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A drought’s effect on plants

From mid-summer 2017 into early 2018, our region suffered roughly a nine-month drought, according to Chip Tynan, manager of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Horticultural Answer Service. Tynan oversees a staff of more than 40 volunteers who field around 28,000 questions each year from area gardeners. So, West Newsmagazine asked Tynan what area gardeners can expect to see from their plants after winter’s thaw. Will this past drought have an effect?

“The drought of 2017-2018 is only the most recent in a series of lengthy and severe droughts that we’ve experienced … really since 2011,” Tynan said. “The mother of all droughts was the one we experienced in 2012. We still have trees suffering from the aftereffect of the 2012 drought.

“We’ve also had some isolated, extreme rain events where some areas got literally 8, 10, 11 or more inches of rain within a week’s period of time,” Tynan said. “Those sorts of weather events can be equally as damaging on the root system of plants. When those types of weather events are interspersed among droughts, plants don’t have a chance to recover.

“These are the sorts of weather events that become the straws that collect on the camel’s back.”

In other words, too much water and not enough water both are equally bad for a plant’s health. A plant needs just the right amount of water, which Tynan describes as “a good soaking.”

“A lot of people say, ‘I watered my plants,’ but they went out with a cold drink in their hand and sprinkled them. And that’s not as sufficient as a good soaking,” Tynan said.

Having proper irrigation is important, so excess water can be discarded away from the plant’s root system when it has had its fill.

Following these steps can help your plant weather the storm [or lack thereof].

“Did it have enough resources going into that unfavorable period? We’ll find out during the next stressful event. Plants will often react at that time,” Tynan explained. “That’s when issues will start to show up… that very first stressful period.”

If a plant suffered damage from last year’s drought, that damage may not show until the next big weather event. So, as spring showers subside and the first big summer heat wave rolls in, that’s when a plant’s health will become more evident.

“You can have immediate appearance or long-term damage,” Tynan said. “The long-term damage can be masked by diseases or insects that invade or take advantage of drought-stricken [plants] and cause other problems.”

Tynan said some tell-tale signs of plant decline include a fewer-than-normal number of leaves on a tree or plant, leaves that are much smaller than they ought to be, unflowering plants or a reduction of flowering, spotting on the leaves, cankers on the stems, etc.

He said the best way to keep up with the health of your plants is to be observant.

“Just be aware of their appearance and state of health. The only way a gardener can do that is … nosing around in their garden and looking to see how things are doing,” Tynan said. “The more time you spend in your garden, the more familiar you’re going to be. You’ll know how plants look when they’re happy. And you’ll be able to seek answers when they look unhappy.”

Tynan also recommends being proactive.

“Our winters have gotten milder. We’re seeing an increase in severe, heavy rain events, and an increase of drought. This is not your father’s weather, if you will. It’s different from our grandparents,” Tynan explained.

Knowing these extreme weather events now have become part of the norm and are bound to happen, keep up with your plants. Give them routine “soakings” and instal proper irrigation in your flower beds so that, if an unfavorable pattern comes your garden’s way, it will have the resources to weather the storm.

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