Eerie silence

Arriving back home late, late, late Saturday night, I was dismayed to see this on the following day.

Smoke, and lots of it. We missed the heatwave that occurred here in Oregon (four days above 100°F) because of an unplanned trip down to southern New Mexico for a week, our second trip away this summer. Ironically, it was 20°F cooler where we were in the Chihuahuan Desert than it was up here in sunny Oregon.

Sunday morning, I donned an N95 mask so I could head out into the yard and inspect the garden. We had just installed some microsprinklers before we left, so I wanted to see how things had fared. Walking around, I noticed it was eerily silent.

For the first time in our 16 summers here, the creek has run completely dry. Nary a trickle. Not even the pool at the north end of the creek had water. I wonder if the little fish were able to swim elsewhere or if they had become raccoon snacks?

Seeing the creek this way, of course, started a series of catastrophic thoughts about our well also running dry.

Just hours before leaving, L had finished installing microsprinklers to help irrigate several of the more sensitive areas in the yard while we were away. Sadly, they weren’t able to keep up. The soil underneath was bone dry. Luckily, I had also watered by hand before we left just in case things didn’t run as planned, so most of the heavily wilted plants in those areas should recover in a day or two.

Less fortunately, other areas of the garden didn’t fare so well. This Ribes lobbii, for example is toast.

I do see, however, that the stupid horsetail is unfazed.

Heading out to the deer garden, I also found that the Ozothamnus ‘Silver Jubilee’ is dying from drought. The deer garden is where I trial drought tolerant plants that should be unpalatable (or even better, toxic) to deer. I planted this ozothamnus 8 years ago and never had to water it previously. I guess this record breaking summer was the final straw. We haven’t had any measurable rain since the end of April. That’s almost four months without precipitation. Even drought tolerant plants need water once in a while.

Note that the Pacific wax myrtle (Morella californica) to the left is still alive, as is the horsetail poking up in between it and the ozothamnus.

Moving on, the tree peony (Paeonia delavayi) is desperately unhappy, but I am guessing it will survive.

Drought stressed and sun scorched tree peony after 4 months without water

The dwarf Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa var. nana) and Cascade penstemon (Penstemon serrulatus) are also starting to shrivel, scorch, and curl. I started watering, but got discouraged and left them to their own fates. Still thinking about that well and I would rather spend water on the more valuable plants that are closer to the house.

Phlomis fruticosa var nana and Penstemon serrulatus shriveling in the drought.

It looks like even the Rhododendron ‘PJM’ is toast. I’ve never watered it once during the 15 years that it’s been here, but this summer was just too much. The deer are so desperate for something green to eat that they’ve been munching on the globe butterfly bush (Buddleia globosa) to the left (so far unfazed by the drought) and the flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) to the right. They normally leave those plants alone. The flowering currant also shows extensive scorching from the heat and drought. Bad news as this native plant usually does better under normal summer dry conditions.

Even the clump of fennel (Foeniculum vulgare purpureum) is beginning to show signs of drought stress as the lower fronds turn yellow and brown. Lots of happy horsetail though.

Fennel fronds beginning to brown from the drought

I don’t have the heart to show the large number of new plants that were put in this spring that have all died. About a 90% failure rate this year.

Of course, this was all hot on the heels of our first irrigation failure when we left for Mexico for 10 days in July. I usually set up a sprinkler on a battery operated timer for all the potted plants that have yet to be planted. This year, it failed for some reason and none of our potted plants got watered. Many died, but the one that hurt the most was this specimen of Taxodium distichum ‘Peve Minaret’.

I realize now that none of my preparations over the past few years -of slowly planting more and more drought tolerant plants- was really completely adequate for what is coming. I needed to push the envelope further and an even more radical change in my plant choices is needed. The major question is how do I achieve a garden that looks good with as little irrigation as possible?

I know this was sort of a depressing post, but, well, there you go. I do, however, want to leave on a positive note. Take a look in the pot immediately to the left of the dead Peve’s Minaret in the photo above. It’s something I am extremely happy about.

That is a blue-leaf form of honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) grown from seed collected in the Chihuahuan Desert last year. It didn’t care one whit about the heat, or the drought, or being left behind twice and neglected for several weeks in summer. How do you think it would like 5 months of cold, wet, sopping rain? I won’t be planting this one in the ground anytime soon, but I do have another seedling that I am mighty tempted to try.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. danger garden

    Sobering. The creek drying up for the first time, the plants unable to take the current conditions. Your words “for what is coming” are rather eerie actually. Add in the next paragraph, the seedling that happily powered on thru summer’s extremes but probably wouldn’t cope with winter’s cold and wet. Scary times.

    I am sorry for your plant losses.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      I’ve chosen to make this one of those reframing moments and am trying to focus on what is still looking good despite everything. It’s a limited palette of plants that will take the extremes between cold/wet and hot/dry. I do suspect we will just end up with less rainfall over time and become more like parts of California, but colder.

  2. Kris P

    I’m sorry you came home from your trip to face both smoke and dry/dying plants, Jerry. The dry creek is especially frustrating but that PNW heat dome was an extraordinary event, even if such things are becoming more common as the needle on climate change keeps moving. The honey mesquite is a very positive find and I hope that, with some interim care and cooling weather conditions, many of your plants will rebound.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      It’s already getting cooler, so hopefully the fall rains are on the way. I suspect there will be quite a few more dead plants by the time it arrives, but this is going to help narrow down what I need to focus on next year. I realize that there are some plants that look sad all summer unless I water them every few days – those might be the plants that need to go and then I can focus my time on plants that need water every week or every other week.

  3. Jerry, wow. Just wow. The dry creek? The dead ozothamnus? You illustrate the issue very clearly. Thank you for that, and I am so sorry for your losses. The trick now is to find those plants that thrive (Morella c., for example) all this dry and also the intense wet cold of our winters. So many desert plants look appealing to me but the wouldn’t survive our winters. Uggg….the plant palette shifts. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      It’s hard to hit a moving target. I feel like we got two messages this year. Prepare for more unexpectedly turbulent weather in winter and for more extended drought and heat in the summer. It will be interesting to see what else I can try that will make it through. I’m looking for the toughest of the tough.

  4. hb

    Sorry to see this. It has been a wake up call for all gardeners, these extreme heat waves and droughts. Hurts to lose precious plants no matter what the cause. But, we learn from our losses because that’s what gardeners do.

    Best wishes for better weather.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      I’ve still got a lot of learning to do! Seeing how other people are adapting in their gardens has been a big help.

  5. Linda Brazill

    It may be a depressing post but only because our reality is pretty depressing. So many drought tolerant plants are sun plants and I have mostly shade so trying to see what it OK with little water here is still a big learning experience. And I am watering more than may be possible in the future. That horsetail sure shows why it is still around. Maybe our gardens will be beautifully composed of all the historic thugs one of these days.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      Yeah, it’s been a bit much this summer. Have had to reframe and focus on what is still doing well and ignore the things that aren’t. It was definitely not the year to get plants established. Dry shade is tough, especially in colder climates than here in western Oregon. I am starting to focus on a few favorites here, Mahonia,, Trachystemon, Brunnera, Ruscus, and the like for those conditions with mostly good results.

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