Drought 2012 in the Natural Areas

 by Kate Reichert, Natural Areas intern

You probably know that Southern Wisconsin experienced an incredible drought this summer, perhaps the worst in recent history. But what you may not know is how drought affects our natural areas, places filled with trees, prairies, edibles, and animals. These natural areas are a beloved part of Troy Gardens for many, and a lot of work went into keeping them healthy through the stress of drought.

When it first became apparent in late June that we were dealing with a drought, the dedicated staff, interns, and volunteers in the Natural Areas at Troy Gardens took action. We started to observe changes on our land during regular site walks, and quickly began to set up systems for watering and prioritizing sections and individual plantings. The first step was to purchase hundreds of feet of new hose, to connect the far reaches of the edible woodland to the hoses at the edge of the Community Gardens. The second was to determine who would water what!

Our primary concerns were recent plantings in the Edible Woodland, mainly American Plums saplings only about a foot in height, new oaks planted in the Old Field, and young fruit trees in the Edible Woodland. These plantings needed water immediately and often, so interns worked with the Youth Services of Southern Wisconsin’s Youth Restitution Program to bring watering cans to each of these plantings every week. For all of our other trees in the Edible Woodland needing extra care, we set up an “Adopt a Tree” program. Volunteer stewards signed up to “adopt” and care for a tree, marked with flags, and participated in a brief watering tutorial. Finally, a devoted group of Herb Garden stewards woke up early to beat the heat and care for the plants in the Herb Garden. The once-wilting trees and plants slowly began to look more alive, and as a result of these watering systems, many of these plantings will survive and thrive in the future.

To help ensure that natural spaces like those at Troy get the care they need in the future, interns also worked to educate the public about the effects of drought on our natural habitats. Students from Toki Middle School observed and compared the effects of drought during fall field trips, acting out trees and grasses in three different habitats and observing the effect of canopy on water retention. An educational guided walk through the prairie led by one summer intern provided perhaps the most amazing indication of how the drought affected the land. While leading a small group through the prairie, she stopped where the Old Field and Prairie meet, and asked us to observe the differences between the two areas. There was a stark contrast between the silence in the brown, short, dry grasses in the Old Field and the symphony of insects in the still-blooming tall grasses of the Prairie. It was clear that our native grasslands are much more equipped to handle the extreme conditions we experienced this summer than the simpler landscapes created by developing the land.

Our Natural Areas provide not only habitat for wildlife and enjoyment to visitors, but also evidence that with a little bit of help, these landscapes can be resilient and full of life even in the toughest conditions. We will continue to monitor for the effects of the drought as part of our maintenance procedures outlined in the Natural Areas Management Plan, and will remove and replant next spring once the full effects have been realized. For more information or to get involved in the Natural Areas at Troy Gardens, please visit our website.


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