Decrotia, or: How the climate crisis came for my lovely English garden

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This hellebore is sad here, but that’s nothing to what happened as the season progressed.

Guest post by Linda McGivern

Left elbow screaming in pain (gardener’s “tennis elbow” is a real thing), I raked up the last pile of yard waste from the shade bed under the London plane tree, scrambling to finish this final garden clean-up before a predicted windstorm scattered the tree’s sycamore-like leaves upon the whole expanse of the garden I had just toiled to put to bed.

I let out an extended sigh and shrugged my sore shoulders. The relief of this season just being over was big. Bigly big.

For this was the season of weather.com as fake news. It was the season of a dearth of water so grave that our seven-acre pond receded into a large mud puddle and the lawn turned crispy in July. It was the season of tough decisions over who got water and who would wait for the promised-by-weather.com-but-never-delivered rain. I am serious when I write that some days I would watch, agog, as a thunderous mass of black rain clouds would pass overhead and seem to part exactly over my town, delivering the longed-for water to the east and west, but none for me.

Winners? That blue Lacecap hydrangea that I paid big bucks for two summers ago got watered. Likewise for the roses, the truly despondent peegee hydrangeas, a few favorite rhododendrons, and all the baby plants I was deranged enough to move to new locations over our dystopian summer of pandemic, wildfire, drought, locust plagues, and a few murder hornets thrown in for good measure. Occasionally I would grimly drag a hose to a few plants (I am talking to you ninebark and Autumn Joy sedum) that had been steady performers, despite the devastation of less than an inch of natural rain in a New England season that usually brings seven or eight inches.

But the withering hostas, conifers, acteas, catmints, baptisias, and alarmingly disappearing hellebores that I hope to god will come back? I lugged the hoses right by them, convincing myself that the mass plant devastation the likes of which I have not seen in my thirty years of gardening is “early-onset” dormancy and not death.

My husband has taken to calling our grounds “Decrotia,” aptly borrowed and modified from the term  “decroded” (decaying + corroded), coined in the movie Napoleon Dynamite

Climate scientists say “decroded” is our gardening future and that this is the sort of summer weather we are going to be facing as the planet warms. A number of reports I read this past summer suggest there will be rain, but it will come in violent bursts, rather than extended periods of moderate showers, and drought will be normal. Another suggested we should stop planting hydrangeas and azaleas in preparation for future droughts. Then I read this article:  the headline of which I have adapted for this post. It’s enough to twist the knickers right off of the most patient and committed gardeners among us. 

This (blessedly) past season is more evidence that, yes, climate change is coming and we need to be ready. I am plotting my next moves; how about you?

13 COMMENTS

  1. Three twelve-year old, fifteen foot tall, ten foot wide Viburnum plicatum, screening my neighbor’s yard from mine during the summer – toast.
    I feel your pain.

    • Thanks Elaine: Having never experienced a “true” drought in all my 30 years of gardening in New England, I am sure that spring 2021 will be an illumination. The plants that survive and those that don’t will be informing my planting in the future, that’s for sure. Maybe your Viburnum will “survive to screen” for more summers to come.

  2. Here on Whidbey Island in the Pacific Northwest, we always have a dry summer. This year I didn’t realize how dry until I got my ungodly water bill for the trimester. Yikes!

    • Martha: Fortunately, we have a well here in “Decrotia”. But as an environmentalist, this did not really make me feel better…just guilty. This is why I had to regularly steel myself against watering everything; it felt like an effort in sustainability self-control.

  3. I called this The Year of Ugly Leaves. A lot of fresh spring growth was killed by a Blackberry Winter. The second, smaller late spring growth was then pulverized by hail and topped off with incessant rains that nurtured every kind of blight.

    • Christopher! I wish I could bombard you in commiseration with all my pictures of Ugly Leaves from the summer. I have so many of them, since it felt right to have a photographic record — in this bizarre summer of worldwide decay and sickness — of the wasteland that my normally beautiful gardens had become.

  4. Even an English garden in England suffered…I recognise the clouds parting effect. I was refilling my pond in April to keep the tadpoles alive.

    • Yes Tresi, if it is at all possible…I would say that I am currently more worried about our pond — and all the beautiful creatures that rely upon it for habitat and food — than I am about the gardens. Winter is coming here, and our pond is still more muddy than watery. So, I continue to regularly haunt weather.com, waiting for rain. There has been some (as opposed to none) during the past six weeks or so. But current weather news here in the northeast United States suggests that during this La Nina year our area will see less winter precipitation than normal.

  5. Here in California, where we have had about 8 years of intense drought, many residential gardeners have made the necessary transition to plants that are adapted to our dry climate. I have watched the front gardens of my neighbors slowly evolve into dry-weather gardens of predominantly cactus and succulents. (I think they look GREAT!) Lawns are either gone or brown.

    Unfortunately, the landscapes of our public lands have not made the necessary transition and are therefore full of dead trees, plants and new irrigation systems. Why is there a disconnect between residential gardeners and public land managers? I speculate that public land managers are insulated from the consequences of their inappropriate landscape choices. They aren’t paying for the water or the dead plants. The taxpayers are paying for them. The residential gardeners are also providing the labor associated with landscape failures, but the planners of public landscapes aren’t the same workforce assigned to replace failed landscapes.

    This is just a theory. Does anyone have a better explanation?

    • Maybe there’s this thought that grass is necessary for the common good, because you know, someone other than 6 year-olds playing fall soccer might use the vast expanse of grass in the parks sometime…

      For context: our township park has a walking trail, a new baseball diamond, and multiple soccer pitches. The trail is used frequently (there’s always someone on it), but the only time the sports fields are used is when kids have practice or games. No one else uses the sports fields and their acres of grass that are mowed, sprayed, etc. If it wasn’t for the nice border of woodland and the limestone cave hidden in the woods, I’d never visit myself. Grass parks are boring. Let’s convert much of the grass to forest, build more trails, and make the parks into something enjoyable for ALL ages, not just for the families of kids who participate in sports.

    • Good point Mary; in the UK landscapers go for the easy option of evergreen shrubs, an ingrained default position. This type of mass planting is seen as quick, cost effective and reliable. And boring!
      I wrote my book ‘Grasses and Perennials – Sustainable Planting for Shared Spaces’ (Amazon) to try and show people that there’s a better way.

    • This is an excellent observation Mary. It reminds me a lot, actually, of the points being made these days by some environmentalists about whether individual action matters when companies and governments that do the bulk of polluting don’t commit to change.

      Despite the inherent truth of this, I am still a believer in the necessity of individuals taking action to make change. That’s where change always starts, right? Part of embracing a more sustainable lifestyle, for me, has been calling out poor sustainability practices when I see them and, conversely, praising noteworthy efforts toward a cleaner, more sustainable planet when I see this too! I like to write old-fashioned letters to do this. Maybe it’s time for a letter (or possibly even a petition) to your municipal government, pointing out the perversity of demanding one thing from individual property owners and then doing another on public lands.

      I also like to employ a well-placed guilt trip or two when it comes to close friends and family and their choices. (Yes, I am that annoying woman.) For example: my sister is an uncommitted gardener in the Central Valley of California. She called me recently to complain about not being able to grow the nice, lush, green flowery plants she sees here in my garden in New England. She keeps trying to grow lilac at her home. While I understand the sentimental inclination (lilac is lovely and amazing), I try to indoctrinate her with the tenets of xeriscape gardening.

      During our last conversation I said to her, “I have one word for you…agave!”

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