What a difference water makes. After several summers of drought, we head into this growing season with moist ground and high expectations.
Sacramento area gardeners are already seeing differences in their landscapes, brought on by all that winter and spring rain.
Since the start of the annual rainfall year Oct. 1, Sacramento has received just under 34 inches, almost double our annual average of 18.5 inches. The all-time record is 36.57 inches, set in 1982-83.
Local landscapes responded with lush growth. Flowering shrubs and trees put on impressive spring shows. And with reductions of water restrictions, backyard farmers started thinking about planting high-water crops such as sweet corn and melons this summer for the first time in years. Gardeners of all kinds are headed back to nurseries to plant shop.
On the flip side, the cool and wet spring delayed the start of tomato-growing season. Summer veggies had to wait before going in the ground. All that moisture brought out mass invasions of snails, slugs and mosquitoes plus all sorts of fungal diseases – and rats. Weeds never had it better.
Surprising water-wise gardeners who had made efforts to drought-proof their landscapes, many low-water plants choked from all that rain. Preferring dry feet, drought-tolerant perennials died when forced to live with so much water. Likewise, long-established shrubs and trees succumbed to root or crown rot.
“Mother Nature turned on the irrigation, left town and forgot to shut it off,” quipped Sacramento County master gardener Dan Vierria. “We’ve experienced our own little period of climate change, transitioning from drought to deluge. I lost two new drought-tolerant perennials and figured it was death by drowning.”
But the upside was really up.
“Generally speaking, my garden has never looked better and I’ve yet to fend off a serious pest offensive,” Vierria added. “Hummingbirds and bees are darting everywhere. I’m a bit concerned because the state of the garden is so perfect.”
“I’m thrilled every day I step into my garden!” said Maria Wong White, an El Dorado County master gardener. “Color, fragrance, new growth are in abundance. The artichokes are about to open and the purple of the first thistle is enchanting. The sweet peas continue to produce more than we can bring in or give away. I feel like Eliza Doolittle handing out nosegays.”
“With so much winter rain and the prolonged spring-like weather, my garden has been growing crazy good!” reported Placer County master gardener Pauline Sakai of Roseville. “All the perennial shrubs, trees and reseeded annuals have been extra lush and healthy this year.”
All those flowers brought something else: Bees.
“I see lots of bees in my garden,” Sakai said. “The fruit tree crops (such as pear and cherry) are especially abundant this year, and I see lots of flowers on my oranges, mandarins and grapefruit trees. The hydrangeas are especially beautiful this year.”
Other gardeners and fruit farmers saw varied results in their orchards. In some cases, the flowers were there, but spring rain kept the bees away.
“The fruit set this spring was all over the board, with some people saying the many flowers set very few fruits and others saying it was a normal to heavy crop year,” said Chuck Ingels, University of California Cooperative Extension farm adviser for Sacramento County. “This is regardless of the species or variety, and I’m not sure quite why this is. The spring rains and cool weather prevented bees from being as active as usual. Pome fruits (such as apple and pears), persimmons, pomegranates and some other fruits bloomed later when conditions were better, so they seem to be setting well.”
Sacramento County master gardener Gail Pothour, one of the experts at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center, noticed an oddity both in her own garden and the center’s demonstration beds. Soft-neck garlic is behaving badly.
“My soft-neck garlic grew very strangely,” Pothour said. “Starting around March, I noticed that all of my plants had multiple stems rather than one main stem. When I harvested the crop, every one of the cloves in the bulbs had sprouted, and there was no bulb wrapper (the paper-like material that encases the entire bulb).”
That could be a sign of garlic that’s over-mature and past its prime. But these cloves sprouted while still green and growing. In addition, they matured in April, way ahead of normal harvest time in June. Pothour found that several other gardeners throughout Northern and Central California had similar experiences, likely traced to too much rain.
The wet winter and spring forced farmers to adjust.
“Our wet winter pushed my schedule back a bit,” said tomato farmer Milt Whaley. “I got started prepping the fields around tomato-planting time (in April), then another storm blew in and soaked them up again so I had to wait that out. The other big and noticeable difference was a horrible aphid infestation on four of my plum trees and two apples. I have little doubt the wet weather was a major contributing factor.”
Wet conditions brought some unexpected side effects. Spring roses saw outbreaks of black spot and rust, two fungal diseases that usually appear in late fall.
Old azaleas, camellias and other shrubs survived several years of drought, but couldn’t withstand all the excess rain. Likewise, manzanitas, succulents and other drought-tolerant plants died when exposed to constantly wet soil. Particularly in heavy clay soils, these water-wise mainstays needed better drainage.
“My listeners are calling in and writing in about a lot of problems that may have been associated with too much rain this winter: Trees, shrubs and perennials that are dying off now,” said Sacramento radio host Farmer Fred Hoffman. “In many situations, there was just too much standing water or muddy soils that led to root rot.”
Much to gardeners’ chagrin, weeds loved all the extra water.
“Weeds are the big problem this spring,” said Jeanne Deaver, owner of Amador Flower Farm and an avid gardener. “There’s a super abundance of weeds. Everything is going wild. Everything seems to be growing better and faster, and the weeds are growing fastest of all.”
The worst weed this spring? Nut sedge.
“It just gets everywhere and it’s almost impossible to remove,” Deaver said. Milk thistle and crabgrass also are having a field day, she added.
The positives of gardening with water outweigh the problems, gardeners noted. It sure beats gardening in drought.
Sakai noted that the end of the drought brought a change in her shopping habits. She’s buying more plants.
“As a plant-a-holic, I’ve been known to spend my spare time perusing the nursery aisles for a new plant to take home,” Sakai said. “During the last several drought years, my visits to the nursery were just for supplies, not plants. That will change this summer.”
Sakai is not alone. Local nurseries are seeing a lot more traffic.
“We are definitely noticing pent-up energy,” said Tami Kint of Green Acres Nursery & Supply. “Gardeners are ready to replace what was lost during the drought and want to do it right. It was hard to lose the investments made. So customers are taking the time to learn about plants, soils and irrigation as they reinvest in their landscapes.”
“I think the rains have helped customers garden more enthusiastically, and with less hand wringing about what to grow this summer,” added Angela Pratt, owner of The Plant Foundry in Oak Park. “They’re more adventurous and relaxed.”
This non-drought summer is a great time to start making landscape changes, noted several experts. And remember: More droughts will be in our future.
“As a result of the drought, I have decided to have two large redwood trees removed,” Pothour said. “They are growing well and probably loved all of the rain we had this winter and spring, but I am not prepared to continue to give them the irrigation they need during our dry season. I am sad to see them go – I will miss the shade – but if I knew 20-plus years ago what I know now, I never would have planted them.”
One trend is going stronger than ever: Edible landscapes. Local gardeners are particularly interested in growing food.
“In addition to exciting new varieties like the Sauzee Swirl peach and proven classics like the Blenheim apricot, we’re also working on fulfilling requests for ‘old-fashioned’ fruits like quince and loquat,” Pratt said. “Tomatoes and peppers are still the most popular summer veggies, but we’re also seeing an interest in fun crops like hops, garbanzo beans and even peanuts.”
“(There’s) just an overwhelming interest in trying new things,” Kint added. “For example, the many varieties of mint – orange, chocolate, apple, lime, curry and others. Fruit trees are big as well. Customers like the idea of growing their own and trying some of the multi-grafted varieties and container planting.”
Gardeners also want more unusual herbs and vegetables such as curry plant and Chinese long beans, Pratt said. “Sacramento has a diverse population, and that translates into more diverse seed and plant offerings at the nursery for us gardeners and foodies.”