I’m celebrating the new year in a new garden and in a new area. Luckily, I can start this year on a positive note.
The last three years have given us very dry summers and warm winters. The situation had become so serious that the rain, which we normally have too much of, did not replenish ground water levels before the next dry summer arrived. But on my walks through the nearby woodlands this December, I noticed a positive development
Ponds and marshlands that had been completely dried out all summer and during autumn, have been filled up again! The water isn’t disappearing right away anymore, leading me to hope that means groundwater levels have improved. Although this winter is still abnormally warm, an end to the drought would at least mean many trees might be saved from dying.
Consequences of drought on the ecosystem
Drought has many consequences. I’ve noticed flowers that should bloom in late spring or summer, now blooming much earlier. This means many insects see their sources of nectar and pollen disappear by the time the solstice happens and we enter summer.
Oak trees have now tended to drop their acorns in late July and August, when that really shouldn’t be happening until September. The acorns they drop aren’t fully developed and contain less nutrients for animals that eat them. They also mostly rot away by the time fall comes around and animals would normally rely on them for food.
For established trees, a drastic change in water level can be fatal. Our native European summer oak can thrive in both dry and wet soils, but it is important for that soil to stay the same as it was when the tree began growing there. When an oak that established its roots in marshland suddenly sees the ground dry up, it might die within the next few years.
In the grand scheme of things, the disappearing trees means water isn’t retained by their roots and in the soil around them. Water then flows through the landscape much more quickly, taking itself along with nutrients and soil away.
What can you do?
Arming your own garden or field against the consequences of drought is luckily possible. Soils rich in organic matter dry out more slowly than a soil with less. Adding more compost and animal manure is a quick way to make that happen. In nature, large herbivores, falling leaves and earthworms are the main visible ways organic matter can be turned into rich soil. If you are lucky enough to work with fields, not just a garden, consider a Joel Salatin-esque rotational grazing process to improve soil quality. This is of course something that wont show its effects within the year.
However, the nutrients that run down into waterways from fertilized gardens and fields can also do damage. Many wildflowers, such as orchids, will not grow on soils that are rich in nitrogen. To prevent runoff from fields, planting traditional hedges on the sides of fields is a possible solution. An added practical bonus in that scenario is that the hedgerow roots prevent the sides of your ditches from caving in. Because of the benefits these hedges give to wildlife and water management, some governments in Europe subsidize planting. Check with a local nature, or agricultural organization to see if that might apply to your area, and for their recommendations on which species you should plant.
The consequences of a drought will be seen for many years if it isn’t resolved quickly. But, when we improve our soils to combat the effects of a drought we can help local flora & fauna. A strong ecosystem is resilient and will adapt when abnormal conditions persist or return. The actions of a few gardeners or farmers won’t change the whole situation, but we can give members of the ecosystem a place to thrive and from where they can spread out when conditions improve.