Until the recent gully-washers, we have been desert-dry; we will be dry again. Weather extremes are becoming the norm.
Bite-sized pretzels scattered among the crisp brown blades of our “lawn” turned out to be nightcrawlers, fleeing their dessicated underworld as it threatened to harden into concrete, caught between a rock and a robin. No boon for the robins, though; one chipped her beak attempting to peck an erstwhile earthworm, and now she chirps with a lisp.
Hoping to attract some rain, I set out a couple extra rain gauges. Must’ve worked — we got 60 hundredths (that’s also three-fifths) of an inch one night last week. Fortunately I’d mounted one gauge horizontally, since that’s how the rain came.
In the season’s first gardening column, I should offer some helpful horticultural hints. They don’t always work, though.
A walking stick made of sturdy PVC pipe is a versatile tool. It helps with balance and prevents falls when I step over the rabbit fence. It aids manipulation of hoses and mulch, or crunches crickets, sans bending over. It spares my back and knees while I stand up or stoop. I have many such sticks, which I absentmindedly — I mean, cleverly — drop and forget during gardening sessions, leaving them strewn in multiple locations so one is always within reach.
Consider gardening clothes. They should be light and airy to allow summer breezes to circulate, but heavy enough to prevent sunburning right through the cloth. The key is — never wash them. Washing eventually disintegrates clothes, studies show. As they become permeated with layers of sweat and dust, clothes block sunlight better, keeping the wearer cool — like Arab burnooses (burneese?). The cloth also soaks up and retains spritzes of Deep Woods Off for optimal protection against West Nile, Zika, chikungunya, Dengue fever, malaria, and Trump.
Likewise, a baked-on patina of asphalt, salt and dust resists impacts by gravel, hail, and pedestrians. Do not wash your pickup.
After years of growing tomatoes along an A-frame trellis, I’ve started to enclose them in home-made “cages” — tall cylinders of strong wire mesh fencing, shrouded in light-weight “floating row-crop cover.” It Protects against sunscald, hail, and wind.
My greenhouse tomato plants were tall and slender due to their small containers spaced closely together. This allows burying roots and stem way deep, to safeguard against dry spells. Underground, the little hairs along the stem morph into roots.
After digging a hole about 18 inches deep with a narrow-bladed spade, I set a hose nozzle to tight stream, jam it into the floor of the hole, and hydraulically excavate deeper still. These plants’ root balls extended a full two feet below the surface, about ten inches of stem and foliage protruding above ground. By Memorial Day, the plants were crowding their cylindrical greenhouses, already sporting green fruits larger than golf balls.
My rabbit problem is largely solved, at least within the main garden. An 18-inch chicken-wire fence seems to keep rabbits out. They can dodge and zigzag on the level, but it rarely occurs to them to jump vertically.
Gardening seems like a lot more work this year, and it’s not solely because of my advancing years and diminishing muscle mass. Paradoxically, this labor-intensive phase arose from my stated intent to “cut back” this season. I issue such resolutions every autumn, when the final tedious efforts are completed — stacking all the biomass from the spent plants, shredding, spreading, and tilling it in. Never again, I insist.
Then the seed catalogs arrive, and soon I’m as dazzled as an elderly hippie in a legal weed boutique.
So I decided to convert one of the 70-foot planting strips, two parallel rows, entirely to perennials, mostly herbs and flowers. Eventually, I won’t have to till and plant there, just perform a little maintenance.
Also, I’m planting less corn, fewer peppers and carrots, shorter potato and onion rows.
The trouble is, the “extra” space remaining in the existing rows begs to be productively employed. So I crowd the vacant spots with smaller quantities of new and different plants, just to see how they’ll grow. The total row-feet this year are about the same as last year, but more demanding to plant and maintain. Where did I go wrong?
It’s like a desk, or a workshed, or my basement cave — any newly available space is rapidly consumed by a surfeit of papers, tools, or general debris.
Some of this year’s experimental add-ons include African horned melons, Yugoslavian finger gourds, tobacco-box gourds, rose orach, and Armenian cucumbers. During our travels, I scavenge seeds from attractive plants, so some weird and beautiful varieties are showing up now. I can only guess what they are. The giant henbane pods plucked along the Yellowstone River in Montana generated an exotic addition to my patch, tall and festooned with yellow blossoms. An extract can be used as medicine, or to make your broom fly.
As this aging frame of mine struggles to cope with the latest demands of gardening, I consider last autumn’s resolution to cut back. Rats. Not gonna happen. If the garden didn’t motivate me to get out, down, and dirty, I’d soon morph into Jabba the Haux.
So I’ll stick with it as long as I can. Someday, after my final harvest is complete, all I ask is that someone compost me thoroughly, and then till me in.
Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton and lives outside Hays.