Plan for continuing drought

By Tom Seymour | Oct 27, 2017
Photo by: Tom Seymour This roadside pool has dried up for the first time.

It’s rarely mentioned on the evening news, being overshadowed by more feel-good topics such as best places for fall foliage-viewing and similar stories.

But the drought, particularly as it pertains to Midcoast Maine, ranks as a true natural disaster. The water table, that is, so-called “surface water,” sinks ever lower with each passing day without rain. And of particular concern, there is no significant rain in sight.

So the situation will only worsen. To get a perspective on just how bad things have gotten, take a drive through the country and view the various brooks, streams and rivers. For those who hadn’t previously noticed, the low-water conditions may come as a shock.

For instance, a roadside pool on a small stream several miles up the road from me has gone dry. This is the first time in my memory that this has happened and I’ve been around for a very long time. The dry pool stands as an example of the situation in general.

Our garden soil, too, acts as an indicator of the seriousness of the drought. With no serious rainfall since some time last summer, the soil in our gardens has become parched. Vegetable gardens -- with a few exceptions, such as beds used to grow asparagus, parsnips and horseradish, crops that remain in the ground over the winter -- won’t suffer much because the crops have already been harvested.

Perennial plants and shrubs may suffer, though. Going into the winter with absolutely no moisture for their roots to pick up and transfer through the plant’s vascular system means that our prized plants are in danger of desiccation as winter winds wick away any remaining moisture.

To lessen the effects of desiccation, or extreme drying, it will help to wrap shrubs and certain perennial plants with a loose coating of burlap. Fill the empty space inside this burlap “cocoon” with dry leaves and tie the bundle securely with twine. Then in spring, remove the protective covering and the plant or plants should be in pretty good shape.

Preventive measures

We have a few measures at our disposal that can help make a difference. One of these is compost. While watering now can put a serious strain on wells, it may be worth it for a one-shot deal. Let’s consider how this can help our asparagus roots to survive the drought. The same, however, will be effective in many other situations as well.

First, do a thorough weeding. The dry, loose soil makes it easy to just lift weeds out by the roots, shake and discard. Now, with a weed-free bed, water until at least the top inch of soil has become damp. Don’t attempt to accomplish this all at once. Instead, water thoroughly, stop and water again a half-hour later. This will enable the water to penetrate deeper than if it's done with a single watering. Then apply a thick layer of compost. The compost will help conserve the moisture and also, rains, when they eventually arrive, will slowly drive nutrients from the compost into the soil, making for healthy, strong plants next spring.

Homemade compost works fine, as long as it is thoroughly composted. Some outlets sell compost that wasn’t allowed to attain the degree of heat needed to kill weeds and weed seeds. So be wary. There’s no need to introduce even more, or newer, weeds to your garden. If partially composted material is a concern, the bagged compost available from garden centers and hardware stores works fine. I use composted cow manure and it performs very well.

Next, and this may seem counterintuitive, refrain from tilling your garden beds this season. Many gardeners like to give their beds a thorough tilling in fall. This leaves the soil ready for planting come spring. But tilling during such dry conditions will only cause whatever small amount of moisture may remain in the soil to evaporate, leaving the soil even drier than before.

So instead of tilling, just weed your gardens and then spread compost over them. This will provide long-term nourishment and will keep the soil from drying any more than it already has.

Any more than this is out of our control. The only true solution to this problem is rain, a steady, soaking rain. But given the severity of the drought, just one rainstorm will hardly suffice. We need back-to-back heavy rains. And that, according to current forecasts, seems unlikely in the near future.

Conserve water

People on municipal water tend not to worry about droughts. For them it’s out of sight and out of mind. But that doesn’t make the problem any less severe. All water, no matter from what source, must come from somewhere, and even towns and cities that tap into large aquifers can put a serious crimp in those aquifers. This is rarely noticeable, which accounts for the lack of concern on the part of urban residents. Nonetheless, when faced with drought conditions, even the largest sources of water stand in some degree of peril.

As people become increasingly aware of the environment, even those on municipal water should do their part and practice water conservation. After all, every drop helps.

Our larger lakes should tell us a frightening story. For instance, Megunticook Lake in Camden was so low by late September that there was barely enough water to launch a boat. And if our lakes are seriously low, so is every other source of water, seen or unseen.

People with wells, either drilled or dug, need to adopt proactive measures regarding the drought. This means not taking long showers, not watering gardens and not washing cars. Perhaps a temporary switch from the home washing machine to a local laundromat is in order.

Here’s another concern. As our rural countryside becomes developed and houses spring up where there were no houses before, the strain on our water supplies becomes more acute. And make no mistake, what one person does with their water can have an impact upon someone else’s well. I’ve seen it happen. Everything is connected, and when even one part of the whole behaves poorly, the other parts suffer as well.

Ubiquitous water

While it’s hard to think of water being ubiquitous during times of drought, that doesn’t make it any less true. Water is everywhere, in the plants, in the ground and in the air. The problem lies in availability.

For us, the lack of water can only be solved with a long stretch of rain. But think of other places in this country where flooding has destroyed entire communities. Oh, if only we could get some of the rains that caused the recent disastrous floods in the Southern states. But unfortunately, we have no control over this and must wait for a reprieve in the form of rain.

Tom’s tips

For those with wells, now is a good time to consider our water. Fill a glass, hold it up and marvel at its clear, pure qualities. Nothing can live without water and we here in the Northeast are fortunate, in that prolonged droughts such as we are currently experiencing are relatively rare.

So raise a cup of water and drink to your health. And remember, we never miss the water until the well runs dry.

Comments (2)
Posted by: Robin Gabe | Nov 01, 2017 17:35

Two strategies I'm using are to recycle the water from my basement dehumidifier and rain barrel to watering my plantings.

Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Nov 01, 2017 16:24

Truer "last words" were never spoken in Maine to my knowledge. Such a rare Maine occurrence. And I moved to Maine when 18 years old and am now 82.

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