Drought tests gardeners but there are lessons to learn

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Map shows severe droughts persisting in parts of New England, the South and the West. (Courtesy NOAA)

The Northern Seacoast may be in the midst of a severe drought, but one master gardener for the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension is urging home gardeners to use it as a learning experience, not a time to despair.

The Maine Department of Agriculture noted in an update on Tuesday that severe drought conditions exist approximately south of the boundary created by routes 111 and 202 in southern York County, including Saco, Alfred, Sanford and Lebanon.

Meanwhile, James Brown, a hydrometeorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray, Maine, said the drought spreads west to Concord, N.H., and south in Massachusetts.

Brown said records indicate that Epping, for instance has only had six tenths of an inch of rain this month, when normally it has had three inches.

Meanwhile, Concord has recorded just 15.82 inches for the year, when normal rainfall would be about 22½ inches.

While the Northern Seacoast is in the epicenter of the drought, just an hour away in Portland, they're fairing much better, Brown said, adding that Maine's largest city got 4.42 inches in June compared to Concord, N.H., with 1.41 inches.

"Anytime you have less than 85 percent of the rainfall you average you're in a drought situation," Brown said.

But John Williams, a volunteer master gardener with the UNH Coop Extension, said there's a lot to learn by watching how your plants withstand these tinder dry conditions.

Williams said whether you live in a town that's restricting water usage or have your own well but fear it'll run dry, it makes a lot of sense to decrease water usage, and he has a strategy in place to do just that.

"I can't keep the whole garden watered, so I use selective watering," he said. "I'm not a big vegetable grower, but among my perennial beds, I grow tomatoes sand squash, so I'm watering the veggies but not the perennials."

Williams said by doing this he's learning what plants on his property appear more drought resistant.

"Some plants are looking fine with the lack of water, others are turning yellow," he said. "Some of the shrubs are drought resistant, have deeper roots. The trees are doing fine, they're chasing the water. But a tomato plant won't get down seven or eight feet to get the water so they could wither."

He also noted some plants will surprise you.

"They're funny. They don't get any rain, then all of a sudden a couple of showers and they pop up and go, which tells me their surface rooters," he added.

Williams advised gardeners looking to give their plants a fighting chance to mulch them well after they've been given a good watering as mulch helps to retain moisture.

He also said if you're building a raised garden bed add vermiculite as that will also aid in water retention, however he advises against adding vermiculite if you've already planted as you could further stress young, struggling root systems.

Lastly, Williams said droughts sometime give gardeners who pick with their hearts, not their heads, a tough lesson.

"They don't plant thinking of any conditions, they just like the plant," he said. "We're at the mercy of ground conditions."

Meanwhile, Brown said relief could be on the way, noting a weather front will be heading south from Canada tonight into the mountains of Maine and New Hampshire.

By Thursday it should stretch three quarters down to the southern borders and impact the Northern Seacoast with some decent rain - maybe an inch, he said - before exiting on Friday leaving less humid conditions.

"We'll need several inches in August," he added, however, to loosen the drought's grip.

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