought tolerant.

 

Native Shrubs
As you would expect, the native shrubs are doing well. Here are some in my yard that have received no supplemental watering, and all are looking fine, even the burgundy-leaved ninebark cultivar.

Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius “Tiny Wine”). A dwarf variety that only grows 3-4′ tall. Shown with Rosa rugosa.
Sweet fern (Comptonia peregrinis). Loves the woodland edge. Each plant is about 3′ high, and gradually colonizes to form a 4-8′ clump.
Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica). Prefers full sun to part shade. This shows low clumps of a young bayberry and the taller trunks of an older plant that is probably 8′ tall.
Winged sumac (Rhus copallinum). An unusual sumac with leaf-like wings along the stems between leaf nodes. Has a white flower in late summer. Likes full sun.
Fragrant sumac. (Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’). Another sumac, this dwarf only grows 2′ tall but eventually spreads to an 8′ clump. Grows in full sun to part shade.

 

Perennials and Grasses
Most of my perennials have gotten some supplemental water, even the native pollinator beds, so I haven’t put them to a real test, but here are a couple out in the wild back part of the yard that are doing well. The spotted bee balm bloomed from the seeds of plants put in several years ago. It’s growing in front of a volunteer native switchgrass plant and among the native dewberry vine, both of which are doing well. I love the dramatic little blue stem grass which thrives on drought; other years where there is more rain, it has flopped over.

Spotted bee balm (Monarda punctata)
Little blue stem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

Suffering Plants
They say that trees under stress, including drought, will drop leaves or will turn color prematurely. Here are two trees in my back wooded area which hadn’t gotten any supplemental water when these photos were taken in mid August.The first is a red maple which was definitely showing stress. This tree was planted three years ago, as a large tree, and it clearly still needs some help getting fully established in this drought. I have since watered it deeply a couple of times and it is looking better. The other tree is a pagoda dogwood, which always turns red early, but is even earlier than usual. This tree is down near the wetlands at the far end of the property and is on its own. Once the fall rains start up, it will have lots of water available.

Red maple (Acer rubrum)
Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

This picture is also of the far back wild area, a mowed path and a goldenrod patch. The fescue grass has totally browned out and the goldenrod is looking a bit parched. Both are tough plants, and I bet the goldenrod will still flower almost as vigorously as last year. If it doesn’t have the energy to spread much next year, that is fine with me.

Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)

Lawns
My Cape Cod lawn gets no water so it is mostly brown. You can see a bit of green still where trees provides some shade. It will green up again in the fall when the rain returns.

We have all heard that watering lawns is both taking an inordinate amount of our finite water supply and contributing to runoff harmful to our waterways. Conservationists are recommending that we avoid this practice. Just for fun, I was curious to see how many people in our neighborhood were watering their lawns so in August I went for a walk and counted the number of front lawns that looked like mine and the number that were quite green.

I passed 85 houses and perhaps my most surprising observation was that 5 houses had no lawn at all – the front of the house was completed planted with a mix of trees, shrubs, and ground covers. Of the rest, 30 had browned-out lawns and 50 had nice green lawns. It seems that between the people hearing the conservation message and thrifty Cape Codders, we are making some progress.

And I just checked the weather forecast – there is a decent chance of some rain over the next few days. It will be welcome.

 

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