The Watering Can - 11/27/2023

The aftermath of trying to learn how to grow plants during the most extreme drought of my lifetime

Well, I chose one hell of a year to try to start growing plants.

Since the last update, we had one of the hottest and possibly driest Augusts and Septembers on record in South Louisiana. Temperatures over 100 degrees almost every day, nearly a month of no rain, and then two more months with maybe one good rain each. Burn bans and wildfires all over the state. The rain did eventually start to come back... in November. There are dead trees everywhere you go — the Loblolly pines are particularly noticeable. Huge patches of the yard were completely dead and brown, and while they've recovered a bit you can still see the damage pretty clearly.

The water level in the pond has dropped several feet from its maximum, and will likely take months to recover, if not longer. It's regained a few inches these last few weeks with more consistent rain and cooler temperatures slowing down the evaporation, but plants that were installed a foot or so from the water line are now several feet away from it, and some of them handled that better than others.

De, Loki and I spent six weeks in the Northeast from mid-September to October, and things fared decently while we were gone. I set up an automatic sprinkler for our garden area where I planted the sages and put the potted plants there. Most of the potted plants still dried out and died. Our nephew was tasked with mowing the lawn at some point and ran over a few things, bright orange flags and all.

It was a hard year, but some things turned out well. I've tried to update on just about everything that's been planted in the yard or in a pot, so there's a lot to say, but I hope it you'll enjoy the journey.

Red Mulberries (Morus rubra)

The Red (or are they?) mulberries mostly did pretty well this year, other than some grazing from the deer during the drought.

Mulberry 1 near the pond easily gained a foot or two in total height, as well as some nice thickening of the trunk. It has held up very well to some strong winds over the last few months, and is feeling pretty well-established at this point. In general it might just need to be watered a little more regularly during the hotter months because it is just so exposed way out on its own in the yard like it is.

Mulberry 2 near the Big House is pretty much thriving. It's at the point where it is even starting to grow some of the larger, lobed leaves near the top of its tallest branches. It did suddenly start to lean pretty heavily in August, and I'm not sure why. My father-in-law has braced it for now but I need to pull the mulch back and investigate the base and see if something was digging in there or what, and if it needs to be filled in with more soil or what. It may have also just been pulled over by the deer when they were aggressively grazing the lower branches. It's also been decorated a bit, being near to the house, which has given it some nice character. Really welcomed into the family!

Both of the taller Mulberries will be pruned a bit this year, because I'm not sure they need to get so tall so fast. The pruning will also encourage more fruit, because Mulberries mostly put out fruit on the year's new growth.

Little Mulberry 3 in the circle is hanging in there, despite also being grazed pretty thoroughly. I think it will still hang on in this spot and I think it will do well there, eventually. I need to give it some good compost this year and do some pruning in the middle of it so that it doesn't have quite so many crossing branches, but I love the bushy form and I hope it keeps that because I think a shorter, bushier tree would be perfect for this spot.

A tall mulberry sapling nearly fills the height of the frame of the photo, with a large pond in the background Mulberry 1 reaches for the skies. Due for a good pruning this winter.
A small mulberry tree with various yard decorations near it Mulberry 2 with its support and a few accessories
A small mulberry, nearly bare of leaves, surrounded by pine needle mulch Mulberry 3 hanging in there, despite being snacked on by our local deer crew.

Black Willows (Salix nigra)

Willow 1 and Willow 2 are still doing great, and at this point are by far the most successful plantings I've ever done.

My hope for earlier this year was that Willow 1 would finish the year taller than me, and it has beaten that goal and then some. It's a good 12-18 inches taller than me at this point, and looks like a real-deal tree. The lower branches have been aggressively grazed by the year, and I'm planning on pruning the dead bits and surrounding it with some deer fencing this winter to hopefully prevent more destruction. This is probably my favorite plant that I've grown so far.

Willow 2 had a bit of a rougher go of it, mainly because it's too short to escape the deer entirely, but it's still grown a ton this year and it's a nice bushy companion to its taller, lankier sibling. It will also get some pruning and fencing this winter.

I need to mulch around the bases of both of them because they have both been damaged by some haphazard work from the weed eater.

Several caterpillar species have been seen on both throughout the year, though only one that I've seen has actually survived long enough to pupate. I think because these trees are likely used by the birds as they make their way across the yard, they tend to get picked off. I don't know -- do deer eat caterpillars?

I love that both of these are rescue transplants from near the burn pile, where they surely would have been mowed or burned. They survived being eaten back by the deer last winter, but both started this growing season as bare twigs maybe a foot high. Willow 1 is easily seven feet tall at this point. It brings a lot of joy to my heart.

The much smaller Willow 3 was mowed down or hit by the weed eater at some point while we were gone, despite being marked with orange tape. It seems to still be alive, but I'm not sure how long that will last. I might try to move it a little closer to the water's edge (or where the water's edge should be). Willow 4, another transplant to the Old Pond area this year, has been chewed on by the deer, but it's still alive and hanging in there! I think it might end up being great for that spot, but I might need to fence it in this winter.

Red Maples (Acer rubrum)

The largest of the Red Maple saplings that I transplanted from my mom's house, near the pond, seems to have almost met its end while we were gone in September and October. I did a scratch test all along its main trunk and there was some green at the very base. I cut it down almost to the ground, but there may not be much of a point in trying to keep a tree alive when the main trunk has been killed so thoroughly. We'll see.

With it dying, that means all of the ten or so saplings that I attempted to transplant are now dead. Most of the others have since been mowed down, and the few remaining "standing" are just dead twigs.

My mom still has pretty of saplings as their mature Maple is extremely productive, so we'll see if it might be worth trying again this fall or spring. Near the pond's edge would probably still be the best place for them, or possibly in the Old Pond area. There's a volunteer growing near the Old Pond now that's probably 5-10 years old, so maybe it would be good to give it a partner.

Common Pawpaws (Asimina triloba)

Both of the Pawpaws seem to have survived the drought in their nice shady drainage area. Like everything, they'd probably be happier if we'd had more rain, but I'm just so happy that they survived and that I was lucky enough to get to eat a fruit from Pawpaw 2 this year. It was delicious, and the more people I tell about it the more I realize how lucky I was to get fruit at all in the first year after planting just two trees.

Pawpaw 2 probably needs to be helped out with guy poles and maybe have a little more soil added this winter — right now it's leaning and feels a little loose at the base. Pawpaw 1 responded really well to me backfilling its base with some more soil this spring, so I'm hoping its partner will do the same.

A bare Pawpaw tree leaning, surrounded by fallen leaves A bare Pawpaw 2 leaning over a bit this fall but still seems to be doing well overall.
20230806 Img 7159 Holding the second Pawpaw fruit after finding it resting on the ground that morning. So, so thankful.
20230808 Img 7176 I chilled the Pawpaw in the refrigerator for a few hours before eating it. It tasted like a very lightly-flavored banana ice cream.

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Dead. Not going to be planting any more Eastern Redbud in the yard here, especially with the updated USDA Hardiness zones. I just think it's too warm for them in South Louisiana unless you can keep them shaded and watered consistently. Would have been a beautiful addition but it's just not quite the right climate. I guess that's why we don't really see many, and instead are covered in Crape Myrtles.

I'm planning on putting in the Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) gifted to me by Janine in this spot to replace it. I think that will look lovely surrounded by the tall pines and it should handle the location a lot better than the Redbud did.

Buttonbushes (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

The Buttonbushes ended up recovering well from the last frost this year, and put out lots of nice green leaves throughout the summer, but we never got any blooms. I'm not sure if the frost zapped whatever would have become buds, or if they were still overall recovering from being planted, but we didn't get a single bloom. Buttonbush 1 had old blooms on it last year when I bought the plant, so I'm really not sure what might have been wrong with it. I heard from others in the area that theirs did just fine.

Buttonbush 1 struggled a little bit, and I'm wondering if its place on the Eastern side of the tallest tree and the tall iris leaves next to it actually ended up blocking out too much sun. I might try to trim back the iris leaves there next year -- that particular iris bed is probably too large anyway, so it won't be hurting anything.

Buttonbush 2 had significant new growth and seems to absolutely love its spot. It was joined by an extremely large Anglestem Primrose-willow (Ludwigia alternifolia) next to it and was a really nice looking pondside habitat throughout the late summer. It still has quite a few leaves on it even now, as opposed to Buttonbush 1 which is completely bare at this point (but still seems alive everywhere, from scratch testing).

20231127 Img 9337 A bare Buttonbush 1 in the low winter sunlight. It grew a bit lower and bushier than its counterpart.
20231127 Img 9336 Buttonbush 2 holding on to some leaves late into the year. It grew up and out in its full sun exposure.

Titi (Cyrilla racemiflora)

The Titi both started off the year and summer well, but as the pond's water level got lower and lower, they struggled a bit. Titi 1 still did pretty well, consistently putting off its racemes of flowers even throughout the drought. Titi 2 did not do so well, probably because it's a little further away from the water and because it's pretty much full exposed to the Western sun. Scratch testing showed that most of the current wood is dead, and it has lost all of its leaves despite being a mostly evergreen plant. I will cut it back and try to keep it watered while the hopefully pond refills this winter, but it may be a goner.

20231127 Img 9339 Titi 1 with small, but green, leaves and racemes of seeds hanging on it. I might try to plant some of those seeds soon nearby.
20231127 Img 9341 I really loved the shape of Titi 2, growing out over the water's edge... but you can see how far away the water's edge is now.

Black Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)

The Oklahoma John elderberry has mostly been deer food. It had a ton of new growth this summer and all of it has since been eaten completely back by our local grazers. It's still alive, and has a few green leaves on there now, so I feel good about it making it through winter.

The Ranch elderberry is almost completely dead — at the very least, all of its above-ground growth is completely dead and dry. There is a small rosette of new growth near the ground, so we'll see if it makes it through the winter.

Honestly, after this summer, I may just need to go and find a mature Elderberry somewhere and take a bunch of cutting and just put them in all over the place, especially in some places closer to the house. I think the only chance to really get it established here is to overwhelm the deer with sheer volume. It does answer my question last year as to why I hadn't really found any native Elderberry when I'd found so many other native species on the property.

South Meadow (Wet Patch)

The plants in the Wet Patch didn't do a whole lot this year.

The Gaura/Beeblossom that didn't get dug up half a dozen times by squirrels held on throughout the whole summer and kept putting out new flowers consistently, which made me really happy. I got a few small blooms on one of the Butterfly Weeds, and I'm not sure either ended up surviving the entire summer. The Swamp Milkweeds grew pretty tall, especially one of them, but never got any flowers and right now the surrounding grass is so tall I'm not if they got eaten or just died back.

The three Stokes' Asters didn't do much at all this year, which was expected to a degree in their first year of growth, but their rosettes didn't even get very big. I think I might have chosen a bad spot for them, and possibly a bad site for all of these plants. It certainly did not stay as wet in this area as I was expecting, of course largely due to the drought.

I was letting the grass grow around the plantings early on and trimming it back by hand, but when the drought really kicked in I just let it all go. These plants were also hit the hardest by the squirrel or whatever was digging all the plants up for the few weeks they were the ground before the rain stopped.

20231127 Img 9381 The Wet Patch left to its own devices. I love how it looks, but I'm not sure our landlords agree with me :)

South Meadow (Bank Patch)

The plants in the dryer Bank Patch on the south-facing outside bank of the pond did a lot better. We had pretty consistent blooms for a while from one of the Lanceleaf Coreopsis, and even one of the Black-eyed Susans shot up and put out flowers, which even surprised Ian from Beaver's Abundance when I told him recently. So that was great. The Purple Coneflower grew out some rosettes but didn't do quite as well as I'd hoped for the location.

Like the Wet Patch, I was cutting the grass manually here for a while, but just let it go once the weather really got bad. It ended up actually protecting the plants pretty well, it seems, with the longer grass keeping the ground cool. This shaggy little patch ended up being an oasis in the worst part of the summer, consistently full of little butterflies and calligrapher flies when the rest of the lawn was more than half scalded to death.

It all got mowed down in October, despite the orange tape, and I feared the worst — but the Lanceleaf Coreopsis and Black-eyed Susans have regrown a few leaves, and one of the Purple Coneflowers has a few tiny leaves starting to come out now, so it seems like at least some of them survived. Interestingly, the grass here is now growing twice as fast as the grass in the surrounding area, which seems like further testament that letting it grow instead of mowing it down when it was so hot kept the entire area more healthy.

20230824 Img 7353 The shaggy Bank Patch in late August — long, healthy grass — and you can see the dead patches of grass in the background. It was a lovely little island of life in a sad, dead lawn.
20231127 Img 9377 The latest new growth from one of the Lanceleaf Coreopsis, after being mowed down in October.

Mayhaws (Crataegus aestivalis)

The Mayhaws hung in pretty well, but didn't see much new growth. Mayhaw 1 did pretty well despite struggling with aphids and seemingly being nibbled on by some kind of insect and the deer like most everything else. Both of them could use some pruning of crossing limbs, and I'll probably cut one of the several main stems of Mayhaw 2 to try to get it to put its new growth efforts into its largest stem. I think they'll be great in this spot, eventually, and hope that they can get some nice growth next year.

20231127 Img 9384 The taller Mayhaw 1 still looking in good shape, and with a nice overall tree shape, kind of ideal for a small fruit tree.
20231127 Img 9385 2 I need to help Mayhaw 2 pick a main stem to help its overall stature. I'll probably take out the small stem on the left side of the photo here, and possibly the one on the right next year.

Around the Yard

One of the biggest successes of all the plantings this year was the Aquatic Milkweed I put in the Old Pond area. It absolutely loves it there, surrounded by Smartweed, Water horehounds, Beaksedges, Mitreola and several other wetland-loving plants. It did two full rounds of blooms and has put out quite a few seed pods, so I'm hoping for it to spread itself in that area and continue to thrive.

The little Spiderwort plant that I installed in a low spot near the driveway is still alive! It's not necessarily thriving, but it seems to be alive and still has quite a few green leaves on it. Hopefully it will make it through the cold and stay happy if we get some consistent rain these next few months. It would be really cool if this spot was eventually full of it instead of just draining away topsoil.

The Swamp Sunflowers along the pond did pretty well through the weather and being browsed on by the deer. The larger of the two held on and put out some flowers in early November, which was very exciting. The other got mowed down while we were gone, but it's put out new leaves from the ground so it seems like the roots are still alive. I really think sunflowers lining the Eastern edge of the pond, facing the West, would be an absolutely beautiful scene if they can eventually fill out.

The Sages that my mom gifted me for my birthday actually ended up doing well after I finally put them in the ground. The coccinea is still putting out new red flowers almost every day! It's just about the only thing blooming right now other than some Blue Mistflower along the ditch. So that's a lovely bit of color in our garden area.

Sadly, most of the rest of the potted plants I was gifted by Janine Kharey did not make it. I just could not keep them watered and happy enough, and despite setting up an automatic sprinkler for them for the time we were gone in September and October, it still wasn't enough to keep most of them alive. The Hackberry saplings are still doing well, the larger of the two is especially doing just fine in its pot still. The little Eastern Red Cedar I mentioned earlier, and I hope to put it in the ground where the Redbud failed. The False Aster was the only other potted herbaceous plant that I managed to keep alive, and that is just a huge bummer. The baby Catalpa, Mexican Plum, and the two Beggarticks that were meant for the Amite River Wildlife Sanctuary really, really break my heart.

20231127 Img 9343 2 The very happy Aquatic Milkweed with a fresh batch of seed pods.
20231127 Img 9365 The bit of Spiderwort still doing its thing.

Lessons and Plans for the Winter

The biggest takeaway from this year is that I need to not try to keep so many potted plants alive, especially if we are not going to be in town to take care of them. I just don't have a good enough setup and don't know enough about all of them yet to give them what they need to live and thrive.

I also don't know if I'm going to be buying any more potted plants from our local commercial nurseries, because I just can't really trust their provenance. This extreme drought showed the importance and resiliency of local ecotypes and I can't simply can't afford to buy more plants to put in the ground right now, especially if I don't really know where they're coming from.

I think I'm going to try to plant some seeds here in the next few weeks, and maybe do another planting in late winter/early spring and just see what comes up. I would love to start a prairie area in a couple of the large, now still partially dead from the drought, lawn, but I'm not sure our landlords (De's mom and dad) will approve any more wild areas or want to deal with mowing around them. The sections of the yard that I marked off this year did pretty well for a while, until the tape marking them off got eaten up from it being mowed right up against the edge of what I marked off. And while we were gone in October some of that got mowed and weed-eated anyway.

We're also not sure how much longer we're going to be here, so we'll have to take that into account for all of these plans as well.

It was a hard year, but I'm glad I tried all of it. I started off by telling myself it was all an experiment, and that's a good way to think about it, but it's hard to feel like so much effort was wasted. A dedicated, but ultimately more relaxed approach to planting seeds might do me good when things are so uncertain, instead of spending a good bit of money on plants someone else grew and putting all of my hopes for a good year into them.

I do plan on building a "Master Plan" for the property, or at least what the Master Plan would look like if this was actually our property and I could really go for it the way I want to. I think it will be a great exercise, no matter what the future holds.