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Unless you are cultivating cranberries or rice, all this rain is likely thwarting your spring gardening plans; it sure is for many farmers in our area, which is my primary concern. While perspective is important in these matters, many homeowners may see a little stress in their landscapes as a result of over a week of soaking rain.
So how does excessive precipitation affect plants? Well, in every way possible. Excessive precipitation, especially in poorly drained soils, can restrict oxygen intake by roots. Oxygen is vital for all other processes to occur that impact growth and plant vigor.
When we experience excessively wet springs, we typically see stunting and yellowing in herbaceous plants. While the rain is great for woody plants and all their new spring growth, it can put them at a disadvantage later in the season. Wet springs encourage feeder roots to develop closer to the surface of the soil (where they can get more oxygen), which means they could be more susceptible to drought stress if the summer turns dry.
The yellowing and stunting can be offset some by fertilization especially if the plant prefers a lower pH (a more acid soil).
Iron, among other micronutrients, is bound to the soil and unavailable to the plant if the pH is too high causing a condition called chlorosis (which is evidenced by yellowing along the leaf veins).
Using sulfur to lower the pH is the more permanent fix if the plant is acid loving; a quick fix for other plants can be found in fertilizer formulated for acid loving plant, which delivers the iron through the foliage.
So, what can we do to offset some of the negative effects of a wet spring? Not a whole lot.
First, I hope that you have been working on improving your soil tilth and drainage (now is a good time to start if you haven’t, well drained soils are ready to be worked sooner then those that remain water-logged). Always use a chunky mulch that allows good oxygen penetration and doesn’t crust over. Wait to work the soil and plant until we have had several drying days. And test the soil by squeezing a handful – if it clumps like molding clay, then it is still too wet to work. If it crumbles, you are ready to go.
Don’t forget the role temperature plays in all the important plant processes: photosynthesis, transpiration, respiration, root development, germination, flowering, fruiting and ripening.
How temperatures affect these processes depends on the plant, of course. Some like it hot, some like it cool, some wet, some dry. All in all, it will be important for us to let the soils dry and become friable before we dig in for the growing season.
If you are ready to put out your summer vegetables, take the time to improve the soil once it dries so that you improve your drainage for the next spring deluge. Last year, it was drought and high heat and tomatoes were slow to ripen, zucchini languished and figs were fabulous. Each season is a balance of sorts, and some plants will thrive, some will not, some will come early and some will come late … or not at all.
I’ll take what I can get either way.