No one needs to tell Maine gardeners that the state is in the middle of an abnormally dry stretch of weather. With precipitation levels anywhere from an inch to an inch and a half below normal for this time of year, growers are scrambling to make sure whatever seeds or plants they have put in the ground are getting enough moisture.
“People should be taking action now,” said Kate Garland, horticulture professional with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “The things that are the most susceptible now are the newly established plantings.”
To establish strong roots and flowering bodies, plants need around an inch of water a week, Garland said, which they are not even close to getting now thanks to the dry spell.
The United States Drought Monitor currently rates 77 percent of Maine as abnormally dry. That condition, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration means a region is experiencing short term dryness that can signal the start of drought. This level of dryness can slow crop growth and elevate fire risk.
“It’s looking dry for the most part into this weekend with only the possibility of a couple of thunder showers in the far north,” according to Corey Bogel, meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Caribou. “We don’t expect those showers to move at all into the Down East area.”
Gardeners need to be watering to make up for the precipitation deficit, Garland said.
To gauge if a gardener is supplying the needed inch of water a week, she suggested setting out an empty can and monitoring how much is collected from sprinkler or hose water. She said gardeners can also stick their fingers in the ground to feel how far down the moisture is reaching.
“Consider reshaping the dirt like a donut around your plants to create a small well to trap water,” she suggested. “If you mulch, do the same thing with your mulch.”
Looking ahead, Garland recommends gardeners invest a few dollars in a simple rain gauge that will tell them how much water their area is getting throughout the season.
As far as a watering schedule, Garland said it’s better to water heavily and less frequently.
“You really want to do it once or twice a week so it encourages the plants to develop a deeper root system,” she said. “If you water lightly and frequently, you get shallow roots that are more susceptible to the dry conditions.”
The time of day to water does not really matter, Garland said. What does matter regardless of the hour is making sure the plants’ foliage does not get wet.
“Wet foliage will facilitate disease or fungal growth,” she said. “One of the silver linings in a dry season is we see less fungal issues among plants, but those issues can quickly reappear if you are wetting the whole plant.”
Given the heat, if plants get the moisture they need, Garland said growers can expect good yields and things maturing a bit earlier than a more normal year. At the same time, the heat can cause cool season crops like broccoli, spinach, cauliflower and lettuce to bolt.
Plants like tomatoes, squash and cucumbers are susceptible to blossom end rot, which is a problem in a dry year.
“This happens when the plants get uneven amounts of moisture, especially those that are in container gardens,” Garland said. “It causes a calcium imbalance within the plant, and I suspect we are going to be seeing more of it this year.”
Bogel said things have been dry for the last month and if that trend continues over the next 30- to 60-days, parts of Maine could fall into moderate drought conditions.
“People in the farming community have already started irrigating crops,” Bogel said. “Our streamflows are also running quite low right now.”
Gardeners need to take precautions when working outside in this heat, Gardner said.
“Wear a hat, drink plenty of water and apply sunscreen,” she said. “Try to work out there in the early morning or evening because it’s brutal out there midday.”