Drought taking a toll on normally lush gardens

I have always had an affinity for the color brown, which is a good thing because right now some of my normally-green garden is various hues of sepia from the heat and drought.

Brown is a rich range of hues and shades, a valid color even if it is not in the rainbow. But it looks best on pine tree trunks, not pine needles still on the trees.

And lately a few of my shrubs have turned completely brown, as desiccated as the dried-up lizard I found behind the old refrigerator.

The situation got set up by an unusually cool, wet spring and rainy summer, which fooled plants, thinking times were always going to be good, into throwing out an extra amount of lush growth. Shrubs and flowers became overly dependent on soaking rains to support the new tresses; but, as anyone who has ever gone over their credit limit learned, the crash has not been fun. 

Soon as the sky spigot was turned off, plants with more top growth than roots started shutting down. First thing to go were last year’s and early spring’s older leaves, which shed a bit early. Then the tender bits - flowers, buds, and succulent new growth - withered, followed by overall wilting of fully expanded mature leaves.

This is not affecting just azaleas and blueberries, which are trying to form next year’s flower buds. It’s taking a toll on normally unkillable Ligustrum, Gardenias, crape myrtles, native beautyberry and even Nandina. Some of my in-ground Nandinas have thrown off brittle stems of brown berries; one that has been in a big pot for years died completely. I scraped the stems to see if there is any bright green tissue right under the bark to indicate a hopeful recovery, but none was to be found. Unlike some shrubs that perked up when I watered, the Nandina had reached what I learned in horticulture classes as PWP – the “permanent wilting point” beyond which recover is not possible. 

There are some guidelines for determining the depth of the problem that even novice physiology sleuths can learn. My three levels of dry go like this: If a hydrangea, coleus or other big-leaf plant wilts by day but perks up overnight, it is probably still okay for another day or two. If leaves go pale green, yellow or brown but shed off the plants (like my crape myrtles now), it is still not so bad, just severe stress but fast hose action needs to be taken. But as a general thumb rule, if leaves turn brown and stick on, it almost always means death.

Funny how it often happens in late summer or fall. I see this every single summer, when a perfectly healthy-looking shrub, usually in a row of similar plants, suddenly “browns out” over just a few days. The most common to do this are Japanese hollies, boxwoods, roses, junipers, Leyland cypress and other conifers. Most of those have relatively poor roots which tend to rot easily especially in heavy or clay soils or next to house foundations where runoff is heavy.

Other words, they are waiting for one last straw to push them over the edge. And nothing says last straw like weeks on end of 90 degrees and nary a drop of rainfall. Sooner or later vulnerable plants reach their tipping point and before we know it, large chunks or entire plants turn completely light brown. Doorknob dead.

If you are a praying person, or can do a rain dance, go for it. Me, I am breaking down and grabbing the hose. And a canister of John Deere Green spray paint for the dead Nandina.