Saturday, December 27, 2014

Goodbye Gardening Season 2014

Gardeners are true optimists.  What other avocation or profession in life promises that next season the outcome will be better?  I suppose if you think hard about that question you’d come up with a handful of careers that bank on a future improved outcome…sales, education and obstetrics come to mind.  But I maintain that gardeners possess a most positive vision for beautiful flowers or a tasty outcome in their landscapes.  Add to this future optimism – learning from the past, and you have an even greater chance for a better result next planting season.
Internet Photo
Historically, gardeners had it much tougher than we had in 2014 (I’ll get to that re-cap later).  The most memorable were the 1930s Dust Bowl or less commonly known as the Dirty Thirties.  For eight long years starting in 1934 drought and erosion covered a million acres that persisted in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, and large areas in Nebraska, New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas. Over a decade of farming by extensive deep plowing of the vital topsoil displaced native plants and deep-rooted grasses that knitted the soil together. Couple that with a change in the wind and weather and the result were clouds and conditions called “black blizzards” or “black rollers” that extended from the east coast through the plains to the base of the Rocky Mountains. Thousands of people abandoned their homes and farms in search of a better life and top soil.  A deeper sense of the extreme sorrow and loss of these times can be read in the great works of John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, both well adapted to the screen if you want the visuals. 


The growing season of 2014 was nowhere near the devastation of the 1930s, in fact it was opposite of drought. The cold and rainy days and nights last May and June were a dismal start to the growing season. Record rainfall in July totaled 3.47 inches (average is 1.97). May, which we normally count on to be the month to start our planting engines, turned out to be more like the teeter-totter weather month of March.  Record high temperatures in the 80s the first six days of May quickly turned into extreme lows with rain, snow or hail from the 7th through the 16th.  It got down to 30 degrees on May 12th, so if your Mother’s Day plants were in the ground, no doubt you were soon back at the garden center buying replacements.  Heavy rains, freezing temperatures and more hail hit again on May 20, 21 and 22… yep, another trip to the garden center.

Protected Tomatoes June 2014

By June we think we’re pretty much good to go and plant with little worry about anything except the possibility of a hail storm directly overhead.  But June disappointed us too with ten days of rock and roll weather extremes that no one wanted to dance to.  It was 42 degrees on the morning of June 15th!  

Remember that temperatures below 55 degrees greatly affect warm season plant growth (especially tomatoes) – they sulk, and then decide to take days to a couple weeks to return to their growing glory if/when it turns warm.  Later in the month when temperatures heated up, moisture levels remained high, so plants decided to surround themselves with nasty uninvited fungal diseases.  And a lesser known (at least here in the West) unwelcome ailment visited in June too, then stayed on plants for the rest of the growing season or until it took such a stranglehold the only remedy was removal.  BACTERIA! 

Bacteria leaf spot, downy mildew, and fire blight were at the top of the disease heap. Up and down the Front Range hundreds of fruit trees were hit with fire blight bacteria and the visual effects were glaring. Blossom clusters on fruit trees looked like thick-legged blackened and wilted daddy long legs.  Tip branches appeared burnt, sad and bent over, sometimes whole branches died back.  Bacterial ooze crept up through cracks in the bark and made trees look like they were crying gummy tears.  It was easier to spot fire blight damage on trees as you drove down the street then lawn damage at a doggy day care. 

File:Apple tree with fire blight.jpg
Apple Tree with Fire Blight, Photo by Sebastian Stabinger

Healthy, Happy 'Genovese' basil before Downy Mildew

Downy Mildew raged quickly through the bed of basil
Last summer I lost all but two tomato plants to virus or bacterial disease (or both). The entire eight by four foot glorious bed of Ocimum basilicum, aka ‘Genovese’ basil, my favorite, contracted downy mildew.  Put another way, there was no caprese salad to be had at our house last summer.  

Somehow, the peppers, eggplant, green beans and tomatillos produced well and remained healthy, along with the lettuce, beets and chard, which make sense since they do well in cool weather.  

The container plantings bloomed nicely through the summer and late fall despite a little shredding and gaps from hail. I only lost one rose plant, which was probably due to not being completely well rooted before winter.

Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus
It wasn’t bad for everyone around the metro area.  I heard from other home gardeners that certain neighborhoods had tremendous tomato and fruit tree yields.  Hail and heavy rain missed their yards and disease stayed away.  They were fortunate and are probably enjoying their 
preserved harvest this winter. 

But that’s gardening, next spring will be here before we blink. There’s no looking back, other than to hope for better weather and be better prepared.  Next season we’ll keep late frost covers close at hand for warmth, and make sure the supports are steady for shelter from hail, and have a back-up supply of organic fungicides.  And if you’re into prayer or meditation or chanting, a little bit of that can’t hurt either. 

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