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Archive for Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Vegetable gardens inspiring site on the road

June 6, 2007

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My bumper sticker should say, "I brake for vegetable gardens." This time of year, I spend a fair amount of time rubbernecking people's gardens out my car window. As I drive to work or make a trip into town, I instinctively slow down and ogle the home gardens that spring up along the side of the road - tilled patches of brown and green productivity carved into suburban or farmhouse lawns.

Before anyone accuses me of inattentive driving, let me point out that my particular pastime is much safer than, say, talking on a cell phone behind the wheel. For one thing, I'm out in the country where traffic is sparse; for another, looking at a roadside garden requires me to slow down. As a result, I'm probably posing less of a hazard than if I were barreling down the road in a cloud of dust.

On my recent tours through the countryside, potato plants have been in full bloom. In most cases, the lavender or light gray flowers are visible from a distance. In one garden I pass regularly, the purple potato blossoms are about a foot off the ground and make a particularly striking display as I crest a hill and round a curve about 50 yards away.

Tomatoes already are setting their little yellow blooms in some gardens. It won't be long before green tomatoes the size of tennis balls will be visible from the road. Shortly thereafter, the fruit will begin to ripen, and that splash of color will become the focal point of every garden.

I guarantee that tomato plants - the number, the size, the staking or caging techniques - are the objects of greatest interest for gawking motorists.

Over the next few weeks, beans will flower. We also will be able to spot blossoms on squash, melons and okra. Sweet corn, whose seedlings now appear as a line of green specks in the soil as I drive by, will spring from the ground, seemingly overnight. One week the corn plants will be knee high, then waist high, then shoulder high. By then, the tassels will be visible from the road as they flutter in the breeze.

While I've seen a number of gardens that are pretty far along for this time of year, I've also seen plenty that appear to be behind schedule. This is particularly true in areas that had more rain in early to mid-May, which prevented some gardeners from planting on time.

In northeast Kansas, most of us got 5 to 6 inches of rain in May, which is anywhere from one-half to a full inch more than the average for that month. That said, the isolated thunderstorms that brought the precipitation dumped rain unevenly throughout the area. It has not been unusual for it to be raining half a mile from my house but not on my garden, and vice versa. So it's impossible to generalize.

In some cases the rain simply arrived too frequently for people to get into their gardens to plant. This is a huge problem for people who work during the day and don't have flexibility in their schedules. The frequency of the rain also has made it difficult to weed, so some gardens look a bit scraggly.

During this early part of the summer gardening season, I've also been thinking about a new reader, who e-mailed me awhile back to say that she had recently moved to the area and was planting a vegetable garden here for the first time. I was tempted to write back again and point out that this year's rain pattern isn't typical. On the other hand, I'm not sure how I could define typical weather in Kansas. That's part of the challenge of growing vegetables in this corner of the world.

The Lawrence homonym police were out in force last week. Callers and e-mailers pointed out that there is no such thing as a bail of hay, that the correct usage is bale. One person even emphasized that I got it wrong four times. Yes, I know the difference, and I do apologize. Oddly, I care as passionately about correct usage as any of the readers who called or wrote. At least I gave folks something to do when it was too damp outside to garden.

- When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.

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