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Monday, September 19, 2016

Still dry

As of September 1, most of Massachusetts is officially suffering from severe to extreme drought conditions. How are plants and people coping with the drought?

    What I see happening to plants around town is sad and alarming. Leaves of some trees have turned completely brown and dropped off early

A pin oak (Quercus palustris) cuts its losses

Sometimes it’s hard to see why one tree or shrub is suffering, while another nearby seems to be relatively unscathed.

    The reactions of two hydrangeas about ten feet apart in my front yard are puzzlingly different. One wilts almost every day, has dropped all leaves from some branches, and looks as if it’s near death, despite my watering efforts. 

This hydrangea can't catch a break

The other is still just as perky as it was this spring, holding its bright green leaves up to the sun as if there were no problem at all.

This one is doing fine

    I went to the Internet to find out what’s going on. North Carolina’s Cooperative Extension provides a useful article on plants’ response to drought. The author, Barbara Fair, PhD, explains that when plants can’t get water from the soil, they go into crisis mode, jettisoning important functions. Wilting, letting leaves hang vertically when not enough water comes from the roots, changes the angle at which the sun’s rays strike the leaves, reducing water loss. 

     In these conditions plants send chemical signals to their leaves to close stomata, pores that let water out. If the stomata stay closed too long, preventing evaporation and water flow through plant tissues, the plant can suffer from both over-heating and nutrient deficiency.

    Next desperate measures include sacrificing some leaves, twigs or branches to save energy and stopping production of chemicals that protect the plant from attack by insects, fungi and bacterial diseases.

This horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) prioritized making seeds over saving leaves

    My hydrangea’s problems could be multifactorial. It may be an especially thirsty cultivar. It may be in a slightly hotter, sunnier, or better drained spot than its compatriot, though both are in part shade. Roots of a nearby oak could be capturing the minimal water available, leaving the drooping hydrangea dry.  The shrub could even be suffering from a wilt disease, to which drought stress makes it more susceptible. 

    The drought response of the people around me varies. A valiant member of the Holden Garden Club, faced with an outdoor watering ban, has been collecting the not-yet-hot water from her shower in a bucket for her plants. Meanwhile, neighbors in my city, under no watering ban, are proceeding with sprinkling newly seeded lawns as if there were no drought. 

Watering during sunny days maximizes loss to evaporation

    I’m no water hero either. I’ve stopped squandering water on my lawn, but I’ve continued irrigating garden beds—less often--and watering container plants by hand. As the drought drags on, I too have resorted to saving water from indoors for some thirsty plants. In my case it’s rinse water from the kitchen sink. 

     While I think reseeding a lawn right now is going too far, I can sympathize with the impulse. It’s hard to watch your garden dry up and die.

Late-breaking news--it rained today! The water barrel is filling up at last.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

True garden friends

At this time of year, spiders seem to be everywhere. I spotted a fully formed orb web on a kitchen window screen one late afternoon when the sun’s angle was right. 

Not my photo, but this is  the kind of web I saw

As I walk through the garden, I brush through invisible strands of web stretched between bushes. Late one night I turned on a light and encountered a spider in the bathroom sink. She quickly retreated to the overflow hole, from which she had apparently ventured out in the dark, perhaps looking for insects attracted to water.

A spider hunting in the sink

         I once read that we’re never more than 3 feet from a spider. The point made by the writer was that we don’t notice these close companions in our houses and yards because they don’t bother us, just silently pursue their own aims. Since reading that, I’ve tried not to over-react when I see a spider on the wall. For gardeners, spiders are allies because they eat lots of insects.

A spider eats about 2,000 insects per year

         Attempting to validate the 3-foot rule this week, I was chagrined to learn that it’s a fallacy. It turns out that how far you are from a spider depends on where you are, which is hardly surprising. And despite my perception, there aren’t more spiders around at the end of the summer. In fact, this is a hard time for spiders because of dry weather. Perhaps what I’m noticing is that spiders in the garden are on the make, looking to hook up and reproduce.

     I admit that the spider I know best is Charlotte of Charlotte’s Web, described by E. B. White as “a true friend and a good writer.”

Charlotte A. Cavatica is an orb-weaving barn spider whom White named for her species' scientific binomial, Araneus cavaticus.
     At the end of the summer, after making her egg sac, Charlotte tells her friend and protégé Wilbur the pig that she will die. White drew a veil over Charlotte’s romantic life, but otherwise this seems to be completely accurate. At this time of year spiders find mates, and the females lay eggs in egg sacs made of silk. 

     I often find the sacs stuck under the rims of flower pots. I learned that eggs of temperate zone spiders, such as Charlotte and presumably the spiders in my yard, can stay safe inside the egg sac through the winter. The offspring hatch in spring, as Charlotte’s babies do.

Hatched spiderlings ready to disperse on their silk parachutes

     This small foray reveals how much more cool stuff there is to learn about New England’s dozens of resident spider species. Poking around on the Web (fittingly), I learned that those single strands I feel on my arms as I walk near shrubs could be lines of silk that allow a spider to take cover while monitoring any vibrations from her web. Spiders are predators but also prey.

     And that spider in the sink wasn’t an outdoor spider who found her way into the house. Apparently indoors is a much more challenging spider environment because of scarcity of food. Only specialized species can live in this difficult environment.  Just as well.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Lobster compost and the peat-free future

This week I had the pleasure of meeting with the Holden Garden Club to give a talk about some easy and time-saving sustainable gardening approaches. Club president Robin Van Liew, a champion lily grower whose relaxed effectiveness I greatly admired, asked about a slide showing Coast of Maine’s Quoddy Blend Lobster Compost. 

I had raised this product as a possible alternative to homemade compost for making potting mix. In case you haven’t run across Coast of Maine at your garden center, here’s the lowdown.
    Coast of Maine Products is the kind of sustainable business that it feels good to support. The company is the brain child of Carlos Quijano, who settled in Camden, Maine and conceived the idea of selling compost made from discarded mussel shells. Since 1996 Coast of Maine has been using local waste material to make organic compost, potting soil and mulch.

    Maine already had a tradition of composting. In the 1980s, the state had formed the Maine Compost Team, bringing together specialists to help processors of salmon, wild blueberries and shellfish to set up successful composting programs. The Maine Compost School at the University of Maine teaches participants from around the world to make compost on a medium to large scale.

Maine Compost School

    I did some research to answer Robin’s question, what's lobster compost? On first thought, that sounds like spinning gold into straw. I learned that Coast of Maine uses lobster bodies and shells that are left over after processors cook the lobsters and remove the meat. In addition to organic material, lobster bodies in compost provide essential macronutrients for plants: calcium and nitrogen

The shells are high in calcium. Nitrogen is provided both by protein in the shells and by chitin, a long-chain polymer found in crustacean shells and insect exoskeletons. 

    Other local Maine components in the lobster compost are waste from blueberry harvesting--leaves, twigs and rejected berries. 

There’s also composted cow manure, sphagnum peat moss, and composted bark. Coast of Maine ships its bags of potting soil and mulch to independent garden centers along the East Coast.

    I love the black richness of Coast of Maine’s compost and potting soils. It’s also great that they’re relatively local products, made about 350 miles from my yard. My only complaint is that they still contain peat. We need to get past this in the United States. In Britain, non-peat garden products are already widely available. I wrote about why peat is not a sustainable product in my post of August 17, 2015

    In brief, peat forms too slowly to be harvested sustainably. 

A peat bog in Ontario. Peat forms at 1 millimeter per year

And because it sequesters carbon, using it for gardening means we’re chipping away at a major carbon sink. I prefer to replace peat with coir (coconut fiber) in my potting mix. It’s one little thing we can do to help slow climate change.