Drought 2023: Observations and Mitigations

January 11, 2024

By Mary Miller

We who call Transylvania County home know it can be a very wet place. It is the Land of Waterfalls, after all, and much of it is a temperate rainforest. According to February 2023 data from the National Centers for Environmental Information, Transylvania County, with an average annual rainfall of 87.5 inches, is the 17th wettest in the United States after ten counties in Alaska, five in Washington, and one in Oregon. That makes it seventh in the continental United States in terms of annual precipitation. One of the wettest spots in our wet county is Toxaway Mountain, the site of Southern Highlands Reserve, with an annual rainfall average of 92 inches, compared to 67 inches in Brevard and 37 inches in Asheville, which is sheltered by surrounding mountains that block the winds and absorb their moisture. When drought occurs in Western North Carolina, as it did this past autumn, native plants are often the first to take note.

Droughts can occur when a high-pressure area stalls over a region for an extended time, encouraging increased amounts of evaporation from the ground and nearby lakes without replenishing rains. All things considered, Mother Nature’s timing of the drought in October and November was gentle, as many plants had begun their period of dormancy and were therefore less dangerously affected. As of November 3, 2023, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality classified the drought in Transylvania County, along with 14 other North Carolina counties, as D2 “Severe,” the second of four increasing levels of intensity. The drought contributed to several wildfires in the area and mandatory water restrictions.

Southern Highlands Reserve staff have been managing variable rainfall conditions for years. Rain total at SHR for October 2023 was 1.39 inches and for November was 3.89 inches. December made up for that deficit with a total of 15.66 inches. SHR logged limited rainfall in October and November of 2022 as well, with totals of 1.45 inches and .34 inches. In 2021, a good October soaking of 15.38 inches carried the plants through a November with only .18 inches. The annual rainfall total was: 74.42 inches in 2023; 82.29 inches in 2022; 118.25 inches in 2021; and 124.19 inches in 2020.

One of the first signs of drought at Southern Highlands Reserve was red spruce needle drop, noted October 27, according to Director of Horticulture Eric Kimbrel. This is one of the typical defenses plants employ as available water diminishes. They reduce transpiration by limiting the size and number of leaves, and they stretch their roots seeking deeper sources of water. If water deficit increases further, plants close stomata on the leaves to decrease respiration, which in turn decreases photosynthesis. Leaves turn yellow, drop, droop, or curl inward to minimize area exposed to air and sun. If drought persists, the plant will turn brown and die.

Next at SHR, the creeks and the pond used for irrigation became low. Then came one month of no rain, and the team began manually watering trees and other plants. Kimbrel noted that trees growing on steep slopes and exposed areas suffered the most, while those on level ground fared relatively well because the soil there had an adequate bank of moisture. The red spruce weathered the drought relatively unscathed.

Other moisture conservation strategies he used included mulching plants with crushed leaves and aged manure, which is also excellent for gentle fertilization. He also used Tree Saver, a product that boosts the efficiency of mycorrhizae, increasing water accessible to plants when they need it most. In return, the mycorrhizae receive carbon-rich sugars the trees produce through photosynthesis.

You can protect your gardens and your wallets by being water-wise. A focus on native plants is a great start — they have survived for a very long time in our specific ecology and are best equipped to deal with variable conditions. Choose plants with water requirements in mind — our region usually gets adequate rainfall, but we obviously have our share of dry periods when landscapes can be damaged quickly, sometime irrevocably. Spare yourself from heartbreak by considering the seven principles of xeriscaping — landscaping that prioritizes water conservation — as advised by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality:

  • Planning and Design. Whether you’re starting from scratch or renovating an existing landscape, take the time to plan out your design before you start to plant. Create different water use zones and allocate the water where it will most directly contribute to the beauty and comfort of your home.
  • Design Practical Turf Areas. Limit the size of lawn areas and use native grasses as much as possible. Buffalo Grass is an excellent drought-tolerant alternative to thirsty Kentucky Blue Grass.
  • Use Appropriate Plants. Use xeric plants for hot, dry south and west facing areas. Use plants that like more moisture along north and east facing slopes and walls. Don’t mix plants with high and low watering needs in the same planting area.
  • Improve the Soil. Add organic matter in the form of compost whenever you plant. This helps the soil hold extra moisture.
  • Use Mulches. By covering the soil’s surface with some type of mulch, you help retain valuable soil moisture. Mulching also helps capture rainwater by allowing hard rains to soak into the soil instead of running off into the street and drainage areas.
  • Irrigate Efficiently. Don’t over-water. Use soaker hoses and drip irrigation to water deeply and encourage deep root growth.
  • Maintain Your Landscape and Garden Properly. Keep irrigation systems running properly. Avoid the lush, thirsty plant growth that results from over-fertilizing.

Transylvania County’s classification of D2 “Severe” was downgraded to D1 “Moderate” in late December 2023. The memory of the severe drought is fading, and the moist blanket created by the mist and rain outside my window is a holiday gift. Join me in hoping for a perfect amount of precipitation in the year to come.


Mary Miller grew up in New York State and has lived in Maryland, Virginia, and Iowa. She is an Extension Master Gardener in Transylvania County and holds a Master of Science degree in Environmental Sustainability from UNC Greensboro. Her mission is to spread the word about the menace of non-native invasive plants and to make amends for her past gardening faux pas. When not working to transform her landscape into a haven for native plants and critters, she enjoys hiking in the mountains, reading, cooking, and spending time with her friends and family. She lives with her husband, Tom, in Pisgah Forest, NC, and together they have four sons, four lovely daughters-in-law, and seven wonderful grandchildren.