In the Garden August 2015

By Peg Keenleyside

By the time we see that climate change is really bad, your ability to fix it is extremely limited… The carbon gets up there, but the heating effect is delayed. And then the effect of that heat on the species and ecosystem is delayed. That means that even when you turn virtuous, things are actually going to get worse for quite a while.

Bill Gates

Sweltering away in the heat of this wicked summer of drought in the garden, I’ve been musing about how we make the connection between climate change as a global phenomenon happening “somewhere out there,” and the small daily realities of life: the early bolting veggies, the vital ritual of watering, stressed out trees and shrubs. I wonder if it’s in this day-to-day experience outside in our gardens that we are more likely to make the visceral connection to the reality of climate change? And is it, perhaps, this personal connection that spurs us to some kind of change, some kind of “virtuous” new behavior, as Bill describes it?

A good visual map and descriptions of the extent of the severe to extreme drought in the U.S. are available on the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) website at drought.gov/draught. The site is instructive about the new reality of water shortages for agriculture, and in the lakes and reservoirs we rely on for drinking and running water.

If you’re looking for a stick-it-on-the-fridge daily reminder for everyone in your house to use less water, print out the NIDIS drought map with this fact: Only .003 percent of water on Earth is freshwater available for human consumption.

Out in the garden we can use a variety of water conservation strategies this month which have now been imposed on residential property owners in Vancouver.

The first is to switch from sprinklers to soaker hoses and focus your watering ritual around the base of shrubs, plants and veggie beds in the early morning when evaporation rates are low. Deep-watering roots with a slow-drip soaker hose for at least an hour just once a week is what’s wanted.

For trees, especially young trees less than 15 feet tall, invest in some green tree watering bags that you place around the base of the trunks and fill with water. It looks like you’ll be using them for a few years to come. Like a soaker hose, the bags release water slowly, which means better uptake by the root capillaries. Municipal sites suggest refilling bags two times a week.

For watering hanging baskets, try taking them down once a week for a soak in a tub of water with some 20-20-20 soluble fertilizer. Dare I suggest you consider doing this in conjunction with your washing machine’s rinse water cycle?

If you have a lawn, just think virtuous thoughts and forget about it. Bill will write you a thank you note.

The second is to liberally top dress with mulch – at least 2 inches deep – around the garden. It will help the soil retain moisture and keep it cooler. Mulch also adds organic matter to your soil – a key building block to soil health.

What to use as mulch? Wood chips and barks are a good-looking choice and are available commercially in bags or delivered by the yard. Mix in some granular slow-release fertilizer with bark mulches, as they tend to deplete the nitrogen in your soil. For the DIY gardener on a budget, a mix of wood chips and homegrown compost will do the trick. Un-composted lawn clippings are not recommended, as they tend to mat up and actually prevent water from getting through into the ground.

A third strategy is downsizing your lawn area in favor of garden beds that incorporate more rock-covered areas (called dry beds) and drought-friendly plants like perennial grasses and sedums (also known as succulents).

A standout grass choice to plant like you would a hedge or as a dramatic feature in a border is the 5 to 6-foot high columnar feather reed grass “Karl Foerster” (Calamagrotis x acutiflora). This perennial grass looks truly fabulous planted in groups of three or more.

Grasses also look stunning in large pots. Go for a really big show with a grass like Micanthus x sinuses “Huron Sunrise” with its spiky late summer bronze-burgundy “blooms” atop tall, reedy stems. I like also some of the new taller growing burgundy colored sedums. Look for stonecrop “Purple Emperor” or “Jade Tuffet” at about 18 inches high.

The necessary beauty of late summer blooming shrubs and vines are a gardener’s balm to the drought-related problem of plants that have bloomed well ahead of their normal time.

The PeeGee hydrangea, paniculata “Gradiflora,” with its gorgeous large white pyramid-shaped blooms that morph to a dusky pinky orange sunset color in the early fall is a cool visual delight in the heat of August. This hydrangea forms a big bush and can be pruned into a tree shape over time.

Find yourself a late summer and early fall blooming clematis to grow up a fence or wall in Sweet Autumn Clematis paniculata. This cultivar (of which there are many in the clematis family) has masses of tiny white, fragrant flowers that are a tonic for the eye.

With new water-use strategies and adaptive planting choices, the virtuous response to climate change may just be to get out there and garden. And isn’t that exactly what we love to do?

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