There’s still hope for plants reeling from last year’s drought

By 
Erin Schanen

This time of the year, when the garden grows so quickly you can almost watch leaves unfurl, is a sweet time for gardeners. Suddenly our yards start to look the way we remember them.

Unless they don’t, and there’s been a lot of that happening this year. It’s not until about now when we realize that something that should be growing isn’t, and as I look around the garden the losses are piling up. Other local gardeners are reporting the same.

Of course there are lots of reasons why plants die. Sometimes it’s a disease or fungus, other times they may have been damaged (above or below ground) by a pest or just lived out their natural life cycle. But I think I know why a lot of plants just didn’t wake up after this winter.

It all comes down to water. In this part of the world, we are generally fortunate that Mother Nature usually takes care of our gardens when it comes to water, with a little supplementation from us for some plants, but last year’s drought continues to haunt us. And that’s the thing with drought stress — plants often don’t show it until long after they are feeling it.

Couple that drought with a winter that wasn’t too difficult on humans but not at all great for plants and you have a recipe for stressed plants. They benefit from a good snow cover, not just for the moisture it provides when it melts, but also because it acts as an insulator against temperature variances.

That’s why many of us are thinking, “Hey, wasn’t there a plant there last year?” as we study our gardens. Even typically bulletproof plants like Ajuga and Nepeta bit the dust.

There’s nothing we can do for perennials that have died other than chalk it up to another garden lesson and replace them. But other plants may not be beyond saving.

Just a few weeks ago, I noted how thrilled I was with how much my 5-foot-tall Acer shirasawanum ‘Moonrise’ had grown since I planted it from a mail order box three or four years ago. Such thoughts are so often the kiss of death for plants, and sure enough, last week I noticed that the bottom half is leafing out much quicker than the top, which is a common symptom of drought stress, although it can be caused by various diseases as well.

A small scrape with a fingernail showed that the upper branches aren’t dead, at least not yet, so there is still hope. I’ll give it a couple deep waterings (small, infrequent watering is of no value) per week for a little bit, then ease off to once a week with the hopes that it can find enough energy to push out those top leaves.

If that doesn’t work, and it’s realistic to guess the odds are less than 50-50, I won’t do anything rash for some time. Hacking out the top of a tree is a measure of last resort and one stop away from shovel pruning.

The spring rain was a blessing and probably saved a few plants, but if you’re noticing more bare spots than usual this year, you’re not alone.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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