scorecardresearch Skip to main content

‘It needs to rain’: Parks and public gardens adapt to ongoing drought

Gardeners are attempting to balance responsible water use with the need to keep plants vibrant in Bressingham Garden at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society's Garden at Elm Bank in Wellesley.Douglasolyons / Aerial Photographic Solutions

Flowers are drooping, paths are drying, and rivers are dropping across Massachusetts as parts of the state now face critical drought conditions — a situation that’s been gradually worsening since June.

Tia Pinney, senior teacher-naturalist at Mass Audubon, said she noticed some of the higher elevation trees at its Drumlin Farm site in Lincoln starting to wilt in mid-July.

“Two or three of them were really stressed, they lost all their turgor,” Pinney said. “They weren’t saplings, they were fairly well established. But because the water table had dropped, they were just way too dry.”

Mass Audubon aims for “diversity of organisms” on its properties, she said, so it is expected that some plants may not make it through a given year. But Pinney said increases in the frequency of extreme weather threaten New England vegetation, which is evolved for a relatively consistent climate.


The drought has caused water levels in Mass Audubon’s wetlands to fall, shrinking the habitats of some creatures and exposing soil that could lead to invasive issues in the future, Pinney said. She noted that, while not a crisis on its own, one drought can be indicative of larger trends spurred by climate change.

“As in all things, it’s a question of the impact over time,” she said. “Normal is really hard to define at this point because things are changing so rapidly.”

At the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s Garden at Elm Bank in Wellesley — where blossoming flowers and lush lawns are the norm — the drought is more pronounced. Gardeners are attempting to balance local water bans with the need to maintain a beautiful landscape for events.

Karen Daubmann, director of garden and programs, said some grassy spots are burning out, but most public spaces have “some pretty tough annuals” that have been able to weather the heat.


“They look a little bit droopy at high noon, but they are typically able to rebound throughout the course of the day,” Daubmann said.

Elm Bank uses drip irrigation, watering plants’ roots slowly and directly, to try and limit water waste. She said they run that system for a few hours about once a week and use watering cans to help plants that need a little extra.

Daubmann said she plans to install rain barrels to help offset water use, but then again, “it needs to rain.”

The Trustees of Reservations, which owns 123 properties throughout the state, faces a similar balancing act between “resilience and recreation,” said Aaron Gouveia, director of public relations.

Gouveia said the drought is starting to affect visitors’ experiences — at Rocky Woods campground in Medfield, campfires are now limited to one bundle of wood and must be extinguished by 10 p.m. At Royalston’s Tully Lake campground, the boat launch is inaccessible to canoes.

Fran Blanchard, vice president of stewardship, said most of the Trustees’ more than 27,000 acres across the state is well-established old growth, which tends to be more resilient.

“One drought isn’t going to make or break how our properties look,” Blanchard said. “It’s where it happens over and over again that we’re starting to be more concerned.”

Still, Blanchard said drought conditions coupled with pest issues make her “worry a little bit more.” To the east, they are battling woolly adelgid, an invasive insect that targets Eastern Hemlock trees, which already suffer in a drought, she said.


While worrisome, Blanchard said there has been one unexpected benefit of the ongoing drought: less rainfall typically means less risk of erosion.

“Our trails are actually in pretty good shape,” she said. “When we have really wet springs we get a lot of lash-out on our trails, and the tread washes out. This year, that’s not happening.”

Pinney said the drought has been an educational opportunity for Mass Audubon, showcasing the impact of climate change and highlighting ways for visitors to improve the resiliency of their own yards.

“A drought this summer is a drought this summer,” Pinney said. “We now are in a climate cycle where we know there will be drought years, and they will become more frequent and probably more severe.”

Daniel Kool can be reached at Follow him @dekool01.