Garden Got You Bonkers? You’re in Good Company
Rising seas, melting ice, monster storms, raging fires. Climate events on planetary scale.
Do our gardens reflect a changing climate in quieter, less dramatic ways?
From its shaky beginnings, our garden has been a perennial game of chess. Soil, Drainage, Exposure, and Storms are the King, Queen, Bishops and Rooks. Plants are Pawns.
If I play the game with finesse and win, plants flourish. If I falter, I am checkmated by too much sun, too much shade, too much drainage, too many storms, too too too. . . or the flip side, not enough not enough not enough…
But maybe, these days, there are other reasons for being checkmated in a garden. Our Cooperative Extension agent, Katy, told me she’s been talking almost daily with distressed gardeners who are losing plants. Long established plants just seem to be giving up.
Could erratic weather, an errant Knight, be the final piece in this garden game of chess, sometimes confounding our best intentions? Is erratic weather a partner in Climate Change? Let’s look back at the past couple of years here in northeast North Carolina.
Single digit temperatures in winter 2018, records for Zone 8.
Spring freezes in 2018 and 2019 as fresh new growth is emerging.
Unseasonally hot dry weather in May 2019 that shrivels tender growth that is replacing tender growth damaged by early spring freezes.
An unusually hot dry spell in August 2019.
Cascades of rain from Hurricane Dorian in early September 2019.
Followed by days of unseasonal heat and “flash” drought.
Oh it wasn’t all bad. (See September Renaissance.) Sometimes weather was an ally and some plants grew fast and lush – greedy for what the elements could give – but some were not able to adapt to erratic jolts when weather became the foe.
Katy’s thoughts: “Things are giving up. Whereas they might have tolerated one or two of those stresses, they can’t continue to take hit after hit. I’ve even had landscape architects tell me that gone are the days of a once-and-done landscape. No more 30-year landscape plans. The landscape is now ‘temporary!’”
Farmers, too, are distressed. Nick Maravell, owner of an organic farm in Buckeystown, Maryland, has this to say in an Organic Consumers recent e-newsletter:
“It used to be farmers would get together and talk about having a good year. Now we’re getting together and hoping for a normal year, and we haven’t had one in a long time. We’re getting what I call the broken record syndrome. Every few years we break another record . . .
“We go from the driest year on record to the wettest year on record back to back. We go from the coldest spring to the warmest spring back to back. We have these stretches of erratic, from a farmer’s perspective, unusual long hot spell, long cold spell. That never used to happen to us. I’ve been doing this 40 years and believe me, the climate has changed.”
NPR, in a piece on winemaking in France, reports that “French vintners say heat, drought and erratic weather are altering the landscape and their centuries-old way of working.” High sugar content caused by dry summers spikes alcohol level in grapes, which threatens consistency. More troubling, unshaded grapes shrivel on the vine.
Rainy spells are longer and more severe, as are cold spells, especially in spring. Hail is more frequent. And three-hundred-year-old vines have died in successive heat waves. (To maintain consistency, the French wine governing body prohibits irrigation.) Now the hunt is on for heat-tolerant replacements.
And the weeds! Lately arrived weeds, emigres from warm climates, can spoil batches of wine if not policed vigilantly.
Do upstart weeds in vineyards echo exuberant weeds in gardens here?These days our weeds live the high life. They grow fast. They multiply fast.
Even mulching gives only temporary relief. Now the hunt is on for reliable groundcovers to shade them out: low varieties of nandina, like ‘Harbor Dwarf’ and ‘Flirt’ for sunny spots; epimedium ( but it can be slow), umbrella-like giant hosta, and fast-growing autumn fern for shady spots.
Losses of favorite plants, slow rebound of damaged plants, and poor performance often can’t be explained. At first we blamed our losses on old age, poor siting, and pruning violations. But the plants in question have performed well for decades. Why are they suddenly stressed?
Here’s a summary of what has happened in our garden over the past two years.
- Decades-old pittosporum died after the extreme-cold winter. Normally fast menders, damaged survivors were slow to recover
- Cold-battered and broken, our now gnarled and twisted ‘Yuletide’ camellia has taken two seasons to give us hope that it is recovering – or maybe not, depending on next winter.
- Fringe trees began to look parched and thin this growing season, practically shorn of leaves, even after a reasonably fine bloom. Ditto for our long established variegated and holly-leaved osmanthus and other small trees, now balding. Will they come back next year?
- After magnificent bloom, our watermelon crepe myrtles suddenly and prematurely defoliated, cluttering paths with shriveled leaves.
- Native hophornbeam trees died, seemingly rotted out, though growing in higher drier parts of our property.
- An old wax myrtle we loved for its convoluted trunks died suddenly, leaving Wizard-of-Oz branches that we could not bear to cut down until recently.
- Large, old Grayswood lace cap hydrangeas, centerpiece shrubs, frazzled after a change of exposure when we took down a dying crabapple and were unable to recover.
- Camellias near the crabapple drowned in soil made sodden by the loss of its thirsty roots and rainfall that exceeded the soil’s capacity to drain.
- And finally, a young ‘Bloodgood’ Japanese red maple we raised and shipped to Zone 7 New York City in spring, lovingly potted and nursed, crisped its leaves after unseasonal 18 degree temperatures in early November. Will the young tree survive the hit that it took before it was able to harden off?
We can’t control the weather, but we are hoping to stay even. We still believe that the soil holds secrets of life that give the best protection to our plants. We ’ll keep nurturing it faithfully, so it can give back to plants.
For us it is a never-ending task of raking-shredding-mulching. But what a lovely product from all those leaves! Partly composted, they are a fast-acting tonic that helps regulate soil temperature and moisture and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers. This mulch does not, however, vanquish weeds as well as hardwood mulch.
Sometimes we don’t want to do all that work. Then we simply rake leaves directly onto beds in mounds that will settle into layers after a rainfall or two. No shredding, weeds are smothered, and deep down, but more slowly, crumbly soil is being created the same way it happens in a forest. Kinda nice to know we are a working partner with Mother Nature.
Pruning at the right time, during winter dormancy or before spring growth, when plants are not working at top speed to put out leaves and flowers, will minimize shock. And we try to follow this schedule. Sometimes we can’t. When plants like azaleas and loropetalum, for eample, have exploded, apparentlyttaking advantage of the erratic weather, we have to take action.
Keeping them (and others) in bounds has been a challenge – a truckload of trimmings to the landfill once a week during the growing season. Will these plants eventually resent repeated chopping during growing seasons? Or will they rejoice?
It’s all one grand experiment that warns us, now more than ever, that nothing in the garden is for keeps. We shouldn’t go bonkers trying to win the game of chess.
So I will revel in the splendid color and the surprises that fall gave us this year.