Monthly Archives: June 2013

Vermont’s Second Soggy Summer

The summer of 2011 was soaking wet in Vermont. After a winter of record snows and a spring of heavy rain on top of the snowpack, the summer featured a series of storms, one after another, that culminated in the disastrous flooding of Tropical Storm Irene.

After a relatively dry summer in 2012, this summer is looking to possibly be even wetter than 2011. The state has been repeatedly pounded by storms. In May we experienced colder than average storms, but June has brought heavy thunderstorms, including severe storms. May was the wettest on record in Burlington, despite the soaking-wet May of 2011. June looks to be one of the wettest on record too.

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You can see our garden in the photo above… not growing. It’s just too wet. We may try raised beds or at least large mounds next year.

Why is the weather so wet here, while much of the West bakes under a heat wave? Well, like other flooding rains and extreme weather this year, it appears to be related to an unusual but recently common pattern in which the jet stream contorts into extreme undulations and then sticks there for days or even weeks. It may be related to the loss of Arctic sea ice, as I wrote about in a blog quite a long time ago and Jeff Masters has talked about often. It seems possible that our warming of the climate has created an unexpected, early shift in weather patterns. Or maybe not. It’s hard to say… but it’s scary to think about.

In the mean time all I can do is keep working on my drainage and rain garden system. This morning, after another inch of rain, a new side of our basement was spurting water. So I added another wing to the drainage system, which will funnel water to the rain garden faster. It seems to be working well, though the dam does ‘leak’ and I need a second level of garden below the first. My cinnamon fern is sending out new fiddleheads! (this species is not edible).

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A Rain Garden to Hold Back Summer Storms

Summer was a bit slow to arrive in Vermont, but now that it is here, it is in full force. Vermont summers tend to be hot and muggy, with scattered, sometimes fierce thunderstorms. We’ve had some good ones in the past two days.

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Yesterday’s storm hangs over a parking lot of some of the only big strip malls in the state.

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Another wicked storm today with scud clouds, a few minutes before a downpour.

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Under the updraft…

Thankfully, after a session of minor basement flooding, I’ve already began setting up a system to move the water away from our foundation and towards a rain garden with native wetland plants.

For now, the gutter just sits on the ground, because we haven’t had the time/money to put in a set of real rain gutters. But, ice tends to rip them off roofs anyway, so it may stay this way for a while, if it works.

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This system is a work in progress, and will later have more gutters bringing water further around the house (instead of depositing it in the driveway where it will cause ice in the winter)… and at one point I hope to replace the gutters with a silly little fake stream, with imperveous lining so the water doesn’t sink into the ground yet. After it makes it in front of the house it encounters this:

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Notice that it looks a bit like a delta. This little rain garden is obviously too small especially if I also hook up other parts of the house and garage to this system. But, this will be the first of several pools. My goal is to emulate beavers by creating a series of small dams and level areas behind them. This will let me take advantage of a gently sloped front yard without \ getting near ours or the neighbor’s basements or creating a large pool that would retain water. The goal is to make sure water stays no more than 24 hours, because otherwise mosquitoes might start breeding. There are already plenty of those. But maybe at some point it may be possible to set up a tiny pool of permanent water for frogs and such, and just monitor it to keep mosquitoes out.

We don’t live in a highly urbanized areas, but we are in the watershed of the Winooski River, which is known for having flooding problems along much of its length. In addition to hopefully drying up our basement, this series of rain gardens will help just a tiny bit to reduce flooding in this watershed.

Last time I looked outside another storm was possibly heading in, and by the hot muggy feel of the night, we may be in for another storm. We will see how the new mini-rain garden holds up! There will be more to follow.
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Liberation from an Excessive Lawn

Buying a home and property is an exercise in balances. It’s impossible to get everything we want, but we feel lucky with what we have. One of the things we did not want that we were stuck with, in addition to a pile of rotting wood behind the shed, is a large area of lawn that had been mowed all summer, every year.

we live in Vermont, so this isn’t exactly the same as a lawn in California. We’d never water it. It’s possible during some years it could turn a bit brown, but for the most part Vermont is ridiculously green during the entire growing season. So unlike California lawns, we are not irrigating with water ‘appropriated’ from elsewhere. We won’t fertilize it, why would we want it to grow faster? (lawn fertilizer also will make its way into the Winooski River and Lake Champlain, degrading water quality).

We also found that we had a lawnmower left with the house:

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It needed only minor repairs, but by the time we got it running the lawn was quite overgrown… and this lawnmower doesn’t deal well with long grass. It was a struggle, to say the least, and I ended up dragging it backwards some of the time because it seemed to work better. All said and told, by the time everything I wanted to mow was mowed, I’d gone through nearly a gallon of gas. I could driven my relatively inefficient truck 20 miles with that amount of gas! Not to mention the lawnmower has no emission control system. And I love yardwork, but I’d rather be growing plants than mutilating them.

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Because the lawn had gotten so long, mowing it resulted in extensive drifts of cut grass. Above is after the second mowing. I hope it kills some of the lawn underneath!

It’s been interesting watching the weeds and wildflowers respond to different mowing regimes. Areas that are mowed often (when not buried in clippings) tend to have grass, clover, ground ivy, and dandelions. An area that was apparently mowed regularly last year but was not mowed this year instead has waving grass seed heads and two surprisingly beautiful types of hawkweed. A few fleabanes (look similar to New England Aster) have also popped up.

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Our larger field, which was probably cut a couple times of year in the recent past (but was a lawn further back), is full of bedstraw:

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The below area was apparently mowed less recently due to there being a fallen tree and some blackberry bushes nearby. Here there is milkweed and goldenrod:

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So our tentative plans? Native wildflowers under the shade of our hardwoods, a large swale and rain garden on the downhill side of the house (with water directed to it, away from the basement), and tons of garden space. Our garden this year is tiny due to a late start and lack of rototiller. Breaking sod by hand is HARD work! Also the plants have barely grown due to the cool, wet conditions.

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As for the large field, I’d most like to have a mature forest of sugar maple, but since that will not happen in our lifetime, and totally abandoning the field would probably result in an invasive buckthorn thicket, the plan is to grow a few dogwoods and manage the rest for pollinators. As most people have heard bee species are struggling, and butterflies and pollinating flies also need help. Brush hogging the field after the growing season, when birds are no longer nesting and insects are going dormant, will also allow the field to transition from mostly grass to more pollinator-valuable species such as milkweed (already present in small numbers) and goldenrod. Planting or allowing a few dogwoods to grow will provide more flowers as well as perches and potential nesting habitat for birds. We already appear to have red winged blackbirds nesting in the area – not a rare species by any means but they certainly reward us with their beautiful songs (and apparent bird cussing when i walk into their territory). Leaving ground unplowed will allow bumblebees to nest in the area (another reason not to mow during the summer – we want these bees around but don’t want them pissed off and stinging me). We’ll also be planting fruit trees and maintaining the blackberry patch and a few blueberries (uncertain how they will do in this soil). Hopefully the pollinators visit those as well.

At first I wasn’t excited about the field, but it now seems full of opportunity (and work). The biggest challenge is that we don’t yet have a brush hog. It’s amazing how many things you don’t realize you need until you buy a house and land.

Red Sky in the Midafternoon

There is a saying, “Red sky at morning, sailor take warning, red sky at night, sailor’s delight‘. This very old weather saying derives from red skies near the beginning or end of day that tend to form when a storm is opposite the sun. In areas outside the tropics, storms tend to move from west to east. Red sky in the morning means there is a storm to the west and probably approaching, while red sky at night indicates the sun breaking through clouds as a storm presumably moves away. The same is true on a smaller scale for rainbows which form opposite the sun.

Last Sunday I saw red skies of sorts in the midafternoon.

We were really nailed by a severe thunderstorm on that day, which did indeed come from the (south)west.

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Vermont doesn’t usually get the rotating monster thunderstorms that wreak havoc across the Great Plains, but during the summer season we are prone to occasional severe thunderstorms arranged in squall lines which sometimes form into a bow-like shape and bring heavy wind. These storms approach with a dramatic low shelf cloud that only appears when the storm is very close, and rushes across the horizon at surprising speed. Behind the roiling clouds of the squall line the cloud often appears smooth and less dark – because you can’t actually see the clouds, and instead this is wind-blown rain and often hail. When you see one coming, you get to a safe place as fast as you can… these storms often knock down trees.

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Note the low dark cloud with smooth light cloud behind it…

When this latest severe storm came, it brought something a bit odd that i have never seen before. Squall lines tend to form odd colors. For instance, here’s a sickly blue- green storm we drove through last summer in the Midwest:

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The storm above completely flooded Duluth, Minnesota and brought flash floods and possibly a tornado in Wisconsin.

But back to the storm last weeked… there was no green in the clouds. Instead, the low clouds of the squall line had a light but distinct pink-red tint to it:

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It’s hard to see the color here. but if you have a LCD screen try looking from above or below to darken the picture. It’s PINK… like cotton candy! This wouldn’t be too unusual in the late evening, but it was 2:30 PM near the summer solstice. The sun was directly above the cloud, so there was nothing to reflect sunlight. Furthermore everything on the ground is green right now. I’ve seen reddish cloud bottoms reflecting the red rock in Utah, but there is nothing red on the ground in enough quantity to reflect on the cloud. It could happen in October but not now.

Green thunderstorms have been proven to be more than just reflections of green fields… some thunderstorms definitely are greenish, and there is at least strong anecdotal evidence that if you see a green storm coming you had better head for shelter. I’ve seen green clouds once or twice, always before a very intense thunderstorm and/or a barrage of hail. However, they are not well understood. But red-pink storms? I wasn’t able to find anything on Google that seemed to relate. Reddish clouds definitely form out west where smoke or red dust is blown into a storm, but neither were in effect here. Has anyone else ever noticed pink clouds in a storm? In any event, based on this one occurrence, if you see a red storm, treat it the same way you would a green storm. About 10 minutes after this cloud was seen there were very intense winds and at least five VERY close cloud to ground lightning strikes. At one point before a close strike my hair was actually starting to stand on end – indoors! The storm knocked out power to many areas for several hours, as between the lightning and wind blowing down trees there was lots of damage to power lines.

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The tree above was uprooted and fell on a fence.

There were also some nighttime thunderstorms in the area late last week, that mostly missed our location. I got a few dim pictures of lightning by taking videos and then taking screenshots of the videos. Not as effective as using a nice camera (which I don’t have) but it did work. I found that applying a silly flickr image filter made it much easier to see, so I apologize for the fake-retro look.

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The forecast for the next few days calls for more rain, but probably not any thunderstorms. After last weekend I’m glad we won’t be facing any severe weather for a while… though the sumer is only beginning, and there will almost certainly be quite a few more thunderstorms this summer. I like them, as long as they don’t hurt anyone or destroy anyone’s home.