Drought On My Mind

Lately I’ve been preoccupied much with the prospect of drought. So far, this is the second driest May on record. April was also very dry. Normally, this is a region of fairly generous rainfall, but we haven’t had a good rain in months. Precipitation for this year so far is less than half what we usually get: 5.5″ versus an average of 12″.

Allium leaves turning brown

According to the public climatologists, our region of Illinois is undergoing “moderate drought”. Looking around, however, it doesn’t seem immediately apparent. Lawns are green, as is my garden. But we are living on reserves of moisture below the soil surface and the fact that we have had an unusually cool spring. Without rain, the summer heat will create a very different landscape.

If you look closely, you can see the beginnings of plant stress, depending on how dry that particular spot of the garden is. For instance, the foliage is almost completely brown on one of the big patches of ‘Purple Sensation’ Allium, though the flowers look all right. And some of the Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) is looking rather droopy.

It still looks green, for now.

Because I am one of those gardeners who worry, I have started compulsively checking the weather forecasts, including the weather app on my phone. This adds considerably to the angst. Several times substantial rain has been predicted. The clouds come, but the precipitation doesn’t materialize. At most we get one or two tenths of an inch, leaving me gnashing my teeth and with Judy telling me to calm down.

Most years, I hardly water my garden. OK, I water my containers and the Clematis. And new plants, especially woody ones. Otherwise, the garden is mostly full of prairie and woodland wildlings (or close relatives) who can generally shrug off a drought. Also, most of the garden is planted thickly with little bare ground, which helps preserve moisture, and much is shaded.

This year feels different, but I suppose that comes out of my own mind. Because of my illness and retirement, I seem to be more focused on the garden than ever before. Emotionally, at least, I need it to be beautiful. So I’ve already spent a good deal of time spot watering strategic plants and places. I’ve even tried to perform a little reverse psychology, betting that if the sky gods see me watering they will be more likely, out of sheer contrariness, to provide a good rain.

Watering is the order of the day.

Just this morning I ordered some gear that will enable me to water larger areas of the garden without lugging around a hose or watering can. Our place is not much more than an eighth of an acre – drought is one circumstance that shows the advantage of a small garden. Also fortunately, I live in the Lake Michigan watershed, so there is no talk of watering restrictions, and there is unlikely to be. On the other hand, the water is not free, and I expect the water bills this summer to be substantial.

To friends in California and elsewhere, who have been enduring really dreadful drought for years, this post must sound like privileged whining. If so, my apologies – but I can’t help myself.

Of course, in the next few weeks we could get all kinds of rain and everything could change. But I’m not counting on it. And I want to be prepared if the drought continues and intensifies.

59 Comments on “Drought On My Mind”

  1. It’s been too dry here (south of Indy) as well. Quite cool for several weeks (& downright cold at night) but a stretch of high 80’s beginning next week.

    I worry for my gardens too. Last year’s lack of rain killed a weeping cherry tree I planted 18 years ago and damaged a dogwood I love because of its very cool, gnarled, twisty limbs. I dread what this summer will bring.

  2. Actually, I think your concern is justified. All the complaints you hear about drought in California are not. This is a chaparral climate. Much of California is in desert climate. There is no drought here. It is our natural climate. Those who complain about it moved here from somewhere else. If there is not enough water to go around it is because too many people migrated here. They should have known what they were getting into before they came. My ancestors did. The wildfires are natural also, and are only worse now than they naturally are because they are not able to burn like they did decades ago.

      • Fake ‘environmentalists’ are a vocal bunch. They are not acquainted with the natural climates here. Droughts do happen here, but are not the norm. That is the difference. If Trona has always gotten about four inches of rain annually, that is what its climate naturally provides. It is not a drought if it has continued as long as history can document. That is ‘climate’. ‘Drought’ is an unusually dry weather pattern that may last for a single season or a few years. For example, if western San Jose normally gets a bit more than a foot of rain, either annually, or from each rainy season (which is at the end of one year and the beginning of the next), but instead got less than half of that (like it did this last winter), that would be considered a drought. The last major drought lasted from the beginning of 2014 to the beginning of 2017. Prior to that, the only severe drought that I can remember was in the late 1970s. My ancestors knew people who knew how to work with the resources that were available here, and who grew orchards that were satisfied with the annual rainfall. Artificial irrigation allowed other drier climates to be more productive than they could have been naturally. As more people migrated to California, larger populations of major cities became reliant on the diversion of water from elsewhere, which is why the Colorado River no longer reaches the Gulf of California.

  3. Good luck. For all the plague and pestilence which we gardeners endure I feel the worst trouble is a drought. When every last plant in the garden looks to be suffering it’s just no fun, and I prefer to go on vacation for a few days 🙂

  4. Be careful what you wish for! All during April I was hoping for rain to water my new plantings but non came so I had to water by hand to keep them alive. Now during the 2 weeks of May we have had torrential rain every day and my garden is flooded, plants are sitting in water and some are dieing as they have been under water for so long. Maybe we could send some of our rain clouds to you!

    • I would be so grateful if you did! But yes, we have had years when the rain was excessive which also led to problems of a different kind. But I think I would rather have too much rain than too little. We’ll see where we are in August, which is historically our rainiest month.

  5. Drought does make gardeners fret and we had a severe drought here last summer in the northeast. I dragged hoses around endlessly. However- silver lining story here- this spring one plant showed its appreciation for that bone dry weather. A tulip which has bloomed with a single red flower for the last 18 years apparently produced offsets and we now have four flowers-the original large one and 3 slightly smaller ones. It/they escaped the deer too so I’m thrilled.
    Also, I’ve observed Allium foliage dieback in moist years too. I think it’s natural for them.

  6. We had a severe drought last year and are still fighting our way back. With a ton of new construction, more people, and less rain, it is not a pretty forecast. I lost plants and shrubs and could write an entire post on how it destroyed the grass. We keep getting rain in the forecast, but nothing arrives. Fingers crossed here too.

  7. Many years ago, my aunt lived in Los Angeles and had fits when they were asked to turn off the water while brushing their teeth. I was a kid living near Lake Michigan and was really confounded by the whole notion of not having water. Then, much later in life, I lived in California and learned a lot about the value of water. I’m back in the relatively wet Midwest and still turn off the water when I brush my teeth. And I think about those who do not have a faucet to turn. Gardeners understand water, I think.

  8. Haha, I love the reverse psychology approach and admit to doing the same! Wash the car, or hang laundry outside. Leave things out that you don’t want to get wet. I’m already watering here in western Maryland and, based on last year, am anticipating increased water bills, too. As we lose some plants to drought, we can replace with more drought tolerant varieties I guess…

  9. Interesting to know it’s happening out there too. We here in the PNW are having a freakishly dry spring with the driest April on record (.39″ of rain) and nothing substantial in May. I feel like I’m living in Arizona waking up every morning to sunshine. There’s some rain in the forecast for next week, fingers crossed.

  10. Hello Jason, we’re having the opposite problem of it being wet. There’s rain in the forecast everyday until late May. It’s raining now, it rained yesterday and the day before and before and on. Bizarrely we were having to water the two back borders in April, when we’re supposed to have “April Showers”, those showers are happening now. We put in some leaky hose pipe around the Landing Pad to keep it watered during drier times, if they ever occur again this side of Christmas.

  11. I’ll do a raindance for you Jason. It has been a cool and damp soring here… for a change! But I know that feeling so well, checking the radar and then seeing the rainclouds change course. But our plants are tougher than you think and my Alliums always have singed leaves but flower regardless. I hope you can see the watering as a positive activity , and a good excuse to get out into the garden more frequently. Best of luck!

  12. There has been too much or too little rain here in Central Kentucky this spring. Like you, I’m constantly looking at the weather forecast.
    For me, “Purple Sensation” flowering onions were abundant in my garden for several years but have only produced two stalks this spring. Not exactly what one would admire as a mass planting!

  13. We went most of last summer without any real rainfall at all and you can see the damage this year. Many lawns have large dead areas and plant colonies in the woods have died off here and there. Many wildflowers like trout lilies are acting strangely.
    It doesn’t take much to bring it back though. We’ve had a rainy May so far and it has helped us go into “abnormally dry” from “moderate drought.”
    I hope you will see some rain because your weather is usually our weather.

  14. I think you know that I varnish boats for a living. That means I work outdoors, and it also means that when it rains, I can’t work. When it’s freezing I can’t work, and when it gets over a heat index of 110, I won’t work. Consequently, I understand all too well the compulsion to lurk on weather sites, change tv stations to find the ‘best’ forecast, and generally get knotted up when the weather doesn’t suit. It took ten years for me to get over those compulsions, and as hard as it is, all I can say is, “Don’t obsess.” The weather is going to do what it’s going to do, and if we could change it, we’d be famous and wealthy.

    There’s no question drought is serious. Compared to a hurricane, it’s a slow-motion disaster, but it’s a disaster nontheless. Still, watching the world down here come back to life after our February freeze has been a salutary reminder that nature’s a good model for resiliance. Yes, there were losses, but there’s tasseled corn in the fields, the blueberries are ready for picking and the summer flowers are coming on.Not only that, after weeks of people fussing over impending drought, it’s raining — and it’s going to rain for an entire week. Things will work out.

  15. Several years ago, this area was experiencing a drought. I was so tired of watering, I actually did a rain dance in the backyard (after dark, of course). And it rained. 😉 I’m not that far away from you, yet you didn’t get the snow we did in April, nor apparently the 2.5″ of rain last Sunday. Sending precipitous thoughts your way.

  16. I understand. I don’t want 2012 to happen again–we didn’t have rain, at all, from mid-May to late July. So many plants just went dormant, and I lost a few that didn’t come back the next year. We’ve had a little more rain than you have recently, but like you say, it’s deceptive. It was drizzly all day yesterday so I thought we had a good soaking. Turns out it accumulated to very little. Time to do a rain dance. I hope we’ll both get some good rains in the weeks ahead.

  17. The Serviceberry in our backyard was looking kind of wan so I broke down and did some spot soaking. It seems like every weather system headed toward Chicago either dissolves or goes north or south, current satellite picture included. Thank goodness it’s been cool, but that’s not going to last much longer.

  18. I get really annoyed with the weather app on my phone which, yes, I too am checking constantly. I feel like I can pretty much ignore anything that says 30% – 40% chance. From what I barely understand, moisture begets moisture so the dryer we get…the dryer we might stay. I dragged out and set up my hoses yesterday. Like you I am not used to watering, but that might have to change.

  19. April flowers brought May showers, for a couple days. Then, no rain for a week. Sprinkling today, so far. And so it goes. As was said, we can’t do anything about it, except drag out the hoses and pay the bills. Last year, for my vegetable raised beds, I invested in a drip irrigation system for about $100 and a timer. Problem solved for the veggies. Climate change will force us to adapt.

  20. I’m sorry to read you are not having your usual rainfall, I always look at your, and other Northern Hemisphere gardens with delight and envy!
    However, plants are amazingly resilient, and although some of yours may look a bit droopy, I bet most of them will adapt. We are resigned to the fact that we have big water bills at the end of summer, but we couldn’t do without our garden.

  21. Jason, hope the rain situation improves. Drought is difficult to accommodate. I started selective watering this week also. Our situation is similar to yours. Hardly any rain in April, which the irises seemed to love, none in May either–just dark skies and pretend clouds. Somehow I missed that you have retired–congrats!

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