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Outdoors by Will Elliott: How to combat drought conditions

Drought is the bedeviling buzz right now, but for long-term planters of annuals and perennials the current drought conditions arrived as a strike three this growing.

The weak crop of “soft” fruits such as peaches, plumbs, apricots, nectarines and the possibility of poor grape production can be traced to weather events that occurred well before the drought.

Planters and vacationers in Florida recall a mid-February thaw that had temperatures in Western New York often above those posted in Tampa, Orlando or Miami on some days. That February thaw was extensive enough to damage root hairs on fruit trees, berry bushes and grape vines planted in low areas where water builds up during spring thaws.

The old saw, fruit trees don’t like wet feet, also applies to berry bushes and even the heartiest of grape vines.

Then came strike two when the deep-freeze cold of April set in and put the kill to many of those root systems that were still soaking in too much thaw water.

The strike-three drought did not knock everything out, but it benched some growths and even helped others. At our digs, grape vines suffered most. New and established vines took hits. The second-year, fruit-bearing vines saw about a 50 percent die-off. Some of the solid stem bases thrived. A few never grew.

The May to late-June drought actually helped weak vine growth. Most grape bases at least have growing stems for a crop next year or thereafter. But no canning jars will be cleaned and readied for the green crop that should be jams and jellies later this summer.

This year’s plus crops have to be root crops, especially onions. Weeds and excess water get to onions, forcing small growth and core rot. Not this year. Clearly, commercial farmers and backyard gardeners had to water through that late-spring/early-summer dry spell, but the large, early- and main-crop onions are reaching hardball sizes with firm cores and layers.

Same can be said for carrots and beets, which needed watering and close weeding this summer, but the outcome will be worth the work. Potatoes, too, look promising. For the first time in years, we had to water both early reds and main/Maine crop (Katahdin and Kennebec) potatoes that are now showing good stem and leaf growth in early stages of die-off for digging.

Tomatoes, probably the most popular backyard planting each year, are both suffering and surviving. Excess water earlier and a severe drought through blossoming and blooming stages left many varieties with extensive end rot on many ripening tomatoes.

Don’t panic. That Monday, July 24 downpour set root systems and pumped enough water into plants to get the main crop going. Granted, sizes for the big boys, beefsteaks, and other burger-sized varieties might fit better on a smaller bun, but end rot is ending and we can take heart with a smaller but healthier crop this year.

Last year, early and late blight sandwiched a mid-summer series of blights, such as bacterial speck, which can be curbed with copper-based products a good nursery expert could recommend.

The only tomato crops that did not show end rot were the cherry and plum varieties, which blossomed early and heavily but did not develop great sizes due to the drought.

Food plotters

Commercial farmers and backyard gardeners have some means to water crops, but most who plant to feed wildlife rarely can water food plots of ground crops, berry bushes and fruit trees.

For the first time in decades, the Farmer’s Almanac missed the dry conditions for the area this season. In fact, this drought will continue to affect root systems well after an inch or two of rainfall arrives in Western New York.

Fruit farmers mainly lost peach stock this season, with the current loss set at 7 inches below normal rainfall.

So what does a food-plot planter do? Ernie Callandrelli at Quaker Boy Game Calls suggests, “Wait until a rain before planting fall crops.” Callandrelli’s plots are mainly clover, which lasts 4 to 5 normal years and 3 to 4 years of extreme rainfall or drought.

Late plantings of root crops such as brassica, turnips, and other winter-over green-tops will succeed despite dry, clay-based ground that only dampens a few inches at the surface this fall.

Apples are the main forage for deer. Fruitful trees can feed animals well into the winter. But another fruit-tree option for deer feeding could be the Chojuro pear, an Asia variety that looks and lasts like apples on the tree and on the ground. Chojuros grow well in a dwarf variety. Deer tend not to tear fruit and branches as much as they destroy apple plantings. And this Asia-pear fruit remains hard on the ground well after Santa’s visit each winter.

Early-fall planters must wait for the right rainfall, plant when the ground is seed-friendly and plan future plantings to endure extremes of rains and droughts.


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