Martha’s Vineyard has been dry, but there is no drought

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Photo by Rich Saltzberg

Despite showers over Labor Day weekend, August rainfall on Martha’s Vineyard was approximately two inches below average. The preceding months of June and July were only slightly below average, while May saw a rain deficit on par with August.

The dry weather has impacted local flora to varying degrees. With the ground powder-dry, oak, blueberry, and other plant life bordering unpaved roads and driveways across the Island have worn a coat of dust since July. Irrigation has preserved crops at many farms, but undefended lawn and pasture have gone brown in all six towns. Some deciduous tree species, such as maples, have begun premature color changes. Hay harvests thus far are dismal.

Despite these signs, the Vineyard is not suffering from official drought. It is, however, in a state of abnormal dryness.

“Based on the U.S. Drought Monitor, a national guidance product issued in conjunction with many state, local and national agencies, Martha’s Vineyard is currently under Abnormally Dry conditions,” Nicole M. Belk, a Senior Service Hydrologist at the National Weather Service office in Taunton told The Times. “However, drought conditions are not present in Massachusetts, inclusive of the Vineyard, at this time.”

The Drought Monitor is an internet accessible tool that shades regions of the United States that are suffering from lack of water in gradations of color ranging from brown, for the most severe drought (currently California), to yellow, for the most mild (Martha’s Vineyard and many other parts of the country). All of Dukes County and most of Falmouth are currently shaded in yellow on the monitor map. Nantucket and the rest of the Cape benefited from intense showers earlier in the month and are not experiencing notably dry conditions.

Brown grass costs

For Islanders who own grazing livestock, the sun-scorched pastureland these abnormal conditions have produced has forced orders of supplemental hay to sustain animals that would normally live largely off the land.

“This summer has been very dry and has made grass-based rotational grazing very difficult,” said Clarissa Allen, owner with her husband Mitch Posin of the Allen Farm in Chilmark, the oldest family farm on the Island. “We move our sheep through a series of paddocks in our meadows, and because of the extreme dryness, the paddocks do not rejuvenate during the customary rotations. We have been feeding hay since the middle of August. Our fields look very dry and brown. I don’t recall such a dry summer. Usually, July is foggy and rainy, but not so in recent years. This summer seems particularly dry. I hope it is not portentous of future growing seasons.”

Hay itself isn’t faring well according to James Athearn of Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown. Morning Glory farm currently has about thirty head of beef cattle. The farm grows and cuts hay to feed them. Mr. Athearn was expecting to harvest 400 bales this season and wound up with 160.

“The hay fields are miserable—worst I have seen in forty years,” he said.

Conversely, Morning Glory sweet corn and tomatoes are thriving thanks to irrigation and excellent solar exposure.

“With dry weather comes a lot of sunshine,”  Mr. Athearn added.

Adaptability is key

At Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury, irrigation isn’t an option. According to arboretum curator Thomas Clark, by and large, the plants are on their own, in keeping with the late Polly Hill’s selection parameters.

“She would find and install what plants were adaptable to Island conditions, come what may,” he said.

That adaptability includes withstanding dry periods. So, normally only new plantings receive regular watering at Polly Hill. But in order to safeguard the arboretum’s nationally renowned Stewartia collection, those trees are currently on a watering regimen. Mr. Clark pointed to hollies and crabapples aborting their fruit at the arboretum as one of the many signs of the ubiquitous plant thirst. He advised Islanders to water their broadleaf evergreens (such as rhododendrons and mountain laurels) through the end of summer and into autumn as they are particularly susceptible to perishing over the winter if left parched.

Landscape garden designer Jennifer Jamgochian looks to tropical plants for vibrancy during dry times such as these.

“Tropicals are always incredibly tolerant of dry weather,” she said. “In August all of my tropical plants are bursting with blooms and happy to live through the drought. Sedums and succulents are other great choices in anticipation of drought conditions. They can handle the dry hot winds without much change in appearance.”

In addition to consistent watering, Ms. Jamgochian has a suggestion for Islanders hoping to resuscitate plants that have begun to succumb to this dry spell.

“Foliar feeding (applying liquid fertilizer to leaves) with an organic fertilizer can help a bit,” she said. “It’s like giving the plant a little immune booster. It can bring back a garden that looks terrible within a few hours.”