Drought on Cape Cod

Drought on Cape Cod

And we plant people thought last summer was dry! The summer of 2016 has been even drier…harder too on the plants since it’s been hot, sunny and windy. That combination causes plants to dry even faster, and because it’s been so long since we’ve had any lasting, significant rainfall the small amounts of precipitation that have periodically moved through don’t soak in.

Even plants that are under irrigation or have been well watered through the summer are under drought stress.  As I walk though my yard, and travel to other properties on the Cape, here is what I see.

This PJM Rhody was newly planted last spring and was hand-watered by the owner. Unfortunately, as you can see, directing the hose to the base of this plant once a week hasn't been enough to keep the plant healthy. This is because the soil all around that new root ball is dry as a bone, and so the water directed at the base of this plant hasn't kept the root ball hydrated in such dry conditions.

This PJM Rhody was newly planted last spring and was hand-watered by the owner. Unfortunately, as you can see, directing the hose to the base of this plant once a week hasn’t been enough to keep the plant healthy. This is because the soil all around that new root ball is dry as a bone, and so the water directed at the base of this plant hasn’t kept the root ball hydrated in such dry conditions.

This Rhododendron hasn't been watered at all. Even though it's a mature plant that has been grown in part-shade, and is mulched to help preserve moisture, it's drying up and dying back. If this shrub isn't watered soon or if we have a cold, windy winter, this plant is likely to have significant dieback come spring.

This Rhododendron hasn’t been watered at all. Even though it’s a mature plant that has been grown in part-shade, and is mulched to help preserve moisture, it’s drying up and dying back. If this shrub isn’t watered soon or if we have a cold, windy winter, this plant is likely to have significant dieback come spring.

This rhododendron has been deeply watered with a sprinkler once a week. Although it's better off than the other two shown here, it still shows signs of drought stress with the older leaves yellowing prematurely.

This rhododendron has been deeply watered with a sprinkler once a week. Although it’s better off than the other two shown here, it still shows signs of drought stress with the older leaves yellowing prematurely.

In a normal year I water with an overhead sprinkler once a week, letting the sprinkler run for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. My sprinkler and water pressure delivers between 3/4 to an inch of water in that time. But this summer I see that what was sufficient in a year when we’ve also had periodic rainfall doesn’t begin to hydrate my plants now. After 3 hours of watering if I go out and dig into the soil in that area I find that two or three inches down it’s as dry as moon dust.

Here’s what you might be seeing on your property:

1. Newly planted shrubs and trees wilting or dying completely, even if they are under regular irrigation.

2. Established plants dropping foliage prematurely…leaves turning yellow or red in August.

3. Hydrangeas that wilt every day even through they’ve been watered.

4. Perennials turning brown.

5. Lawns browning in the sunniest areas, even if the turf has been watered.

If you can water these plants deeply, and there are no watering restrictions in your town, do so once a week. Don’t depend on hand-watering alone since that only dampens the soil directly around the plant and the reality is that people get bored long before the plants get a good soaking. Again, check your local regulations about watering…as of this writing there are watering restrictions in Hyannis and local regulations are likely to change quickly on a town-by-town basis.

Some plants will come back from drought conditions, and others may not. If it’s a cold winter, plants that suffered in this dry summer will be more prone to winter damage.

The owner of these plants assumed that the soaker hose he stretched around these newly placed shrubs and trees would do the job. Unfortunately he had attached two soakers together and the water never made it to the end of the second hose.

The owner of these plants assumed that the soaker hose he stretched around these newly placed shrubs and trees would do the job. Unfortunately he had attached two soakers together and the water never made it to the end of the second hose. If you’re using soaker hoses always check to see if the water is traveling the entire length.  When using them in areas with sandy soils like Cape Cod, it’s best to wind soaker hoses back and forth so that more ground is covered. When a hose is straight as in this photo, the water sinks straight down into the sandy loam and doesn’t travel to the sides to soak the entire plant.

You might see plant dropping leaves early, even if they've been watered.

You might see plant dropping leaves early, even if they’ve been watered.

This newly planted Pieris suffered when the owner of this garden went on vacation in July and early August.

This newly planted Pieris suffered when the owner of this garden went on vacation in July and early August. The plant might come back, but it’s likely that some of these branches are dead and the plant won’t look as full. The gardener says she’ll give it a year and see what happens. She’s watering it now, and has top-dressed around the plant with composted manure.

Some of our customers wonder if fertilizing will help a drought-injured plant and the answer is “it depends.” Applying a light application of an organic fertilizer in September or October will assist the plant to regrow next spring if it’s still alive. Additionally, top-dressing with compost or composted manure now or in the fall may also help. But giving the plant synthetic fertilizers when they are already dry is likely to further burn the roots.

6 Comments

  1. Jean on August 25, 2016 at 8:01 am

    Thank you so much for all the information in your newsletters. Handling the yard by myself and the suggestions have been so helpful !!

    • CLFornari on August 25, 2016 at 10:35 am

      Jean – so glad we can help!

  2. Peggy Ginther on August 25, 2016 at 8:48 am

    I have a six year old weeping cherry tree that appears completely dead. Is there still a chance that it will come back next year and is there anything I can do to help it.

    • CLFornari on August 25, 2016 at 10:35 am

      Peggy,
      If the branches break off easily when you snap a twig it’s probably gone but to be on the safe side water it well now, and again every two weeks if it doesn’t rain, and apply Flower-tone or Plant-tone around the plant in October. Then wait to see if it breaks dormancy next spring.

  3. Donna Hegarty on August 26, 2016 at 7:15 pm

    Hello, CL! I’ve been wondering why my red maple tree and my Japanese red maple tree have the leaves turning from the beautiful red color, to green. Can you explain?

    • CLFornari on August 26, 2016 at 9:30 pm

      Donna,
      Some red maples, because of their genetics, naturally turn from red foliage to green as the summer goes on. They are most red in the spring, then go to green and then back to red in the fall. Others stay red all summer but again are most vivid in spring and fall. I’d guess that you have the types that don’t keep such a deep red color. Additionally, as a plant is in more shade frequently leaf color fades. So if your trees are in less direct sunlight than they used to be, that too would cause them to turn more green than red.

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