It’s official: the “U.S. Drought Monitor”, a site co-sponsored by University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, lists southwestern Massachusetts, where I do most of my gardening, as locked in a severe drought. The withered crops in my vegetable garden tell the same tale, as do the stunted growth of perennials. Indeed, most of the Northeast is undergoing a drought or at least abnormally dry this summer. This is hard on gardeners in the short run, but it could be a boon in the long run.
Let me explain. I spent a good deal of time in California and the Southwest during that region’s long drought of 1986-1991. I was there as a journalist because it was the biggest story in horticulture of the time, perhaps of the last generation. The drought forced the gardeners there to stop doing what they had been doing, which was to use lavish irrigation to maintain European-style gardens. When the taps were turned off, those same gardeners had to come to terms with where they actually lived. As a result they began experimenting with plants native to their regions, and with species from similar climatic zones around the world. In Arizona, gardeners began to celebrate the desert in their landscapes, using desert natives and planting them in the patterns characteristic of desert vegetation. California gardeners similarly began to experiment with indigenous plantings, turning the state from a horticultural copycat into a world leader in gardening innovation.
The result of these innovations was not just gardens that were more in tune with the local climate and flora. Gardeners began to be connected with the place they lived as they never had been before, and this influenced their behavior outside as well as inside the garden.
We in the Northeast could benefit from a similar experience. When I learned to garden at the New York Botanical Garden, it was very much in a European tradition as well. We were not as absolutely reliant on irrigation as the Californians of that day, but we did (and do) lavish drinking water on our lawns all summer long to keep them artificially green. And we still tend to follow English traditions when planning and planting our gardens. I’m hoping that our current drought, which is hammering those Old World perennial borders, will prompt us to open our eyes to where we actually live, and encourage creative, locally oriented thinking.
on August 15, 2016 at 10:43 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet, Lawn Reform.