Benefits of Drought

Benefits of Drought

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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.

Meadow of native wildflowers flourishing despite drought

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.

Posted by

Thomas Christopher
on August 15, 2016 at 10:43 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet, Lawn Reform.

4 Comments
    • Thomas Christopher
    • 9th November 2016

    Change is a slow process, especially in a field as conservative as gardening. It sounds like you personally are making progress, though, and hopefully those who see your garden take away the germ of an idea. I don’t expect a sudden transformation here in the Northeast, either. But I’m hoping that the resilience of some new style gardens, such as the meadow in the photo above, will impress some people and help to encourage a change to a more sustainable — and locally oriented — type of design.

    • Stephanie
    • 14th November 2016

    I’m a little surprised by the argument advanced here. Drought is, by definition, a period of exceptional weather. I live in a part of upstate New York that’s currently experiencing severe drought and have been wondering if this is in fact our new normal, courtesy of climate change–and if so, our gardening strategies will have to change accordingly. I don’t, however, feel like my garden (which has always had a good number of natives) is suffering because I’ve made irresponsible plant choices in the past. Planting a hydrangea here is not on par with maintaining a green and pristine lawn in the desert.

    • Laurrie
    • 14th November 2016

    When I began my Connecticut garden many years ago I planted drought tolerant things — only to have them wither in our wet, humid weather. We got 11 inches of rain that one July and many, many wet months after that. Snowfalls leave our springs too soggy each year for anything but damp lovers. Now, this year we’ve had a rainless summer and native New England plants adapted to our normally wet northeast conditions didn’t do well this year at all — the wild asters in the meadow around us are blasted and the swamp milkweed shriveled up. No Queen Anne’s lace bloomed at all. My native blueberries and hemlock died. We’re wishing we planted Mediterranean sages and yarrows now!

    • Saurs
    • 14th November 2016

    With respect, the most heavily populated regions of southern California hard hit by last century’s and this century’s droughts–coast, basins, valleys–are not deserts at all. This is scrubland and chaparral country, mainly, and pristine lawns are perfectly possible, as Thomas Christopher notes. They’re just made from bouteloua, leymus, clover, and carex now, amongst other suitable turf substitutes. Make no mistake, micro-climate change will affect species and cultivar availability throughout the world in the years to come. Hydrangeas will adapt–that is, nurseryfolk will conceive of adaptable varieties or find more obscure but tough subspecies for use in hybridizing for beauty and maintenance–or they will be replaced.

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