Rain watch

I have mentioned before that a fair number of trees in the woods around here died between last summer and this spring. The forest doesn’t look healthy. A lot of trees of all species on the mountain either never came back in the spring or barely made it out of the winter alive. Even the trees that seem less affected by the heat and drought of last summer don’t seem to have leafed out as much as in a normal year, at least to my uneducated eye.

Some trees are trying. A few pines whose needles all turned brown have come back in part. Some of the trees whose limbs never leafed out have sprouted tight bunches of leaves along their trunks. I suspect many of them will never fully recover and will eventually die, especially if we have another summer like 2016.

One of the hardest hit of species is the dogwood. As far as I could tell earlier this spring, we had only one or two dogwoods that seemed to have survived in reasonably good condition. This is one that grew just inside the woods next to our driveway.

Some vines have grown up into the crown, which makes it look like it still has leaves, but the only leaves on this tree are dead. But this is what I noticed at the base of the tree on Wednesday.

It’s coming back from the roots. It looks pretty good at this point.

Here’s a maple that lost about half of its multiple trunks.

And here’s its base.

I don’t know whether the dogwoods or maples will manage to survive, despite these signs of their struggle to live.

This die-off may be a normal cycle in the northwestern Georgia forest, but I worry.

I also worry about our front yard. I finally got the zoysia seed sown. I filled the ruts and depressions as well as I could, then spread about two inches of rich topsoil. Then I raked it as level as I could, which was not very level. Then I rolled it. Every place I stepped ended up with a deep footprint. I could and probably should have tried harder to get the lawn smooth, but I was racing what I thought was a nice downpour that never materialized.

Now all we have to do is make sure the seed doesn’t get too dry. I have watered lightly – very lightly – twice so far. Our well doesn’t produce at a very high rate, so I am being conservative when I water. I am sprinkling about a third of the lawn at a time, then waiting a few hours before doing the next third. Here you can see the middle third is slightly darker than the ground on either side, a result of watering just a short while before I took the picture.

As I write this on Wednesday afternoon, there is a wide area of rain heading from the southwest up towards us. Based on our history here, I won’t be surprised if we get little or nothing from this system.

Preparing to watch the grass grow

Leah and I both want a nice yard with lots of pretty shrubbery. Although we don’t particularly want a large lawn, our front yard is also our septic system leach field, so we don’t have many options for ground cover. It looks like it’s going to be grass.

The first decision was what type of grass to grow. The county agricultural extension agent immediately suggested Bermuda grass, because it’s fast growing, it spreads, and it’s drought resistant. Fast growing means it has to be mowed often, and I really, really don’t want to mow a lawn every week, or even twice a week. The other option was zoysia grass. Zoysia is slow growing and drought resistant. Slow growing is great for less mowing, or, depending on how you want your yard to look, no mowing at all. But slow growing also means it takes a while to establish, unless you buy sod. Sod would require regular, deep watering, while seed would require regular, shallow watering (at least at first). In the end we decided to try to seed the lawn with zoysia..

I picked a very hot, dry day to start raking the middle 3000 square feet in front of the house to clear the wheat straw and rocks. Then I dug into a pile of dirt the grading contractor left in the front yard to fill the low spots and gullies. I shoveled the dirt into the bed of our Mule, a side-by-side four-wheeler, and hauled it to where it was needed. The pile probably had about five cubic yards of dirt, all of which I moved with a shovel.

Next I had about nine cubic yards of mushroom compost delivered. It also had to be shoveled into the Mule’s little bed so I could spread it about an inch deep everywhere we plan to seed. Once that’s done, I’ll rent a big tiller and try to incorporate it into the soil.

Here’s the mule resting, while I supervise from the porch. The compost is piled to the right of the Mule.

Filling in the low spots and spreading the compost took most of three days, all of which were sunny and near 90 F.

Most of the topsoil was removed from the front yard during construction, leaving us with sandy clay with lots of rock but absolutely no organic material. I’ll till the compost into the soil, but it will still need to be augmented with some decent topsoil, so I had 18 cubic yards delivered on Wednesday afternoon.

We were having a little problem getting the last of the soil to slide out of the dumptruck, and I joked that at least it was easier than shoveling it all out. Then it occurred to me that I actually am going to have to move all those 18 cubic yards with a shovel.

At this point, Thursday night, I still have a little compost left to spread. Although nine cubic yards will cover almost 3000 square feet at one inch depth, I think I’m going to end up covering around 2500 square feet.

This is the yard with most of the compost spread.

The shadow of the house makes it look like we have rich, black soil, but that’s an illusion. The red clay above the darker compost slopes down so it doesn’t look like as large an area as it actually is.

The next steps are tilling the compost into the ground, spreading two inches of topsoil, and then sowing the zoysia seed.

As of Thursday, I don’t have the topsoil spread, or the seed sown. The zoysia seed must be kept moist for about three weeks. Regular gentle showers would be nice once the seed is sown, but I don’t want rain right now. So Thursday afternoon a large line of thunderstorms formed and was moving towards us from Alabama. Fortunately, I had put plastic over the topsoil and the remaining compost, just in case.

This is what it looked like as the rain moved across Alabama. The red push pin is our house.It looked like we were in for some heavy rain.

A little while after this radar image was made, the sky darkened and the wind picked up and began to roar through Fouche Gap. Rain began to fall. The plastic over the compost and topsoil started flapping and I had to put more rocks along the sides. I retreated back inside and waited for the rain. A little while after that, this is what the radar looked like.

It looks like we’re in some fairly heavy rain, but we weren’t. The sea of red had parted and passed on either side of us.

And then, after the line of thunderstorms had passed, this is what it looked like.

We had 0.06 inches of rain.

Here’s the front yard after the rain passed. Instead of water, it mostly deposited leaves torn from the trees.

On the plus side, the temperature dropped from near 90 F to 68 F in about fifteen minutes.

Digging a hole

We bought some crape myrtles and hollies for the yard between the side of the house and the driveway a few days ago, and on Wednesday I started digging a hole for one of the crape myrtles. The crape myrtles are in five-gallon containers, so they need a hole a foot deep by about four or so feet wide. That’s a big hole, but that’s not the whole story.

Here is one of the crape myrtles in the ground. It’s about six feet tall.

And here is the start of a hole for the second crape myrtle.

About half of the dirt taken from the hole is wrapped up in the tarp behind the crape myrtle. I dumped the rest down near the woods because it is too hard to use for planting. About four inches below the surface there is a layer of incredibly hard, almost black clay. It is impossible to dig this soil with just a shovel. It’s not easy to do it even with a pick. The clay breaks into rock-like chunks that are impossible to break up with a shovel. Our regular hard red clay can at least be crumbled with a shovel, but this dark clay is impervious. Our neighbor John, who did the clearing and grading for us, lent us a gasoline-powered auger to use for planting. I tried it. The auger bit dug a few inches into the soil and stopped at the clay level, leaving a nice, polished surface where the auger spun uselessly against the clay.

I take the clay chunks out of the soil and use the loose soil that’s left. There’s no way I can put the hard clay back into the hole with the plant, even amended generously with compost.

Planting guides usually recommend against so generously amending the soil that goes back in the hole with the plant because it encourages roots to stay within that good soil and not penetrate out into the rest of the soil. Here, though, we’re going to have to treat the crape myrtles almost like potted plants because the clay is so hard.

Each of these crape myrtles holes take me most of an afternoon to dig. I have wondered about dynamite.

The ground is especially hard now because we haven’t had a measurable amount of rain for about two weeks. We have watched the weather radar as heavy showers pass north or south of us. A few days ago a good shower passed over town. We could watch it from our front porch.

We got a sprinkle. I assume that at least the rain that passes close but misses us helps recharge the ground water, so maybe our well won’t run dry.

Downpour

We received a little over four and a half inches of rain from January 18 to Sunday, January 23, the most we have received in a very long time over such a short period. We got just over three of those inches Sunday. Of those three inches, a large amount fell from the time Leah and I tried to get into our car to go for some dinner and the time we got out about a half an hour later. This was the result in the front yard.

I had spent some time spreading wheat straw and digging trenches to try to channel the water away from the leach field. That was generally successful, but I need to do more between the leach field and the driveway.

The lighter straw covers a repair to the septic drainage components. Ours is a very shallow conventional system. Someone drove over the very first section of drain field chamber, which crushed it and caused water to soak the area around it. I had marked the leach field with stakes, plastic tape and a sign but that apparently was not enough to keep one of the contractors off of it.

The heavy rain we got Sunday evening was the from same storm that caused several deaths from a tornado in South Georgia. Fortunately, all we got was rain and straight-line wind. I was tracking the rain on my weather radar app and it was obvious why we got so much rain. There was a large area of circulation that didn’t move for a long time. It looked like a tropical storm.

These three images are from a sequence starting around 9:25 pm.

I looked for a way to animate the radar sequence but couldn’t figure out how to do it. I had to settle for grabbing a few shots in the sequence. There was a clear rotation around a center not far from our house.

More rain is predicted for Wednesday of this week but conditions are supposed to be clear for about a week after that. Some time during the clear weather I hope to do some more work in the front yard before everything washes away.

But I’m not complaining. We desperately needed the rain. We had dropped out of the “exceptional drought” condition down one level to “extreme drought” as of last week. The next drought map comes out later this week. Maybe we’ve improved.

Rain update, 7 December

We have had a nice string of rainy days lately. Monday we recorded 0.42 inches. The total since December 1, when our terrible string of day days ended, we have had 2.16 inches of rain. Most of the rain has been slow and gentle, just what we need.

The forecast is for a cold front to pass through, dropping the temperature to around 19 F by Friday night. The next rain is not expected until next Monday. We are still in a drought, but you couldn’t tell it by the soggy conditions.