“Barometer, n.: An ingenious instrument which indicates what kind of weather we are having.” – Ambrose Bierce
“Don’t knock the weather. If it didn’t change once in a while, nine out of ten people couldn’t start a conversation.” – Kin Hubbard
The first snowfall of winter – January 11, 2012 – and it isn’t really snow, but snowdust. Forecast calls for more after midnight, maybe an inch. Here’s hoping. Kansas closed 2011 with a seven-inch deficit in precipitation, and this is certainly the first winter here that I watered the garden in January. Let it snow! I enjoy the shoveling, working in the cold, shaping a fleeting landscape. Last year at this time I had four-foot snow mounds on the front flower beds. Every plant in those beds survived that hard winter (snow insulates), and all greeted Spring with unusual vigor–thanks in good part, I believe, to the extra water provided by those piles of snow. That vigor was short-lived, however, quickly extinguished by the onslaught of the Summer of 2011.
The combination punch of high heat and diminished rainfall hit particularly hard in last summer’s vegetable garden. Three weeks of 100+ temperatures shut everything down, even the heat lovers. Malabar spinach pooped out at two feet, and a mix of 18 heirloom plants yielded only 10 pounds of tomatoes. Kelly, on the other hand, grew hybrids and had a respectable crop.
Okra was the only crop to flourish, basil did OK, but eggplants and peppers were critically stunted and the Provider beans only kicked in at the end of September. The long, cool autumn (still going on, some say), brought slight redemption in a surfeit of Redbor kale and Lolla Rosa lettuce, both still hanging on after several nights in single digits.
Ornamentals fared no better. A few conifers were badly scorched, and two dozen McKana’s giant columbines, frying in what used to be filtered morning sun, were moved to shadier quarters only in the nick of time. Hollyhocks languished, Centaureas croaked, Knautia macedonica expired, morning glories dropped buds and developed thick, gnarled stems, and a clump of Salvia elegans–which barely made it through to bloom long after the hummingbirds had departed–cost far too much water to ever be placed in a full sun situation again.
The toughest ones? Lamb’s ears (a non-flowering cultivar), Sedums, zinnias, daylilies, boxwood, Hibiscus, Clematis and Thalictrum (surprisingly), Miscanthus, Datura, Nepetas, Jackman’s Blue rue (such a stolid and good-looking plant), and all the natives: Asclepias, Echinacea, Monarda fistulosa, Callirhoe involucrata, wild sedges, Viburnums and the invincible Yucca filamentosa.
So why the recap? To see the future we must always look to the past. If the Summer of 2012 is as hot and dry as last summer, I need to adjust my garden systems now–starting at the seed level.
Hybrid tomatoes are in order this year. I saved seed from a few of the heirloom tomatoes that fruited reasonably well last season, hoping to breed more heat-resistant varieties, but I’m also adding a few F1s to the mix: Beefy Boy and Chocolate Cherry from Park and maybe some Early Girls from a local nursery.
Okra is back, because it is one of my favorite summer foods and it thrives in high heat. Six plants–three each of Clemson Spineless and the red-tinged Carmine Splendor–will supply plenty for fresh eating, sharing and pickling. Basil and beans are back as well, adding some Southern-bred limas and runner beans to routine plantings of Kentucky Wonder pole snaps and Envy edamame–always reliable (so far), in this climate. This year I plan to treat bush basil as an annual boxwood, planting to outline vegetable plots and define pathways.
In Kansas, in my experience, most greens give more in autumn. Spring turns very quickly to summer here, and carefully tended spinach, arugula and salad greens go from just-about-perfect to bitter and bolted in a couple of days–the exceptions being escarole, some mustards, purslane, red chard and kale. I generally make repeated sowings of cut-and-come again greens starting in late March, planting finicky lettuces in an old wheelbarrow which can be moved according to weather.
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, a most tempting catalog of heirloom vegetables, has seed of an old OP variety of muskmelon named “Kansas,” apparently a child of the prairie. Have to try that. And I have a long-held dream of great tangles of passionfruit vines festooning the mulberries, so this is the year to grow Maypops, our native Passiflora incarnata.
Bee plants are a priority this year, for the health of bees in general and specifically to feed the growing hive in the Catalpa tree on the back patio. Agastache, calamint and Phacelia tanacetifolia (a native annual with complex flowers), are all highly attractive to bees.
And last, the ornamentals. I work now on an acre of land (nearly), most of which is wooded. Gardening here is primarily a process of subtraction, hence the tendency to extravagance when it comes to annuals. The rabbits eat the majority of my annual seedlings anyway, so I buy big and sow freely.
Kansans get suspicious if you don’t grow sunflowers (our State Flower) or zinnias. Hostas and peonies too, but that’s a story for later. My success with sunflowers has been limited and perplexing, but I can grow some zinnias! I favor the white and green flowers in this garden situation, but will try out the much-hyped “Queen Red Lime” this year, along with a wine-red bloom. Amaranths, tasty and nutritious, always catch the eye and usually sail through heat and drought, so I’ll scatter seed heavily in a sunny wild area and let Nature take course. Same for castor beans, which you see all over town, and Polygonum orientale, or “Kiss Me Over The Garden Gate,” a barely tamed knotweed which should look pretty good intertwined with the dark-leaved wild blackberries.
My seed orders for 2012 cost about $100, for over 50 types of plants. I have several dozen seed packets remaining from the past few years, and after some viability testing, I figure on growing on at least 300 plants encompassing 80 varieties. Factor in another $50 or so for starting medium (pots, cell paks and flats free from local garden centers), and it averages out to about 50 cents per plant. You can’t beat the savings of growing from seed, particularly perennials and food plants, and the patience required is greatly offset by the satisfaction of knowing a plant all the way from germination to maturity.
Seed Orders 2012
EDIBLE & USEFUL
Amaranthus cruentus – Polish Amaranth (T)
Basil “Spicy Bush” (J)
Bean, Lima “Fordhook 242” (J)
Bean, Runner “Scarlet” (S)
Bee Food (Phacelia) (H)
Escarole “Natacha” (J)
Lavandula “Munstead Strain” – Lavender (P)
Leek “Megaton” (J)
Maypop, Passionfruit (H)
Melon “Kansas” (SE)
Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum) (H)
Mustard “Southern Giant” (P)
Nasturtium “Scarlet Gleam” (T)
Okra “Carmine Splendor” (J)
Purslane “Golden” (H)
Spinach “Renegade” (P)
Strawberry “vesca Reugen” (H)
Marigold, French “Tiger Eyes” (P)
Tomato “Beefy Boy Hybrid” (P)
Tomato “Chocolate Cherry” (P)
Tomato “Indigo Rose” (J)
Amaranthus “Illumination” (P)
Centaurea “Blue Boy” – Cornflower (T)
Coleus “Black Dragon” (P)
Euphorbia marginata “Kilimanjaro” – Snow On The Mountain (T)
Gomphrena haageana “Strawberry Fields” (T)
Ipomoea x Multifida – Cardinal Climber (P)
Mirabilis jalapa “Fairy Trumpets” – Four o-Clock (S)
Mirabilis jalapa “Salmon Sunset” – Four o-Clock (S)
Nicotiana alata x mutabilis “Bella” – Flowering Tobacco (S)
Nicotiana alata “Lime Green” – Flowering Tobacco (S)
Nigella Blue & White mix – Love in a Mist (T)
Papaver “Florist’s Poppy” – Poppy (P)
Papaver “White Cloud” – Poppy (P)
Polygonum orientale – Kiss Me Over The Garden Gate (S)
Tithonia “The Torch” – Mexican Sunflower (T)
Ricinus communis “Carmencita” – Castor Bean (S)
Zinnia “Benary’s Giant Wine” (T)
Zinnia “Queen Red Lime” (P)
Agastache foeniculum – Anise Hyssop (T)
Bergenia cordifolia “Red Start” (P)
Buddleia “Black Night” (T)
Calamintha nepeta subs. nepeta “August Clouds” – Calamint (S)
Centranthus ruber – Keys of Heaven (T)
Cephalaria gigantea – Yellow Scabious (H)
Dianthus barbatus – Sweet William (T)
Gaura lindheimeri “Summer Breeze” (H)
Helenium autumnale Red Shades (T)
Heliopsis “Summer Sun” (T)
Hesperis matronalis – Dame’s Rocket (T)
Lysimachia atropurpurea “Beaujolais” (T)
Macleaya cordata – Plume Poppy (T)
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