Lessons from a Wet Summer

Anybody who gardens in New England will agree that this year has been a tough year for growing things. A rainy spring that continued right through July, then something like one week of heat and humidity, and now we’re straight into fall. What happened to summer? And where are my tomatoes?

While New England weather has always been changeable, what we’re seeing now is the effects of climate change, and as gardeners, we need to get used to it. More severe weather patterns, wetter summers, and crazy swings of temperatures during all seasons now seem to be the norm rather than the occasional blip on the weather map.

How can gardeners adapt?  To be honest, adapting is the essence of being a successful gardener. Observing what works, what doesn’t work. Picking your battles and learning from your mistakes. If a plant doesn’t thrive, either move it somewhere else or move on to something more appropriate for your conditions. Accept that nature usually has the final word.

So what worked and what didn’t here in our cold (z4/5a) north-facing valley farm in central MA? In our raised veggie beds, our leafy crops did fairly well as long as they got a little sun at the start of the season. Onions, garlic, carrots, arugula, radishes, leeks, spinach and lettuce were all bumper crops, most likely because for these crops you want to encourage green leafy growth rather than flowers. My basil plants took a while to get going, but a rare warm sunny spell in early July gave them a kick start and I have had 4 great harvests. My freezer is now full of small portions of homemade pesto, which will bring a welcome whiff of summer into our cold winter evenings.

Cherry tomatoes (below) seemed unbothered by rain clouds, and we had a decent harvest of those. But our late (large) tomatoes were a bust. Those huge green tomatoes simply rotted on the vine for lack of heat and sunshine. Peppers were small and their “heat” only lukewarm. Next year I might just give up on growing the big toms and peppers and buy them from our local farmstand.  My beans never even germinated (too much rain), but our squash and cucumbers provided a small harvest, thanks to an occasional reprieve from the rain when pollinators were able to do their job. Potato plants grew tall and provided a decent harvest, although many tubers were small and could have used an extra month of summer heat to grow to full size.

As for flowers, I watched sadly as beautiful white peonies were flattened by heavy rains and my Gateway Joe Pye Weed flopped over into the pond, its flowers drowned. The Bee Balm collapsed under the weight of the rainfall and took down most other plants around it. Very disappointing to the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds who rely on all that sugary nectar to fuel their high-octane lifestyles. Next year, I’ll pinch back the growing stems of some of these plants early in the season to control their height and prevent these kinds of garden disasters.

Plants that stood tall

In spite of the weather, a few of the flowering plants in our gardens stood out from the crowd. Our 4 year old patch of Virginia Rose (Rosa virginiana) stood unperturbed from the rain and produced its finest floral show since we planted it 4 years ago. Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata) also stayed upright despite the wind and torrential rain battering its snowball flowers. The flowers were a little smaller than usual, but their fragrance was still strong and I saw butterflies and hummingbirds visit them frequently. This season was very tough on butterflies (who need sunny warm weather to complete their life cycles), so the nectar-rich Phlox (both white and hot pink varieties) was welcomed by many winged creatures right into September this year.

One plant that grew to monster proportions yet still remained upright was Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). Shown below (back left) is a single plant that I put in last year. Obviously it likes these conditions…in the wild it usually grows to about 2-3′ but this plant grew to at least 7′ without a single stem flopping over!

A close relative of the more common Bee Balm (M. didyma), Wild Bergamot has pink flowers that attract every pollinator in the neighborhood, including hummingbirds. Like Bee Balm, Bergamot plants tend to mildew as the summer goes on, but with the Wild Bergamot, I am finding that the ghostly grey-tinted foliage actually looks nice contrasted with nearby plants later in the season. I don’t need to resist the urge to cut down the mildewed stems the way I always do with Bee Balm…

Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia) laughed at the rain and clouds and bloomed their cheerful heads off right into September this year, without flopping once. This plant is one of the most reliable of flowering plants for New England gardens, requiring little irrigation and fuss, and its flowers provide a huge bounty of nectar for pollinators and seeds for hungry birds trying to bulk up for winter.

Low-growing plants with small flowers such as groundcover Sedum, Coralbells (Heuchera), Running Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) and Lamb’s Ear also enjoyed the summer’s extra moisture, producing lush new growth and spreading by leaps and bounds. Although not native to our region, Lamb’s  Ear (Stachys byzantina) is a great nectar plant for bees and its soft feltlike foliage makes an excellent groundcover that contrasts well with just about everything else in the garden. I usually cut flowering stems down after blooming, to allow the remaining foliage to fill in and and keep plants tidier (as a non-native plant, they are not a significant food source for local birds so I do not let them go to seed).

Plants with less weighty flowers such as native grasses, sedges and rushes also fared well and stayed upright through torrential rains. Grasses and grass-like plants are great “filler” plants for your flower beds, instantly adding a natural effect to your garden. They are also an essential food source for the caterpillars of many butterfly and moth species, and their seed heads feed many birds.

As for the plants that flopped over, next year, I plan to pre-emptively prune some of the worst offenders on this summer’s flop list. My next blog entry will discuss pinching back plants to control height prevent them from falling over later in the year.

Above: Lambs’ Ear and Black-eyed Susans thrived during this year’s wet summer, growing lush without flopping over. Tall varieties of Sedum (Black Jackwith the pink flowers at left) when grown in rich soil, benefits from having its stems pinched back early in the season to create a sturdier plant that doesn’t fall over from the weight of its blooms.

The good news is that the rain and cool weather made it a great year for newly installed plants, shrubs and trees.  I was able to divide perennials and plant new gardens for clients right into August, when normally I wouldn’t consider either of these past late June. Most new shrubs and trees responded to the extra rainfall by putting out healthy new growth and establishing good root systems.  And for habitat gardeners who allow their plants to set seed to feed the birds, it was an excellent year for increasing your plant populations through self-sowing plants.

Reseeders running rampant

Although w
eeds were a real problem for gardeners this year, the wet conditions did provide excellent conditions for existing plants to reseed themselves. New England Aster, Swamp Milkweed, Butterfly Milkweed, Boneset, Liatris, Helianthus, Globe Thistle, Yarrow, Goldenrod, Joe Pye Weed, Solomon’s Seal, Evening Primrose, Purple Coneflower, Agastache, Sweet Alyssum and Foxglove, to name a few, all responded to this summer’s consistent moisture by germinating here and there across our zone 5a garden of mixed woods, lawn and fields. Many of them I will be able to share with friends, family and my garden coaching clients. I’ll move others to a suitable spot elsewhere on the farm. 

Reseeding lets you strike a great deal with your local birds and plants. You just  leave the flowers alone after they bloom, allowing them to turn brown and set seed, the birds will feast on the seeds, and excrete them elsewhere in your yard. New plants for almost no effort!

Above: This self-seeded Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) grew to almost shrublike proportions from this year’s constant rain. In areas with full sun, their stems did not flop over at all, but some stems collapsed on plants in shadier areas. Boneset flowers feed hordes of tiny pollinators during their long blooming cycle.

2009…the summer that nearly wasn’t

Because they need the heat from the sun to live and fly, summer butterfly populations were noticeably low in our yard (which is a message I am hearing from other butterfly gardeners up and down the east coast). Even though we grow many different Milkweed species here, we saw very few Monarch butterflies or their caterpillars, compared to previous years. Time will tell how this year’s weather will impact their populations, but hopefully our little Monarch way-station will have nourished a few of them on their long journeys south. Eastern US Monarch populations are at risk due to habitat loss in their southern home (a forested mountain range in central Mexico), so they need all the help they can get from us gardeners along their migration path.

Butterflies are back!

But now that September has brought some sunny weather and warm days, our butterfly populations seem to be on the rebound. Last week I found a single Black Swallowtail caterpillar on my self-sown Dill plants (picture below) and today I noticed a Monarch butterfly. Yellow Bear caterpillars (the juvenile form of the white day-flying Virginian Tiger Moth) have been spotted on our front porch, as well as autumn’s familiar Wooly Bear (the caterpillar of the Isabella Tiger Moth).

Dragonflies are again cruising open areas on the farm, gobbling up the season’s last mosquito populations to fuel their migration. And thanks to the ever-abundant Goldenrod, Boltonia and New England Asters, late season pollinators bulking up for winter still have plenty of nectar and pollen, which means good seed supplies for birds this winter.

Still to bloom on the farm this gardening season are Eupatorium ‘Chocolate’ (Eupatorium rugosum) and the single pink daisy-like Korean Mums (Dendranthema rubella), which will give me a late blast of color in my autumn-fading gardens, as well as a rare nectar source for whatever pollinators are still alive next month. My own gardening season is over, due to a bad accident early this month that will keep me from gardening or riding for some time. For now, I can only sit back and watch life unfold in our backyard habitat. Not a bad way to recuperate!


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