Rain at Last

As an impressionistic meteorologist, I’m very pleased with our recent rains and even more so with the promise of more rain in the near future. Some areas of northern and central California could actually reach normal levels of annual precipitation. The Santa Cruz area is during fairly well, but this happy future might not extend throughout the area: portions of Monterey County are receiving lighter precipitation.

What have we learned?

My first reaction to the overdue rain is that we can now anticipate fresh new stems and leaves and a great floral display in the spring. Our plants are responding to the moisture by extending their roots and drawing in nutrients, preparing for a new season of growth.

Then, I flashed on the idea that the drought is over for good, and we’re back to the Monterey Bay area’s historical weather pattern, with a dry summer and the onset of the rainy season around mid-October. This thought didn’t last long. Realistically, our climate is changing in ways that will change our gardening—and our lives—in significant ways.

This change is happening at a fast rate, not with the very slow arrival of the Ice Age (approximately 110,000 to 12,000 years ago or the Little Ice Age (1550 to 1850), which developed relatively more quickly, over a period of about 200 years.

Politicians are debating a range of responses to today’s emerging problem. Clearly this is a global issue that requires global action, but as individuals, we can respond in small ways. The most constructive action for individuals is to elect those who accept the reality of climate change and support long-term solutions.

As gardeners, we can pursue three basic strategies:

First, retire plants that require summer irrigation and that suffer under drought conditions. The single most widespread plant in this category is lawn grass, which achieves it aesthetic potential only with frequent irrigation, applications of nitrogen fertilizers and broadleaf herbicides, and regular cultivation, including mowing, aeration and pest control.

In a future column, I will describe alternatives to traditional turf grasses.

Tropical-climate plants compirse another category to avoid for drought-tolerant gardens. Examples include the hibiscus (H. syriacus is the most popular ornamental species) and the banana (Musa acuminata, M. balbisiana and others). In general, avoid plants with large glossy dark leaves, which tend to absorb more heat, require a lot of water and transpire a lot of water.

For the water needs of specific plants, Sunset’s Western Garden Book provides useful guidelines, with briefly descriptive terms from “ample water” to “little to moderate water.”

The second basic strategy is to favor plants that will survive in your garden under drought conditions. Generally, as often mentioned in the column, these are plants that are native to coastal California and other Mediterranean (or “summer-dry”) climates. These plants will do better with a little moisture during a prolonged drought, but they have evolved to withstand dry periods, using such methods as growing small leaves, that minimize water loss.

Succulents are another category of drought-tolerant plants, which have developed structures for storing water in their leaves, stems or roots.

The third strategy for drought-tolerant gardening is to use water wisely, through drip irrigation and regular mulching. These water-conservation methods complement the two preceding strategies for plant selection, and help the gardener to cope with water restrictions.

Use the next clear days to assess your garden for drought-tolerance. However much we enjoy the current rains, preparing for future droughts requires long-term planning..

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