Archive for Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Gardener has learned not to let hopes rise, sink with fickle rainfall

June 21, 2006

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I have developed an unhealthy obsession with the weather forecast. This was the obvious conclusion when I greeted the FedEx driver on Saturday afternoon by insisting, "So is it going to rain today?" The startled, "Who me?" look on his face told me that I was deep into a case of misplaced frustration.

While my vegetable garden appreciates the half-inch or less of rain it did indeed receive Saturday night, the brief storm was little more than a tease. The soil in my garden had been so dry, other than areas near soaker hoses, that I was able to walk between the rows Sunday morning, leaving only the faintest footprints.

For the record, much of northeast Kansas is now more than 4 inches behind on year-to-date rainfall. In June, which tends to be a fairly wet month, some areas are almost 3 inches down from the monthly average.

I'm also aware that rain may have bypassed some gardens in northeast Kansas this weekend. In this summer of drought, we play the lottery known as "scattered thunderstorms," the hit-and-miss phenomenon that blesses some, at least momentarily, and cruelly curses others.

A case in point: I was in Overland Park about three weeks ago when a storm rolled in, complete with lightning, thunder and rain that fell in sheets. The commotion was over in 30 minutes, but I assumed that my veggies had been soaked. Sadly, when I returned home, 35 miles west, my garden was dry as a bone.

The smidgen of rain on Saturday forestalled my worry last week that the combination of drought, heat and high wind was doing irreparable damage to my garden. My concern about precipitation and the lack thereof turned dire on Friday, after 20 mph winds and temperatures in the 90s had created the effect of blast furnace. By mid-afternoon, the leaves on my squash and cucumbers had gone limp from being whipped by the hot wind. And this was just two days after a thorough watering.

So who can blame me for hanging on forecasters' every word? I compare and contrast the predictions from various sources : newspaper, Internet, television and radio, hoping to glean the secrets of nature. I'm also looking for patterns of accuracy and deducting points for waffling and indecision.

The TV forecasters are the most difficult to read. When I stare deeply into the eyes of a TV meteorologist, I'm looking for signs of an inner authority that suggests this person really believes the words he or she is chirping to the camera. This is the hardest part. Having come of age in an era when the "Today" show cross-pollinated the profession of meteorology with the job description of Whizzo the Clown to produce Willard Scott, I always will be skeptical.

Absent a concrete idea of when precipitation actually will arrive, I water. A lot. I add more mulch. I water again. On cloudy days I close my eyes and take deep breaths, hoping to discern a certain heaviness in the air, that drop in barometric pressure that precedes a storm, and the telltale smell of rain about to fall.

While it's important that the soil closest to the plants not dry out so the plants will continue growing and producing vegetables, it's equally important that the plants not be allowed to become too thirsty so they can handle rain when it does come. During a rain, plants that have been living in parched soil greedily will draw in water, and any fruits that have set, particularly tomatoes and melons, will split. Other veggies, such as squash and cukes, may balloon up quickly. Ironically, a substantial rainfall can ruin crops.

For this reason, more frequent waterings, of shorter duration and during the evening hours after the temperatures have begun to drop, likely will give a vegetable garden the best chance of remaining productive through this dry spell.

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