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SPOTLIGHT
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Weird weather and odd crops

Published on -8/26/2013, 9:51 AM

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A predictable consequence of climate change is "global weirding." Fluctuations between increasing extremes characterize evolving weather patterns.

The planet doesn't warm evenly. Changes in heat absorption over sea, ice, and land disrupt vast established air and ocean currents, redistributing and reconfiguring them.

Regional weirding results. Areas of increased ice cover can form in the Antarctic, even as huge adjacent ice shelves disintegrate. Meanwhile, arctic ice thins or disappears for weeks or months, glaciers shrink, and polar bears wear floatation devices. Droughts plague wet areas, floods inundate dry ones. Climate change denialists exploit these regional anomalies by cherry-picking "examples" which are not representative of the whole picture.

On a local level, though, weirding is perfectly normal. Go to any state in the union, and you'll find someone who'll assert "if you don't like the weather in (this state), just wait five minutes!"

Initially, it can be hard to spot the difference between transient events like high (or low) temperatures in consecutive summers, and long-term trends like the centuries of drought that ended the complex Anasazi culture.

Eh. But this column is about gardening, and I've begun by digressing.

The current drought, only temporarily mitigated by heavy and sometimes destructive rains, led some to predict that gardening was a lost cause this season.

Not so. It just takes even more attention to water conservation than usual, and perhaps some strategic protection against wind and sun.

While honoring water restrictions, careful and comprehensive mulching plus focused irrigation can save the day, and the garden.

Up to a point. For the second year in a row, my tomatoes aren't worth squat. Abundant vines, but few fruits -- even now, they aren't setting on. Others say they have the same problem, including tomatoes' cousins, the peppers. My peppers are doing pretty well, though, except for the fiery Bhut Jalokias, or "ghost peppers." They're not setting either. Excess heat, I think, not thirst.

Every year, I try growing some new weird things. Two varieties that I previously couldn't get to grow finally did.

One is a "gourmet" veggie that seems to deserve the title -- a summer squash called "tromboncini." It's a very straight, ridged zucchini-like fruit, extremely productive. The flesh is dense, cuts like chilled butter, tastes sweet, and doesn't get seedy even when large. And it grows fast.

The other first-time success is sometimes called a "Tahitian melon," or a "necked pumpkin." It's more like an enormous butternut squash, with a long solid neck. They're reputed to taste very good, but I'm letting them mature fully, which means waiting until autumn to sample one.

My neighbor Gary introduced me to "watermelon" radishes last year. They can grow baseball-sized or bigger, but aren't hot, fibrous, or pithy. The flesh is deep red and remarkably juicy. They'll be a permanent addition to my repertoire.

To Belva's dismay, I planted a row of Jerusalem artichokes. These look like sunflower plants, with yellow flowers in late season, but the edible part is the tuber, which looks like a knobby potato. Crisp, white flesh and a slightly sweet flavor make these great eating. They're fine for diabetics.

J-chokes contain few calories. That's because rather than potato starch, J-chokes contain inulin, an indigestible long-chain starch. While our guts can't break it down into sugars, colonic bacteria consider inulin a superfood. When they eat it, they produce large quantities of gas. More gas than you'd think possible. Which is -- awesome!

Spaces created by harvests fill in with "volunteers," if I let them. Huge red Hopi amaranth bushes yield spring salads, nutrient-rich juice anytime, and a high-protein grain in the fall.

I allowed several devil's claw plants to flourish. With an occasional rain or heavy dew -- and good dirt -- a single "unicorn plant" with its sticky, succulent leaves can sprawl 12 feet in diameter. Blossoms resemble orchids, though some find the musky smell unpleasant.

While they're immature and green, the curved fruit can be pickled. Later, after the green shell falls off, a fruit splits into the familiar double-hooked black pod, tough and springy. It's a bit hard to extract the seeds, but they can be ground into meal for cooking; reminds me of buckwheat flour.

Devil's claw also seems to act as a "decoy" for bothersome bugs. The broad leaves become peppered with holes, but this doesn't distress the plant. Nearby, lush plants like basil or beets seem unaffected by bugs that would usually eat holes in the leaves. The odor might repel grasshoppers, though I haven't seen many of those anywhere, so far.

Apart from some early flea beetles, a couple outbreaks of squash bugs, and a few squash borers, I haven't seen many "bad" insects at all this season -- except for corn earworms, and they weren't as plentiful as usual. Despite this possible paucity of prey, spiders are more numerous than I've ever seen. Morning dew highlights dozens of large but delicate webs festooning our trees and bushes. The yard and garden are peppered with perfectly round openings to silk-lined tunnels, each harboring a large spider. When I moved the straw mulch to dig potatoes, countless large arachnids scurried to find new shelter.

In the garden, spiders are allies. In the kitchen, they're garnish.

The "usual stuff" has done well too, overall. I'm running out of storage space. Again.

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays. hauxwell@ruraltel.net

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