Nancy Dishno, a retired nurse, tends gardens at both her Hyde Park home and at Augustana Lutheran Church, 5500 S. Woodlawn Ave., where she is a member.
"So far I haven't had to water too much, but it's been cold through the first week of May. It wasn't really time to plant the annuals yet," she said on May 18. "When it hits 55 at night or so, I feel safe to put the annuals out, and it looks like this week is go time. Like all the sudden I could see that it's supposed to be good. Even if it got cold next week, at least they could get a start.
"The other trick is water," she said. "Now I'm committed to watering every other day in the beginning. If Mother Nature helps me, then good for me, I can do other things like pull weeds. If not, I need to water."
Augustana's garden has hoses laid down in the beds, but Dishno said it does not do as good a job as rain. But the rains did not come this spring like they typically do.
"Some of these things have been here a long time, they've been through a long time, and they'll survive," she said. "What it might mean in the future, if this were to keep up — and this is only the first year, the three past Mays have had a lot of rain — so it's too soon to say that we're having one, but yeah, this is a little unusual. We should keep an eye on it. It could even out, and the next month we'll get rain. It works like that sometimes."
But Chicago is in a drought, albeit a mild one at this point after three historically soggy springs, though the data suggests that it may get worse as spring becomes summer.
"It's kind of actually random, in a way, but now it's actually feeding itself," said Dr. Mika Tosca, a climate scientist at the National Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, when asked how the drought came to the Windy City.
February brought bucketloads of snow, but it was a very cold month, so the precipitation was very powdery and not too wet. Last month, in turn, was historically warm, the sixth-driest April in Chicago history. Tosca said a dry high-pressure system added to that dryness. May, in turn, has been cooler, which typically leads to rain, but the rains kept going to the city's south.
Since March 1, Chicago has only received around 2½ inches of rain, and it should have received closer to 9. Per the U.S. Drought Monitor, Cook County is currently abnormally dry in the south, experiencing a moderate drought in the middle, where Hyde Park is, and a severe drought in the north.
"It's not like a widespread regional drought. It's more like this strip," Tosca observed. "It's not like a Midwest thing."
But dryness begets dryness, she said: the atmosphere is complex, and if the soil is dry as well, the two in combination tend to steer storms away. "A lot of moisture in the atmosphere is fed by moisture in the surface," she said. "If there's no moisture on the surface, it's like if you're in a drought, it's harder to get out of a drought than people think."
Though things are out of whack now because of global warming, California's seasonal summer droughts are typically ended by rains in the fall, even if the first storms are usually duds because everything is so dry. And while there have been a few sprinkles in Chicago recently, there have been no soakers. And again, Tosca pointed out there is currently a half-foot deficit of precipitation from "normal."
Summer heat is in Chicago's forecast now, which Tosca said is not good for ending the drought in the short term. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is predicting that Chicago will continue having lower-than-average precipitation into next month.
The silver lining is that 2018-2020 were the wettest springs on record in Chicago history. "Droughts lag," Tosca said. "There's probably still quite a bit of soil moisture deep down."
"The plants and trees respond to the light and the warmth more than they would to a drought at this point," Tosca said. "But if this continues through the summer, I think you would see a lot of things looking unhealthy. But because of the last couple years, it's been so wet, there's actually quite a bit of moisture still down in the ground that it's supplying these trees and plants that have deep-tapped roots."
Lake Michigan levels are also dropping in the drought and amid rising spring-to-summer temperatures after reaching record highs, spurred by the last three year's record rainfall. Last May, Chicago received 9½ inches of rain; the previous two Mays, the city received 8⅕ and 8¼, respectively.
Climate scientists have done research on the likelihood of worse droughts in the Southwest and wetter conditions in northern conditions, but Tosca said a "robust conclusion" is that "extreme precipitation events are going to become more likely and more extreme": things like "entire years that it seems like it won't stop raining followed by more drought."
"Maybe the average precipitation is going to go up in the Midwest, which is the general consensus," she said, "but also the variants, or the standard deviation, of rain events is also going to increase. Which means that you're going to have more floods and more droughts. Just looking at the last five years illustrates the future that I think we can expect with climate change: inundating rains, lake levels rising to historic highs, followed by the sixth-driest April in Chicago history — and it continuing through May and maybe into June and beyond."
Patricia Morse, an active community gardener and proponent of both the Hyde Park Garden Fair and the Jackson Park Advisory Council's Garden of the Phoenix docent program, said over email that the NOAA models she has seen are not yet calling for a summer-long drought.
But if one comes like the one in 2012, she said, "The worst effects are in the parks and they are bad — 'burnt' grass, dying wildflowers that can’t provide nectar for bees and butterflies and stressed trees. But that story isn't now.
"The people affected first will be the farmers...though usually a dry May and a wet June are good news for getting crops in."
Back at Augustana, Dishno said a newly planted tree would need two years of watering before its roots would be firmly established.
"You've got to protect your investment, if you're going to spend a lot of money on plants," she said. "You've got to water them. It's not that easy to water all this stuff, so I will target all the things I just planted."
Tosca, a gardener herself, said she is also doing a lot of watering lately.
"I have to basically go out and water every day right now in order for there to be enough moisture in the soil, and that's weird, because that's something that you would typically do in August when it's been hot, everything's been drying out and the plants are huge," she said. "You usually don't have to worry about watering your garden in May.
"It's still too early to tell what the outcome is going to be, but I think that people who are not diligently watering and checking on their veggies now might have a lower yield come July and August, honestly, because they really need to develop that extensive root system right now. That's what they're doing, and they do that by chasing water around the soil. And if there's not a lot of water, they're going to have shallow roots and not as robust of a plant."