Storm clouds and a brief downpour chased me out of my vegetable garden Sunday afternoon and set me to thinking about the challenges of gardening in a climate that is given to fits of rage.
I was suddenly reminded of an editor I once worked for. Without too terribly much provocation, he turned red in the face one evening and kicked a metal wastebasket the length of the newsroom, as his minions looked on in stifled amusement. He then calmly returned to his desk and went back to work.
Summer weather in Kansas conjures up that wastebasket so many years ago, bouncing along the linoleum and careening off the metal desks in its path, followed by pin-drop silence.
On Sunday afternoon the skies were overcast and the thunderheads were unmistakable overhead. Off in the distance I could hear the low rumble as the storm gathered steam. Every once in a while I felt a sprinkle, but as long as I saw no lightning, I continued to weed and mulch, weed and mulch.
This is the gardener's dilemma, to balance the prudence of taking shelter with the compulsion to keep working. You know it's going to rain, which means that you won't be able to resume your labors later in the day, and probably not the next day either. There's no lifeguard to order you out of the pool, as it were, so you keep at it until the last possible moment, wondering all the while whether a wooden or fiberglass hoe handle is the safer choice in a thunderstorm.
When the storm drew nearer, the wind picked up and before I really felt it on my face, I could see the tops of trees a couple hundred yards to the southwest of my garden begin to sway. A few minutes later, after I had dashed indoors, the rain began to hit the windows on the west side of the house, blowing in at a 45-degree angle and landing with a definitive splat.
This storm was a brief whimper that fell far short of its potential, and my garden will be happy for the drink. More sustained thunderstorms, however, can leave gardeners with a mess to clean up or to ignore.
Surveying the damage after a storm can be heart-wrenching for a gardener, particularly in mid-summer when the investment of time and sweat is well in evidence. The trick is not to overreact.
Logically, the most vulnerable crops in the vegetable garden are those that attain some height as they grow. Corn is the most frequent casualty of a thunderstorm, but the crop usually isn't destroyed, just flattened a bit. Often, the corn will right itself in a few days. It may not stand tall and proud as it did before the storm, but it will at least head in the general direction of up and will continue to produce edible ears.
A grief-stricken gardener, thinking that the cause is lost, may be tempted to pull up all the damaged stalks, but you can't make that determination for a couple of days at least. As long as the roots are intact, there is hope.
Tomatoes whose vines have stretched upward also take a beating in a storm, but the damage to the plants usually is not caused by the effect of wind on the plants but by the wind grabbing hold of whatever is supporting the plants, lifting the support out of the ground and uprooting or breaking off the vines in the process.
Experienced gardeners tend to steer clear of those funnel-shaped tomato supports or those foldable tomato cages, neither of which is worth a darn in a serious storm. They also avoid making cages out of wire mesh that you can bend without hurting your hand. I've written before about the tomato cages I made using concrete reinforcing mesh, which is heavy-duty without being unreasonably difficult to work with.
But even a strong support is only as good as what is holding it in place. If you use cages, they should be wired securely to stakes pounded at least 6 inches into the ground. If you grow your tomato plants along a length of fencing, the fencing should be securely attached to T-posts, which also go 6 inches deep before the T disappears into the soil.
Unfortunately, once your tomato vines are broken or uprooted, there's little to do but mourn.
When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.