A Harsh Summer of Drought and Heat

Our booth at the Reeds Spring Market, late July.

It's hard to write about failure and despair in the garden. As gardeners, we start out as wide-eyed idealists. The season will be perfect, the packets of seed will be everything, and more, they promise. The photos on seed company websites give us waking dreams of perfect tomatoes, robust corn, twining, vining tendrils on skyrocketing vines. Some years our garden is a paradise. This year, it is struggling to stay alive.
Adam, waiting on a customer.

Adam, you may remember him from 3 seasons ago as our summer WWOOFer, came this year to experiment in production growing for farmers market. Because I had agreed to a great deal of lecture travel this season, it was a good fit for me to turn the entire garden over to him. A relief, actually, because he and I garden well together. He shares my passion for growing plants and experimenting. It was to be a summer with him and his girlfriend, Amelia, producing quantities of vegetables and selling them at market.
Beds that aren't watered, look like this. In the foreground is Mioga ginger, sad.

First, you may recall, we had an incredibly chilly, wet, prolonged spring. Each week brought us 4, 6, 8 or more inches of rain. Then, the second week of June, the water was turned off. We've had one, small rain since. Daily temperatures hover between 100 and 105 degrees F. (that's 37.7 degrees Celsius). Add that to constant sunshine, a bit of wind each day, and plants have gone into shock. Most put down few roots, thanks to the constant rainfall, so when the rains quit, they had to struggle to find moisture.
One view of a portion of the garden. It doesn't look parched until you look close.

We water daily, usually 12 hours or more a day, using soaker hoses, lots of mulch, and shade over the tomatoes. With over 100 tomato plants we should be harvesting bushels of tomatoes a week. But tomato blossoms fall off the plant in such heat, not setting fruit - a protective mechanism for the plant as they can't support more tomatoes in a drought. Even with constant watering, the plants struggle. And when plants are weakened for any reason, they are more susceptible to attack from pests.
A native bean variety, Potawatamie limas, seem to do well in spite of the drought.

Cucumber beetles and the viruses they carry, wiped out the entire melon patch in less than 24 hours. Then the cucumbers fell prey to the same problem. Next were the zucchini, attacked by both squash bugs by the millions, then by cucumber beetles, and finally by squash vine borers. Out of 50 plants, we have 2 left. Those have suffered the humiliation of rooting armadillos, which are attracted by the smell of damp soil, from our watering. They dig wherever there are earthworms or grubs, and simply root plants out of their way. Two nights ago, a huge armadillo, about 16 pounds, went right down the row of egg plants, tossing several out of its way.
The heat has curtailed the tomato crops severely.

Josh and Adam have taken turns, with Molly by their side, to sleeping on a cot outside next to the eggplants and 2 remaining zucchinis, standing guard. Molly alerts the guard to the intruder, who wakes up and shoots the armadillo. Or raccoon. Last night was an armadillo. Two nights ago it was 4 raccoons in the pear tree beside the eggplants, eating away at the pears. Between the squirrels and raccoons, we don't get a pear at all this year.
Fennel doesn't seem to mind the heat.

It's so frustrating, not just for the loss of the garden, but at seeing Adam's enthusiasm and excitement at the experiment at production, dashed by things out of any of our control. His goal was to learn how to time his plantings, what he could grow and how much he could make from selling at farmers markets. I'm certain he's learned a lot, but it's a hard lesson to learn in a year rife with problems.
Mexican oregano withstands the harsh conditions of this summer pretty well.

From friends in the greenhouse plant busienss I've heard this has been a very difficult and unprofitable year for plant sellers. Lowes and Home Depot, as well as Wal-Mart, all have enormous left-over shrubs, trees, perennials and even annuals, left in their inventory. All of them are trying desperately to sell off as much as possible. Yesterday when I was in town (Springfield, MO) I passed the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store and saw shelves and shelves of plants out front for sale. Nursery businesses can donate their left over plants to such charities, for a tax write-off and in turn the charity sells or gives away the plants to low-income people.
Swallowtail butterflies seem to do well this year. There are more than I have ever seen.

One worry I have is for the 7 million new gardeners last year and this, who were filled with enthusiasm for learning to garden. Since the drought and heat are widespread, from way out West, to New York City and south into Mexico, those folks will be even more discouraged than us seasoned gardeners. I worry they will be so discouraged they will not try to garden again. I worry, too, that this cycle of cool, wet spring, followed by 3 months of heat and drought, is here to stay. It's what has been predicted for several years by scientists who warn of global warming problems. This year is what we had last summer, only worse. If it continues, our gardening season will have to be early spring, and late fall, under plastic.
Fritilary butterflies are doing well, too.

It's not all doom and gloom. A few things, besides weeds, have managed to continue. But life in the garden is a struggle this year, almost nationwide. The great expectations we felt last spring have dwindled considerably. The reality of one of the harshest garden years in recent history, is daunting.


Anonymous said...

Your post expresses the frustrations well. Here in south-central Kansas, we are over 30 days of over 100 (with several 110 days) and no rain on our place. What we have kept alive, the grasshoppers are decimating, and really, I can't hardly blame them since everything else is brown and cripsy.
And yet, there are some celebrations. Just yesterday my daughter noticed that some of our grapes (in a hidden-away spot) were ripe, and nothing had gotten to them yet. :-)
I like to remember that weather always cycles. It may take a few years, but at some point, we will once again be griping about the mud!

Herbiecott said...

Here in Texas, it's the same as many other places- consistent very high temps and no rain. I'm keeping a few container vegetables alive, but no fruit yet on cantaloupe or watermelon. Swiss Chard still producing, though, although I didn't get even one cucumber or squash. It just got too hot, too fast for them to produce. Raccoons, I think, are eating the few, small pears we had on the old pear tree.

Deb is right, though, I like to think this is just a cycle. And, in the fall, I'll be ready to plant for the cool season. My husband, ever the optimist, says, "Well, a desert has to start somewhere..."

Hopefully, we'll have some late summer rain for the early fall planting season.

compost in my shoe said...

It certainly has been a strange year so far. Sad to hear your experiences are not meeting expectations.

Grumpy_Gardener said...

Don't have a tomato on our plants yet. In these temps, fruit won't even set. As I always say, gardening stinks!

Terra said...

I hope Adam is not too discouraged about his ambitious garden plans; this was a tough year weatherwise, for you.
Here it has been staying about 70 for the past month, so I can only imagine triple digit heat.
Good point about millions of brand new gardeners getting discouraged and all those unsold plants.

Leigh @LarrapinGarden said...

I'm so sorry for your garden, but also it's a relief to hear someone else's experience of going through the same hellish summer. I'm just below you in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Like you, I worry about new gardeners giving up in frustration. If nothing else, this year has taught me how much I love my t-tape & soaker irrigation hoses...and how much focus I intend to put on getting more organic matter deep in the soil via cover crops... I look forward to visiting your farm someday soon and will keep an eye out for any workshops you are offering there or in the area. So glad to find your blog.

Leigh from A Larrapin Garden