Area gardeners desperately fight to save plants from fierce drought

Floral centers fear losses as yard plans abandoned

August 26, 2002|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Ernest Robb's tomato plants and turnip greens are dried up and wilting in the hot August sun, desperate for some rain. His vegetable plants at the Elkhorn community garden in Columbia are more brown than green in these drought-stricken days, blending in with the dry earth and full of holes from thirsty bugs.

For about three decades, Robb has been growing plants and vegetables at the garden. But this summer, he has only tiny green bell peppers and some lima beans clinging to a trellis to show for his labors.

"If [the drought] continues for a long period of time, the garden is just going to have to go, as well as some shrubbery around our house," he said.

Across the Baltimore area, thousands of gardeners are in life-or-death struggles to save their plants from the effects of the fierce drought and the water restrictions that have followed.

With rescue impossible for many trees and shrubs planted in the spring, designers and garden centers worry about future losses as homeowners abandon landscaping plans.

In the two plots he rents from the Columbia Gardeners Association, Robb has been mulching around his plants with leaves and straw to better retain the water he pours from a juice container. But his efforts aren't enough.

Still, Robb assesses the situation pragmatically - gardening is just a hobby, he said.

"It's disappointing, but there are worse things in life than worrying about something like that," said Robb, of Columbia. "If I was a farmer and depending on my corn crop, it would be very devastating."

Because people such as Robb are on the verge of giving up, nurseries and garden centers that depend on gardening for their income are losing money in the midst of Baltimore City's driest September-to-mid-August period since 1871.

"We're doing rain dances and hoping and praying and doing everything we can do to bring some rain," said John Metzler, owner for Metzler's Garden Center & Florist in Columbia.

Although sales of watering cans and hoses have increased at Metzler's, that income hasn't offset an overall 25 percent drop of sales.

Metzler said customers are frustrated and concerned about the weather and water restrictions, which makes finding homes for the center's more than 2,000 varieties of trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals and vegetable plants increasingly problematic.

Some people don't want to spend time outdoors in the oppressive heat to water plants by hand - which the water restrictions require - instead of using a sprinkler, he said.

"Who wants to garden when it's 98 degrees?" Metzler asked.

The prospects are bleak for many trees and shrubs planted in the spring, said Denise Garman, a horticultural consultant at the University of Maryland Home and Garden Information Center.

Large amounts of water are crucial during plants' first growing seasons. A plant would have to be "very drought resistant" to survive if it were planted only months ago, Garman said.

"If people have planted things in the spring and have been watering them with a hose, they probably won't make it," she said.

Garman said people need to realize that some of their plants are not going to survive. She said the best approach is to focus on the most stressed trees and shrubs and water them with a handheld hose by soaking the ground around them about once a week.

"If you can, let those annuals go - they're going to die in a month anyway," she said. "You're going to be better off using the water on old oak trees out on the landscape that are desperately needing the water."

Garman said the Home and Garden Information Center has been fielding a flood of calls from residents wondering how to conserve water while trying to salvage their plants. She said the center is telling people to consider using water from dehumidifiers or rinsing water from the second cycle of the washing machine.

Worries at parks

Tom Donlin, parks administrator for the Anne Arundel County Department of Recreation and Parks, is hoping the trees planted in the spring at Kinder Park in Severna Park will beat the odds.

The department has put watering bags around the trees' trunks, and a horticultural crew is dispensing water on trees at parks throughout the county with a tank.

"We're really trying to save them and get as much water on them as possible," Donlin said. "But I know we're going to lose some."

In Baltimore County, Parks and Recreation Director John F. Weber III is equally worried about newly planted trees at three new parks. The parks - Northwest Regional Park in Owing Mills, Meadowood Regional Park in Brooklandville and Eastern Regional Park in Essex - are scheduled to be dedicated Sept. 14, and Weber hopes the trees will survive.

"We're very concerned about the turf on the new areas," Weber said. "The root bed really hasn't been established yet."

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