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Waffling weather, mad (garden) science

6/2/2014

Weird weather challenges Kansas gardeners, and this year we've already had our share.

Weird weather challenges Kansas gardeners, and this year we've already had our share.

Drought concerns us all, even small-scale irrigators who've already renounced watering inedible lawns in order to grow fine veggies. Yesterday, while 27th and Hall was getting gully-washed, we didn't see enough moisture out here at Back Acre to dissolve the dust in the bottom of the rain gauge.

Thanks to obsessive mulching, conservative but efficient drip-watering, and the occasional dew, our garden is nonetheless beginning to look healthy-ish.

Wild arugula emerged early along the garden margins, but within a week or two the leaves and blossoms were replaced by slender seedpods resembling those of its cousins the radishes. These skinny green morsels are tasty in salads before they mature and get tough. Prior to that, the blooms and foliage deliver a piquant, mild, slightly sweet bite.

Our 3-year-old granddaughter, always a good sport when it comes to tasting some strange plant offered by her grandpa, gobbled fistfuls of arugula after her first tentative taste. "I could eat this all day!" she squealed enthusiastically.

Then I had to teach her some flowers are, in fact, not good to eat, and she shouldn't eat any flowers unless a grownup can both recognize and recommend them. Thereafter, we adhered to that principle in our tours of the premises -- prairie poppy flowers, yes; sage blossoms, yes; yellow rue flowers, yes, but only a nibble; henbit, sort of, if you just pluck one of those little lavender trumpets and suck the stem for a drop of nectar. Dandelions are bitter. Geraniums, roses, violets and pansies are OK to eat, but bland, and usually look prettier than they taste. Nasturtiums' flavor recalls that of the arugula, but spicier and sweeter.

Each season provides opportunities for experimentation. I risked setting out my tomato plants early, and covered them with weighted black plastic pots when frosts threatened. The second time, it didn't work completely. Some of the plants in the unprotected middle of the patch got dinged.

Fortunately, I started more indoor seedlings than I thought I'd need, so I had plenty in reserve to replace casualties. When I examined the frost-damaged plants, I saw that though their considerable foliage had darkened and wilted, the base of the stem, and a few bright little leaves poking through the straw, were still alive.

That meant the roots, which had enjoyed several weeks of vigorous growth before the frost, had survived. A well-developed root system might turn out to be more productive in the long run, compared to starting from scratch with a lanky fresh plant. My seedlings were a bit leggy; they got plenty of light while I was waiting to plant them, but I didn't give them proportionately more potting space, so their rootballs were pretty dense, and the trunks had grown tall but spindly. I left one damaged plant in place, replaced the rest.

As it turns out, the frost victim's established roots allowed it to resume growth all right, but the reserves' foliage had a big head start. Much larger and more robust now, they're loaded with green tomatoes, way ahead of those well-rooted survivors.

One advantage to long tall tomato plants is they can be planted deep. All those translucent "hairs" along the tomato stems are potential roots. Dig the hole with a post-hole digger, trim off the lower leaves, and place the bottom of the root ball a foot or more down. This yields a deep column of roots with access to moisture even when the surface has dried out, a good hedge against drought.

Some people dig a shallow trench and lay the tomato stem horizontally along it before burying all but the leafy tops. While this does produce a greater root mass than shallow vertical planting, the plant will still dry out if top layers of soil do.

I had to replant beets, too. They're frost-resistant, so I think I just didn't keep the soil surface moist enough until they sent down roots. The second planting looks good, though. These are Long Season beets, derived from sugar-beet genes. I just let them grow until I need them, sometimes all season long. A frost improves the flavor.

The nice thing is this variety can get large -- 8 or 10 inches in diameter -- remaining tender throughout and sweeter than any other beet I've grown. Great for juicing, pulping (to make kholodnaya borshch!),or freezing.

A few months back, at a Sam's Club in Columbia, I saw a pop-up plastic greenhouse for $99, so I got one. At 6 by 8 feet, it's firmly anchored and sited for good wind protection. I've loaded it with more flower experiments, unusual plants (ever hear of angelica?) and herbs. Some will remain in there all season, and others will be transplanted into the larger garden. It's my newest puttering place, replacing the workshed until the cold returns. I'm not planning to heat it through the winter, but should be able to stretch the growing season by a few weeks.

Richard, my barber, gave me some unidentifiable melon seeds, resembling the small seeds of cucumbers or muskmelons. I planted some along a segment of trellis. Will they manifest as a new heirloom or just a degenerated hybrid? Stay tuned.

I love it when a plan comes together.

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays.

hauxwell@ruraltel.net

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