The dry time has come, my friends, when a gardener's principles of xeriscaping and letting plants fend for themselves has smashed into the proverbial hard spot. As a gardener on this bit of prairie, I try mightily, sometimes seemingly against my better judgement, to have as little impact as I can on my environment. Minimal extra water use, lots of mulch, pesticides only in emergencies, no inorganic fertilizer, plants selected for the conditions of my region. I fail mightily as well, harvesting corn drenched in insecticide (growing corn here in Kansas at any time qualifies as an emergency), watering marginal plants in dry times, and choosing some plants because they are unusual or interesting or pretty, even if they are better adapted to Costa Rica than this mid-continental desert.
I understand, however, on some basic level, that an attempt to garden at all must inevitably result in some effects on the environment. I can't give Mrs. ProfessorRoush a rose garden, for instance, without displacing the native prairie grasses that would otherwise outcompete the roses. I can't plant a tree on the prairie without shading out some of those same grasses. I can choose a Miscanthus sp., or select among the excellent cultivars of Panicum, but the first is not native here and the second may not drawn the same insects, or the same birds to its seeds, or provide the same benefits to the soil as the native forms. As noted by Michael Pollan in the classic essays of Second Nature, ornamental gardening means finding "a middle ground between the two positions of domination of a piece of ground or acquiescence to the natural conditions of the area."
I have drawn the line against nonintervention this weekend while worrying about my trees. I'm quite pleased, these days, with the growth of several maples and oaks and cottonwoods that I have planted, and I'm quite distressed to see them turn silver leaves to the sky and begin to die. Go away, Charles Darwin, and stop whispering in my ear. I cannot stand by and let the pressures of Natural Selection, represented by this extreme and unusual drought, dictate which trees survive in my garden. I cannot coexist here with a garden of Red Cedars and Osage Orange. I need my Sweet Gum, my Black Gum, and my 'Patriot' Elm to create the illusion that I have some control over my garden. I need them to linger here after I'm gone, keeping my presence after the end of days.
So I'm watering the trees today, deeply and individually, with a sprinkler that will cover most of the root extent. I'm watering them in order of my love for them; my daughter's accidental Silver Maple first, next the native Cottonwood (pictured here) ravished first by ice storms and then drought, the 'October Glory' Red Maple that I hold dear in the Fall was third, and so on to the others. My apologies to the Flint Hills aquifer, but I'd like someday to see a tree here large enough to support a squirrel or two, maybe to serve as a perch for a hungry owl, and perhaps to provide a little shade to rest from the Kansas sun. As I water, however, I see that the backlit spray of water just looks like another clump of grass on the prairie, a quiet reminder to me of what God really intends to be grown here.