Phenomena of growing year highlight unusual garden season
An extreme amount of attention has been given in recent weeks and months to the drought, to its effects on major farm crops, and to what it means to everyone who is affected.
Meanwhile, relatively little attention has been devoted to what has happened during this growing season with garden vegetables and fruits. In my first-hand experiences and observations, there have been some unusual phenomena - both good and bad.
Let's start with growing seasons as such.
One could argue that there have been four distinct ones this year - the nearly two weeks of unprecedented high temperatures during March, the fairly normal unraveling of spring during April and May, the drought and heat that took hold in May and held on for more than two months, and the return of rainfall and virtually normal temperatures since the latter third of July.
For some plants, this latter period appears to be a springing of spring for the second time. In effect, they went through a dormancy during the hot and dry period of the first half of the summer.
Rhubarb plants displayed vigorous fresh growth during August compared to their usual drydown by then, dandelions popped up with lots of large new leaves, and the wild strawberry patch in my lawn came out with a few new blossoms by late August after having had very little remaining foliage going into the third week of July.
Back in March, the abnormal weather sparked growth of my garlic and also that of my winter, walking, or multiplier onions, which were in prime eating condition before the end of April.
A few spinach plants and Swiss chard that survived the winter also appeared at that time.
As this would suggest, I depend a lot on self-seeded or volunteer plants, also including radish, dill, lettuce, groundcherries, and even a few tomatoes. This year they tended to fare better than many newly seeded cultivars because they choose their own time to start growing.
Another example of this occurred with my vined plants. All of the cucumbers and melons that I planted in the garden turned out to be failures for one or more reasons but a few volunteer vined plants (some variations of pumpkins and zucchini) survived the drought and are bearing some fruit.
But those plants also attracted a legion of squash bugs. The adult females usually lay their eggs on the underside of leaves starting in the last week of June. This year I must have scraped off masses containing a thousand eggs as the egg laying persisted for several weeks. But hundreds of eggs also hatched.
Colorado potato beetles began lurking about by May 13 and soon started to lay their eggs.
Many trips through the potato rows resulted in the snatching of many of the adults, removal of egg masses, and shaking of the young pupae from the leaves into buckets in order to significantly limit the damage from that pest.
A few potato plants that developed curled and purple-tinted leaves were apparently the victims of the yellow aster leafhopper, which migrated into the state for one of the few times ever this spring. The potato tubers on those plants did not develop beyond the size of nubs.
Black lice showed up in droves by the third week of July. They were so numerous that they covered at least three-fourths of the broccoli plant leaves and reduced the leaves to little more than lifeless lattices.
An application of insecticide soap seemed to scatter the lice and, with the resumption of the rains, the broccoli plants grew large new leaves and might still produce a crop.
Another critter, probably a groundhog, wrecked havoc with the kohlrabi and cabbage by chewing off the small heads but it would not take my bait of a corn cob inside a trap. A few of those mutilated plants have resumed growth and might still produce something for me to eat.
But there are also some good creatures circulating in the garden. They include the two species of honeybees which, surprisingly, make radish blossoms their first choice among the blooming plants.
I've seen up to 10 of the bees on a single radish plant and am enlisting a local commercial beekeeper to take a special interest in that phenomenon.
As a friendly gesture to the Monarch butterflies, I leave a couple of patches of milkweed within the garden space. The bees also appreciate access to the wonderfully fragrant milkweed blossoms.
Another of my volunteer species is sunflowers - single and multi-headed varieties (up to 40 plus blooming heads on the latter).
Even during this year's dry period, the sunflowers stretched to heights of more than 10 feet. They can be a nuisance because they shadow out some nearby vegetable plants but I'm willing to sacrifice a bit of yield loss for the sake of the bees and the birds.
In my penchant for self-sufficiency and using natural cycles to advantage, I also tried my hand at growing sweet corn again this year although my efforts to do so haven't fared very well in most years. I planted about 100 kernels obtained from a couple of volunteer plants that showed up in 2011.
Because I didn't provide any supplemental fertilizer to the corn patch, the plants were small but, with a diligent series of waterings, I managed to grow an acceptable crop.
I also did a lot of tassel shaking to promote pollination and this succeeded with a good number of the ears. They were short ears but the corn quality is good and I'm storing about 75 of the ears in the freezer.
Peas are another garden vegetable for which I'm turning to self-sustainability. Over a run of years, I've had poor to fair germination/emergence with several of the commercial pea seed varieties that I've purchased by mail order.
Although they were planted by the second week of April this year and on the worst soil in the garden, my own saved seed peas fared very well overall in comparison to the totality of the five varieties of other peas that I grew. So I saved enough seed from this year's good peas for all of next year's crop.
Green and yellow beans are another vegetable for which I now depend on all my own saved seed. I have no idea what the variety is but I have a wonderful round, long, dependable, and productive green bean variety. On August 27, I picked 30 suitable beans from two adjacent plants.
The beans were also greatly affected by the weather cycles. With some watering, the green beans were moderately productive during the latter part of the hot and dry period but, for the most part, the yellow beans were in hibernation.
By the middle of August, however, all the beans were very productive and promised to be so into early September.
The green pepper plants that I have in the garden were apparently also greatly affected by the weather phenomena.
All of the plants, which have good size and still are very healthy, yielded all of their peppers in a span of about two weeks in late July and early August and then were barren. By late August, however, they began to bloom again.
My affliction for trying different things also included the saving of green pepper plants during the past winter.
Before they would have frozen in the garden last fall, I put five of them in buckets and stored them in the house basement where very little light is available.
I'd been successful at doing this a couple of times earlier. By late winter, I moved the two plants, which seemed to have survived near a southside window in the living room.
With the onset of an early spring or "false summer" during March, there were opportunities for getting those two plants outside.
And it didn't take long for success to be evident as new leaves shot out on the previously mostly barren plant structure.
Those two plants have been more steadily and also more totally productive individually than any of their sister plants in the garden, providing peppers at least through August.
A University of Georgia study suggested having shade for peppers. So now I have the two plants sitting under the shade of a yard tree with no apparent dire effects.
I've also taken advantage of a discarded garbage barrel and wash machine tub that are both filled with ground to grow some early season potatoes that I nurture with disposable cooking water.
Last year I pulled about seven pounds of potatoes from the barrel but this year it was down to about four pounds while the wash tub had about three pounds.
What was a total surprise, however, was to see three watermelon plants popping out of the soil in the garbage barrel after I removed the potatoes in late June. They've grown vines up to nine feet long and have set four watermelon.
They won't be large specimens and they might not become ripe but it's a bonus, given that my melons planted in the garden expired.
Another surprise was how many of the radish seeds proved to be viable although they had to mature during the period of drought and heat. For an autumn crop of radish, I spread them around in the areas from which the potatoes were dug.
What happened, however, is that the young radish plants are as thick as grass in most places - probably too tightly bunched to produce decent tubers though the timetable for that runs into November.
It's the same problem as with the volunteer groundcherries, which are so crowded that they needed to be thinned so individual plants have a chance to spread and bear lots of fruit, some of which are being nabbed this year by ants and slugs once they fall to the ground.
With all that has already happened in the past five or so months, one wonders what'll happen until winter sets in.
The winter onions are already at a wonderful new stage for very nice greens and small bulbs but there are probably more surprises on the way before the ground freezes and the snow falls.