Gardening in a Pandemic Drought

I keep gardens in two different states, Maine and New York. Looking at my gardens in Maine at mid-summer, I felt as if they screamed of 2020. Much like walking down the cleaning products aisle at the grocery store, plants are in short supply this year. I snuck up to Maine at the beginning of June for a few days and self-isolated as best I could to get my family’s property ready and opened. When I tried to purchase plants for the small herb garden behind the kitchen, there wasn’t much to choose from, and what was available wasn’t what I wanted. I bought a ton of marigolds and some rosemary and lavender, but that’s it. It wasn’t enough to fill the small space and keep the weeds at bay.

The small garden can be viewed from the kitchen window as you wash dishes or drink a glass of water. It’s the side of the cottage that faces the woods instead of the ocean. My grandmother always filled the pocket garden with portulaca, also known as sun rose or moss rose. Their willowy arms are covered in squishy needle-like leaves with rose-shaped brightly colored flowers. They’re reminiscent of succulents. Portulaca were a fun choice for a kitchen view. I later changed it to an herb garden. It’s a sunny spot and close to the kitchen. You don’t even need to put on shoes to go out and pinch a few flavors for your water or meal.

There are only so many perennial herbs for Maine. I’ve planted thyme, chive, St Johns Wart, sorrel, mint, monarda, lavender, and chamomile. But I also like to add those flavors we all love for cooking like rosemary, parsley, lemon verbena, and basil. I did the best I could, but when I returned mid-summer, clover, grass, wild strawberry, and raspberries had overrun the space, and slugs had devoured all the marigolds. Not a one remained.

Shopping for plants in late July/early August is never as easy as you want it to be. My favorite garden center looked as good as it could but was running light. I found enough to feel okay about the space you look at as you wash dishes, but not great.

It took days of pulling weeds and deadheading to feel relaxed. The rest of the beds I’ve created over the years are predominantly perennials. All I could see when I first arrived in Maine was all the work that needed to be done in the gardens that hadn’t felt rain in weeks. I didn’t notice the riot of blossoms and colors until I’d spent hours pulling and cutting and being screeched at by the osprey nesting in front of the cottage.

My theory on gardening, especially my gardens in Maine that I only touch three times a year, is that you better get some deep roots if you want to survive. Most of Maine is classified as moderate to extreme drought conditions this summer. Most of New England is. People keep complaining where I live in NY, but we’re not even listed as being abnormally dry. Even hurricane Isaias only spit on the ground as it passed by the cottage. Gardens are not a top priority use of water when you’re on a well. So I plant perennials and expect them to grow deep roots. My gardens may look cute, but they’re tough as nails.

I use the same theory at my house. Even though my husband or I am there to water, I don’t want to. We’re on city water, but why be wasteful. I want the plants to develop resiliency. I want my gardens to thrive, and their ability to take the dry, hot weather is a big part of that.

Even with their deep roots, I’m worried this year. I’m home again and keep checking the weather for Maine, and there’s no rain in the forecast. If you’re there for a few days on vacation, that may not be such a bad thing, but when lawns are brown by the end of July, that’s never good. I worry beyond my gardens. What does that mean for the people who live there year-round? What does that mean for the forests being so dry? What about the trees? What about that campfire someone must have so they can make a s’more and feel normal in all this abnormality? What if a spark gets away from them? What about crops? Apples are already dropping in a circle under the trees. It’s tough to think about it being so dry when you look out the other side of the cottage and see nothing but water, but that’s an ocean. Not exactly useful for drinking or watering.

The drought feels like one more messed up layer of 2020. Plants are my love language, and it’s hard for me to see them suffer with no relief in sight. All I can do is put my hands up, say I did the best I could, and hope they’re strong enough to survive.

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