A Funky Mix of Heat, Drought, Fuzzy Bills, and Pollen
In April, Rain turned our garden into a water park. In May, Rain elected to play hooky. Old Man Sun happily covered for his playmate, and temperatures ran up the ladder quicker than a raccoon scales a bird feeder. Plants that once lolled in spas – fully expecting the pampering to continue — reeled in shock.
Tender leaves born in April crisped and crumbled. Hydrangeas looked like stir-fry rejects. Tired old azalea blooms refused to drop, apparently holding out for a nudge from rain that wasn’t coming. And tiered halos of rosy berries on my pride-and-joy viburnum ‘mariesii’ (pictured in bloom last post) simply blackened prematurely, shriveled and disappeared.
Joyous, hopeful sprouts on plants potted from cuttings now hung leafy heads that would later brown and fall to the shears.
Azaleas purchased in autumn should have been merrily on their way in May. Instead, without April’s hydroponics, they looked abject, their few good roots imprisoned in potbound masses, unable to function in the rigors of dry soil.
Yes, we’d roughed up the rootballs on these Big Box azaleas before planting, but we weren’t rough enough. Now we had to super-slash them until we found a few meager working roots and pot them up for rehab. And hope.
High humidity and heavy dews can be silent supporters of thirsty plants. A neighbor once joked that he had to wait until four in the afternoon to mow his lawn because it took that long for the dew to dry. Not this year. Humidity remained stubbornly low many days (pleasurable for the gardener), and stubbornly high nighttime temperatures never approached the dewpoint.
Steady sultry breezes, aside from enhancing April’s pine-pollen fling, dried the soil, not just the surface, but deep down. Shredded-bark mulch seemed to disappear, composted cotton dirt felt like grit, and once mucky garden soil turned to concrete unless it had been heavily amended over the years.
Would this be the playbook for the next three months?
Water. Water. A drop of Water. Please. Their droopy hopey leaves were harder to bear than the droopy hopey eyes of a patient dog watching a steak dinner disappear. But what could we do? Pray to a laughing Sun God? Nope. We played at being Rain Gods.
During dry years from 2004 to 2010 we had designed a simple three-part irrigation system.
- Buried tubing with individual heads linked to hydrangeas and camellias massed in separate beds.
- Oscillators set for narrow, mixed beds.
- Pulsators tethered to tuteurs or fence posts for trees and shrubs.
When wet years followed, the system seemed superfluous, and over time, the traumas of transplanting, heavy mulching, and temporary modifications to avoid hurricane damage left it in some disarray.
Now we had to catch up fast. We said we’d only need a few hours to find the leaks, repair and reset. Did you ever notice how plain and simple, easy-on-the-knees garden tasks somehow become multi-day odysseys? Testing sprinklers, however, is not a bad job in 96-degree heat.
Mister heads were buried or missing, tubing cut by errant spades, or even purposely for what are now irrational reasons, sprinklers were broken, and sometimes we just plain couldn’t figure out what we were thinking ten years ago.
The engineer half of our horticulture staff rose to the challenge, spurred, no doubt, by the other half-staff’s nattering over hauling heavy hoses around the garden. This urgent venture required multiple trips to the hardware store for quick disconnects and cut-off valves and timers and oscillating sprinklers. How did he know about all this stuff?
The engineer did not forget the hoses, lightweight hoses in fact, the “future of advanced hose design” according to the label, with a promise to be indestructible. And a five-year warranty! Not that we would ever remember there was a warranty or even be able to find receipts in five years.
The new system is spiffy. Alas, the half-staff gardener, still marooned in 19th century technology, remains baffled by paraphernalia. Which is why watering ranks below weeding in garden tasks, an attitude the engineer cannot fathom. Which is why I usually look like a wash-up from a shipwreck when I water plants.
Then along came the fuzzy-bills, swarms of them rising up at night, filling the air so you daren’t open a window, or your mouth, swirling around lights, splattering houses, frying in spotlights. During the day they slept under leaves, so woe to she who rustled a plant.
Their visitations lasted about three weeks. What a movie Hitchcock could have made about fuzzy-bill invasions.
And what a bonanza for spiders who eagerly spun sheet webs in crevices and corners to catch an easy meal. Now bug-splattered, shrouded houses took on an Addams Family aura.
On the bright side, bird song in our garden spiked, as fat-bellied mamas and papas captured fuzzy-bills for their fat-bellied offspring. And countless dragonflies arrived on patrol, no doubt nourished by fuzzy bill larvae when they lived as neighbors in the mud.
In case you’ve never heard of fuzzy-bills, they are non-biting midges. The males have feathery antennae, which account for the picturesque common name. They have a definite affinity for waterfront property, though they are never mentioned as a possible liability when such property is for sale.
Midges spend their early lives in water, but when they grow up, they rise like a thousand myriad spirits to fly and mate at night. They only live for a few days, so courtship is a frenzied affair: Hey Babe, here I am, and I can give you everything you could ever want for the rest of your life (an empty promise if ever there was one).
Then a few hundred, or maybe a few thousand eggs encased in gelatin hit the water. They will sink, hatch into larvae, and if they are not eaten by neighboring dragonfly nymphs, will pupate and finally rise to the surface for their short-lived but exotic amorous adventures.
Midges are probably why our annual visitors didn’t catch any fish this year. They arrived in our slip with munchies, poles and bait tucked into their small fishing boat on Memorial Day, father, son and daughter, quietly probing the waters with shrimp-baited hooks.
Two years ago, when this photo was taken, the young boy caught 36 small perch in about as many minutes and they called our place Fish City and cruised home to an especially tasty holiday barbecue. This year there were no nibbles. Perch, fat-bellied from fuzzy-bills weren’t interested in shrimp, so burgers and franks headed up barbecue menus instead.
The lingering Bermuda high that spiked mercury and stole pop-up showers from us in May has gone on its way. June is spangled with flashy daylilies and hot red hydrangeas – along with some nice rain and reasonable, well, reasonable for June, temperatures.
Will this be the playbook for the summer? July is yet to come.