I was surprised to see yellow leaves strewn across my deck and driveway this week. There hasn’t been a hint of autumn weather. So why are the leaves falling?
Turning to several gardening and landscaping books for an answer, I learned that early turning and dropping of leaves can be due to dry soil conditions. But precipitation levels here in the Triangle are pretty close to normal, based on averages. So I asked climatologist Rebecca Cumbie what might be going on.
“The Piedmont is classified as abnormally dry,” said Cumbie, who works for the N.C. Climate Office. “It’s a combination of rainfall deficit and some really hot temperatures.”
Apparently, the sparse afternoon thunderstorms we’ve been having aren’t sufficient to offset evaporation in smaller bodies of water, such as creeks and ponds. In the western part of the state, conditions are worse, with several counties officially facing full-on drought. Agricultural crops and pastureland are suffering, Cumbie said.
As a wildlife gardener, I’m concerned for the many plants I have nurtured to attract birds, reptiles and small mammals – as well as for the wildlife itself. Just what can be done to help minimize the impact of hot, dry weather?
Critters in trouble?
For answers, I turned to a wildlife protection center called WildCare in California, one of the country’s most drought-stricken areas right now.
Melanie Piazza, director of animal care, writes on wildcarebayarea.org that wildlife facing insufficient water supplies show specific behaviors, up to and including dying of dehydration if the drought is severe and prolonged. More commonly, illnesses normally tolerated by wild animals, including parasites and infections, hit harder when food and water are scarce.
Other signs that the drought is affecting animals include increased fighting over access to food and water and wandering out of their normal habitat range. Sightings of bears, deer and other forest animals in urban neighborhoods are more common in drought, and animals are more frequently injured by cars when they wander in unfamiliar territory, Piazza says.
Fortunately, gardeners can take action to soften the blow.
Ornithologist John Gerwin gets right to the point when he says the best thing we can do is something we should have done a few years ago – grow mostly native plants, which are more likely to survive dry weather and continue to provide food for hungry animals.
“There are a lot of native plants that once you get them established – which takes two or three growing cycles – are more drought tolerant than others,” said Gerwin, who works at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. “I have plants that I don’t have to water. They’re a little wilted right now, but still producing nector and are still full of butterflies and bees. I put them in the ground eight years ago.”
You don’t have to convert your entire yard or do something large scale. Just a little 10-by-10-foot planting site can have flowers that help different animals.
Ornithologist John Gerwin
Though it won’t help the immediate situation, new plants are an investment that will pay off in future years, and fall is the perfect time to start a bed of native, drought-tolerant perennials, letting them get established before temperatures heat up next summer. His suggestions include New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis), beloved by butterflies; summer phlox (Phlox paniculata), craved by insects; smooth oxeye (Heliopsis helianthoides), a bee magnet; and common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) attractive to insects, including monarch butterfly larvae.
“You don’t have to convert your entire yard or do something large scale,” Gerwin said. “Just a little 10-by-10-foot planting site can have flowers that help different animals.”
Try a birdbath
Along with plants for food, gardeners should consider making water – specifically, clean water – available.
“If you can only do one thing in your yard, put a birdbath out,” he said. A pond is even better, but nothing big. Birds, lizards, snakes, frogs and other amphibians like smaller pools of water. Gerwin has a 5-by-5-foot pond that is fed by rain barrels.
“Rain barrels are great to have so that you don’t have to pay for water, especially in a drought,” he added.
If a pond is not in your future, a baby pool filled with rainwater can serve the same purpose. If mosquitoes become a problem, let it dry out for a few days and they’ll go away, Gerwin said.
It’s important to keep water sources clean by adding a filter or draining and scrubbing every three or four days.
Dry weather tips
Here are suggestions from wildcarebayarea.org.
▪ Provide cool housing for amphibians, such as an upside down terracotta pot with a hole in the side. This gives frogs, salamanders and others a bit of shade. Place it near a water source, such as air conditioner condensation, for added moisture.
▪ Cover garden beds in plenty of mulch. This not only conserves moisture but also attracts insects, worms and other invertebrates that, in turn, provide food for larger animals.
▪ Keep an eye out for more wildlife on the roads.
▪ Keep cats indoors and small dogs on a leash. Predators such as coyotes may be more likely to take a domestic animal during drought, and migrating birds in search of food and water are less alert for feline stalkers.
▪ Cover your swimming pool to keep animals out and install a FrogLog or other device to allow those who enter to escape.