by Clement Kent
What was that dark figure doing at 4:00 in the morning? in the rain? in his bathrobe and sandals? in late November? Why, moving the sprinkler to a new spot, of course...
The Mop & Pail reports that October just past was the warmest October on record around the world, just beating the previous record holder - October 1997. Not only that, but each month this year is the warmest (globally) on record.
Moving from the global to the local, most Ontario gardeners west of Peterborough will agree that this must have been one of the driest years ever. In my own gardens in Toronto and on the shore of Lake Huron, barely a drop of rain fell from May 1 through November 21. I'm so used to fall being cool and rainy that I was shocked to see the powdery dry soil under the pear tree yesterday. Last week digging out some volunteer Echinops ritro seedlings (prickly enough to be Mike Harris negotiating with union members) the spade sank almost a foot deep, with no sign of moisture in the soil.
To cap off this string of weather superlatives, the cognoscenti at Environment Canada warn us that the winter following El Nino is under the sign of La Nina, and tends to be colder than usual. I imagine a group of Hort members happily sitting on their back porches in late December, enjoying the flowering kale and alyssum in the balmy +10
weather, when suddenly La Nina sweeps in from Churchill or Tuktoyuktuk and embalms them in a nice sarcophagus of ice....
Given that the one thing which is not a given any more is the weather, we must look to our precautions. Dry weather in fall is a good thing because it helps plants harden off, up to a point. Past that point it becomes a risk. Evergreens and many shallow-rooted perennials suffer more from winter dessication than from freezing. While their roots are frozen or dry and unable to draw water, the howling gale from Portage and Main sucks every drop of moisture from vulnerable above-ground buds and leaves; and in April a mysteriously dead plant is found.
That's why I was out in the back yard at 4:00 a.m. moving the sprinkler. I kept waiting, and waiting, and waiting for the rains to start. At last, I brought the hose and sprinkler back up from the basement, turned them on to the max, and let each part of my garden have at least a 4 hour soaking. In this way I hope to relieve the drought-stressed tree and shurb roots and reduce the winter kill. At 11:00 p.m. I toddled off to bed with the sprinkler running on the middle of the garden; at 4:00 a.m. the sound of rain brought me out to move it to the front third.
Another palliative measure you may take, if you're a fan of Christo's approach to public art, is wrapping your garden. The late winter wind and sun do more damage than the cold. A layer of burlap around the stems of vulnerable plants such as tea roses, butterfly bushes, Oregon grapes (Mahonia sp.), evergreen hollies and the like will keep off the wind and block the sun. Although burlap is traditional, any wrapping that lets the plants breathe is fine - old muslin drapes (Jonathan, are they still in that basement storage closet?), leftover nylons, what have you...take the wrappers off about the time the crocuses come out. The RBG, in Burlington, has great success entombing its rose stems in a thick layer of insulating plastic wrap. The point is to block wind and reduce temperature fluctuations, not necessarily to keep the plant warm.
At any rate, I hope reading this will make you less likely to call 999 Queen if you see one of your neighbors out in the middle of the night in bathrobe and slippers watering the garden in the rain. Should this happen to you, just crack open the window, shout "can you do my garden while you're at it?" and go back to sleep.
Copyright 2001 by Clement Kent, c l e m e n t @ g o d e l . n e t