I got sick of hearing about the drought last summer. Yes, it was bad, but talking about it didn’t help. We just had to water when we could. Unfortunately for me, the conversation isn’t over.
Even if we have an ideally wet spring – and there’s no guarantee of that – its effects will still be evident in your garden this summer, and gardeners who hope to plant new trees and shrubs could feel its impact far longer.
The snow covering Maine’s fields and forests a few weeks ago melted before the ground thawed, meaning it couldn’t soak into the ground. If we don’t get more snow before spring, the relief from the drought will be minimal.
Cathryn Kloetzli of UMaine Extension in South Paris co-wrote a bulletin last month to help farmers and gardeners deal with the drought. While it focuses on farming – topics like crop insurance – it has information that will be useful to recreational gardeners, too. The good news? She thinks most garden plants will come back to life healthy when spring arrives.
The drought “is likely to have some effect on the canopy layer of plants, but it is likely to be very individualistic from plant to plant,” Kloetzli said.
For trees and shrubs, though, lack of water meant they couldn’t store as much energy as usual during last year’s growing season, so they will get off to a slow start, according to Jeff O’Donal of O’Donal’s Nursery in Gorham. “The first flush of foliage will be smaller than normal, like maybe half as much,” he said.
After that first round of foliage does its job, with photosynthesis feeding the tree, a second round of larger foliage should sprout and continue to add nutrients.
Last year’s drought will also aggravate a pre-existing shortage of larger trees and shrubs available for sale, O’Donal predicted. During the 2008 recession, many of the trees and shrubs that nurseries were growing failed to sell. They eventually grew too large to sell and had to be destroyed. The poor sales led many nurseries to grow fewer woody plants.
But a couple of years ago, when the horticultural economy started to improve, the nurseries increased their plantings. The catch? It takes several years to grow a tree to salable size. With last year’s drought, the growth of those seedlings slowed.
“What we had in production that would usually be a 2-inch (caliper or diameter) tree is now only an inch and a half,” O’Donal said.
Nurseries will need to either hold on to the smaller trees until they grow larger or sell them for less money than they’d hoped.
Home gardeners can do a few things to help their plants get off to a good start once the ground thaws.
“Building soil health and protecting the water supply in the soil is one of the fundamental things people should do,” Kloetzli said. That includes having organic matter in the soil to hold the water and adding mulch to keep moisture from evaporating.
Here’s something home gardeners should not do: Add a fast-acting fertilizer such as Miracle Gro in the spring. That would be counterproductive because the plants won’t have enough foliage to take advantage of it, O’Donal said. Instead, he advises gardeners either to delay fertilizing until the plants have the second growth of foliage or to use a slow-release organic fertilizer so that food will be available to the plants later in the season when they need it.
O’Donal also suggests gardeners add a liquid solution of mycorrhizal fungi to plants. The mycorrhizae exist naturally in the soil, but the drought may have killed some of them. Mycorrhizae are important because they “extend the roots so (the roots) can pick up three times as much food and moisture,” O’Donal said.
But for all the harm it did, last year’s rain shortfall will likely have one benefit this summer: More flowers.
That’s because when plants are damaged – whether a snowplow hits them, their branches break or they don’t get enough water – their internal controls think they’re going to die, O’Donal said. They react by frantically reproducing to ensure the species survives, ergo more flowers and seeds.
“In species like crab apples and tree lilacs that normally bloom every other year, you are going to have flowers this year whether they bloomed last year or not,” O’Donal said.
So stock up on slow-release fertilizer, mulch and fungi.
And although mud season is usually my least favorite time of year, I am hoping for an extra long one this year so the melting snow pack sinks into the ground, where it can do some good, instead of running off into the ocean.
Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: [email protected]