Rainy summer was more of a perk than problem for gardeners

Kendra Meinert

GREEN BAY - What gardeners may have lacked in their raspberry crop or climbing roses this summer they likely gained on their water bill.

Cheryl Williams, a volunteer with the Brown County UW Extension offices community gardens program, works in the Maple and Augusta Streets community garden Wednesday in Green Bay.

A season that got off to a cool, slow start in spring and then delivered rain showers on a near-daily basis in June and July had both its perks and problems. The overriding theme was certainly wet, and whether it was a blessing or a curse, probably depended on what you were growing.

Most perennials loved it. Annuals and container plants worked around it. Some fruit and vegetable crops were harmed by it.

It was one of the wettest seasons Vijai Pandian can recall in his 10 years as horticultural agent and educator for Brown County University of Wisconsin-Extension.

“It looked a lot like Seattle or Oregon. Almost every day or night it rained,” he said. “Many plants had a bit of a struggle to get going this season. The soil was too saturated with moisture.

Raindrops, like these on a tropical canna, were a frequent accent in the garden this summer.

"I think rain is a blessing, but too much rain, it can be a nightmare," he said. "On a positive side, gardeners didn't have to water that much, so they can save quite a bit on their water bills this year."

One of the downsides to persistent wet conditions was an increase in fungal diseases. It caused root rot issues with raspberries, prompting many gardeners to complain about stunted or declining plants. Fruit crops such as apples, pears and plums were also affected by an increased number of diseases, particularly apple scab, which ruins fruit quality and causes non-resistant apple trees and ornamental crab trees to lose much of their foliage by mid-summer.

“This is not a good year for backyard orchard gardeners,” Pandian said.

Even something as simple as walking through the garden was risky business. Foot traffic on ground that is overly wet compacts the soil and causes problems for plant roots. While harvesting peppers and tomatoes during wet conditions, many gardeners also inadvertently spread fungal diseases by foot, Pandian said.

All those pesky Japanese beetles gardeners saw this summer, feasting on everything from roses and hibiscus to grapes and lindens? Expect to see even more next year.

“All this wet weather we had helps the beetles to lay their eggs in the ground,” he said. “They need moist soil to lay their eggs. This is perfect conditions for them.” 

At Green Bay Botanical Garden, it proved an interesting season to undertake planting its new 2.5-acre Grand Garden, which opened this month. On one hand, plentiful rains took care of watering any new plants — something that can be a daunting task in the heat of summer. On the other, the ground was often wetter than the garden’s horticultural staff would’ve liked.

The growing season's wet conditions made fungal diseases more prevalent. Some raspberries, for example, suffered from root rot.

“But we had 11,500 perennials to plant so we just had to bite the bullet and get them in,” said Mark Konlock, director of horticulture. 

Green Bay Botanical Garden waters the majority of its gardens by hand, a job that normally takes two full days each week starting in June. This year, some areas never needed the hose or got only a weekly watering in recent weeks due to the dry spell.

Even the irrigation system for turf got a rest. Mowing, however, never really slowed down.

“With all the rain we had, it never seemed like our grass stopped growing and went dormant like it does in the late summer months,” Konlock said.

The garden noticed moist-weather diseases like powdery mildew on phlox and black spot on roses, especially climbing varieties, many of which dropped their foliage. 

While the cool, wet spring forced some gardeners to delay planting into the first or second week of June, it was good weather for early cool-season crops like lettuce, beets, radishes, peas and beans, which prefer constantly cool temperatures, said Lindsay Hendricks, assistant director of horticulture at the botanical gardens.

Warm season crops, such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, which need the difference in day and night temperatures to help them grow, had more of a struggle.

“Because it was such a slow start to the spring and so cool they didn’t get that extra time to set fruit,” she said.

That shortened what is already a relatively limited growing season in Wisconsin, resulting in slower ripening and decreased production for some crops. Others were able to get back on track.

Ask either Konlock or Hendricks which they prefer, a growing season that’s too wet or one that’s too dry, and they’re quick to answer.

“I would go with too wet, because watering is so important. I always say rain is a blessing,” Konlock said. “When you’re out there every day and you have to drag the hoses around and it’s super hot and you can’t keep up with everything, you realize how important rain is.” 

“Unless you have a cacti and succulent garden, you probably want a little more rain than not,” Hendricks said.