High and dry
When it finally snowed in my little corner of the world - a suburb northwest of Chicago - it was a Friday, the end of the third week of January. Storm predictions drove homeowners to the local box stores to stock up on salt and shovels and generators, just in case. (True to form, I stocked up on butter, flour and chocolate chips.) Village salt trucks were out in force, making several passes in my tiny cul-de-sac alone. They must have liked getting dizzy.
The white stuff arrived, and the morning news shouted reports of the first measurable snowfall in 335 days: an inch. One inch of the lightest powder imaginable, a Rocky Mountain skier's dream. One inch of fluff with precious little moisture, arriving just 30 days short of a year between meteorologically measurable snow. To be precise, the official measurement at O'Hare Airport was 1.1 inches, which is why we can legitimately say we had "more than an inch." It took about 10 minutes to shovel the drive, which I did only because I didn't want to deal with ice later. I should have used a broom.
If you count the couple of dustings we'd received previously - and when I say "dustings," I mean a hint of white on the lawn but not enough to measure - I'd say this area has had a whopping inch-and-a-half. Maybe. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tells we usually see a good 10 inches in January alone. Lake effect storms have delivered several inches of snow only a few miles away, and surrounding areas appear to have received coverage more in line with what we expect for the northern half of the country. Still, we're a little concerned.
This dry winter follows last year's dry winter. Oh, there was a bit of moisture: Just a couple of days after our one inch of snow, we had 64 degrees and thunderstorms. It was a Biblical amount of rain, but the ground was frozen so the soil couldn't hold it. One of the local, ridiculously high-paid TV meteorologists - one who spends far too much time waxing rhapsodic about isobars than telling us whether it'll rain - has told us that more snow's on the way. But he added that there's very little chance we'll catch up to a "normal" winter which, according to NOAA, gives us about 38 inches of snow.
Unless you live in Lake Placid, not many people complain about a lack of snow cover. Come spring and summer, however, we'll wish we had a bit more moisture. So will our plants.
In the midst of a cold and not-so-snowy winter, it's not too early to think about how our landscapes will handle the heat and drought of summer. People and plants struggled through last summer's dry conditions, and we're told that the next several months will bring persistent, if not increasing, drought across much of the country. Yes, it's hard to predict beyond that, but we do know that municipalities are cracking down on water use. And they mean business.
Are you ready to grow and spec plants that require little supplemental water? Are you ready to design gardens that can withstand the elements and look great doing it?
If this multiyear dry spell is any indication of what's to come, we'll need to plan now and be ready to work some drought-tolerant magic. If it's not - and wouldn't that be nice? - we'll still have landscapes that are beautiful and tough. It's not a bad combination.