September’s welcome early rain and snow have greened up the natural areas of Ouray, Ridgway and points between after an unseasonably hot and very dry summer. The high peaks of the San Juans sport snow-lined gullies. We could all be forgiven for anticipating a wet autumn.
Unfortunately, that’s not in the weather cards, according to a rather dismal seasonal forecast from NOAA. Meteorologist Meagan Stackhouse in Grand Junction writes, “The drought is expected to persist across eastern Utah and western Colorado through Meteorological fall, or the months of September, October and November” (August 2020: Climate Summary for Eastern Utah and Western Colorado, NWS Grand Junction). Ouray County remains in extreme drought.
This miserable outlook comes in the midst of an extreme natural precipitation deficit, statewide and across the West. Even with the welcome early snow (1.4 inches) and precipitation (1.25 inches) so far this month, the city of Ouray has accumulated only 10.79 inches of moisture for the first nine months of 2020, a veritable pandemic of drought. In a normal year, Ouray’s precipitation is 23.05 inches, and 18.02 inches usually accumulates by the end of September. This year’s nine-month total is just 60 percent of the longterm normal.
Ouray’s driest year on record remains 1956, with a meager 14.62 inches. Unfortunately, there’s a good chance we could flirt with that miserly statistic this year, given current forecasts. Through mid-October it’s supposed to be hot and dry. Then, like a broken record, through November it’s supposed to be hot and dry.
Adding to the misery and immediate concern for this area’s natural surroundings in a horrendous fire year across the West, this is our second drought in three years. 2018 saw only 20.06 inches of precipitation. Ouray also experienced more severe droughts in 2012 (18.91 inches) and 2002 (18.09 inches).
Of immediate concern, as we approach what may well be a very dry, snow-starved winter, is our created human landscape of city parks and private yards. Unlike deciduous trees, shrubs, lawns and gardens that go dormant as the sun recedes southward and leaves drop, the city’s wonderful evergreen trees and shrubs will struggle and transpire throughout the winter.
They are hurting already, after such a dry year, and need soaking. Set a hose at their dripline and let it run for a half hour. Then, do it again when the soil looks and feels dry. This autumn will probably not see frozen ground for a while, so “water and repeat” needs to be our garden mantra.
Caring for the rest of the planted landscape is another sweet autumn chore. In the brisk days to come, let your lawnmower cut grass and shred fallen leaves at the same time. The leaves will preserve ground moisture and fertilize soil and grass as well. Those excess leaves also do double duty as a flower or garden bed mulch, keeping what moisture does fall in the protected soil of these areas. Another old trick, from my northern Vermont childhood, is to rake those leaves against your house’s foundation, providing great insulation against the cold starkness of winter.
Another storied garden trick is to leave flower stalks and leaves cut to just six inches to hold moisture through the winter. A cleared garden bed is a dry one, immediately subject to wind and soil erosion. There’s plenty of time in the spring between snowstorms (if we’re lucky this spring) to uncover the dormant perennials snuggled moist and safe in shredded leafy beds through the winter.
The dramatic temperature swings of our high altitude winters also affect plants less if they have these leafy blankets covering their roots. Less drying equates to colder soil, which allows for longer dormancy — always a good thing in our mercurial spring weather.
The first 22 days of September have seen early, measurable snow, frost a whopping 17 days before the average first frost date, and two record minimum high temperatures (38 and 44 degrees on Sept. 10 and 11, respectively). As of Tuesday the 22nd, we’ve also recorded 13 smoke-filled days and 16 daytime highs of 72-86 degrees, well above September’s average high of 70.1. This year’s growing season was also only 92 days, from last frost June 9 to first frost Sept. 9. Normal is 121 days, nearly a month longer.
Amid all the immediate concerns of drought, wildfire and smoke drifting in from hundreds and thousands of miles away, autumn — in spite of its gradually diminishing sunlight — remains ours to enjoy. It doesn’t hurt, and it may help, to store up these sunny days outside in 60 degree weather. A few sore muscles at the end of a day in the garden brace the body for winter. A last hike in golden aspen strengthens the soul. Fond memories accrue to our precious time in the sun.
Where there is sunshine, the doctor starves. -Flemish proverb
Karen Risch gardens, records weather for NOAA and CoCoRahs, writes and hikes in Ouray. Her Wunderground weather station ID is KCOOURAY3, transmitting weather from latitude N38º 1’ 34”, longitude W107º 40’ 21”, Elevation 7,736’. A purpleair.com air quality monitor operates at the same location.