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Picking up the pieces after a difficult season

  • Published Saturday, August 13, 2011, at 12:07 a.m.
  • Updated Saturday, August 13, 2011, at 7:21 a.m.

This week brought some blessed relief from the unrelenting heat, and I walked in sunshine that felt beneficent rather than killing.

I hate being at war with the sun, so that was particularly welcome.

The break helps us look at the garden with new eyes — helps us look at all, perhaps, for the first time in a long time, rather than just get it watered and run back inside.

And it makes us wonder how to pick up the pieces and try to move forward from a difficult gardening season. Back in the spring, looking ahead to this point in the growing season, I was expecting we'd be assessing damage from the record cold of last January.

Now I don't know if we could tell the cold damage from that of the heat.

It matters little.

To start back, remove parts of plants that are dead, continue to monitor for watering needs, and we'll probably need even more patience to see what bounces back from the double whammies of extreme temperatures.

If you're done being patient with a plant and it just plain looks lousy, here's your permission to dig it up and pitch it.

The temperatures look docile enough to start the fall vegetable garden, planting beets, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower and kale. If you want to be stay on the cool side, extension agent Rebecca McMahon advises putting down a couple of inches of straw mulch and planting through that, keeping spaces only through which the plants can come up. Make sure the soil is thoroughly moist but not muddy.

We also will have lots of lawn damage to contend with. Prepare to overseed in the first half of September, weather permitting, McMahon says, killing weeds now and getting soil tests so that you know what amendments are needed.

I continue to hear from gardeners who found ways this summer to beat the heat, and to learn about some plants that managed to thrive despite the long series of days over 100 degrees.

Taking notes from this year can help us next year.

* An "old farm boy" wrote to tell me that, whether I agreed with him or not, he used white sheets draped on stakes 2 feet above his tomato cages to shade the plants.

He acknowledged that the sheets could cause pollination problems, but he said they worked for him. He also sprinkled the tops of the sheets with water to add to the cooling and mulched the plants with old alfalfa hay.

"Got this from my grandmother a long time ago," Art e-mailed me. He's had enough tomatoes to give away, as well as put into salads and on BLTs.

And I could disagree with that?

He also sent along his method of corn growing: Add ammonium sulfate about four times during growth, and put mineral oil on the developing ears to keep worms out.

"Always have 8-inch corn with no worms," Art said. "Sweet as the dickens."

* One man called to say that Bush Early Girl was one of the best producers among the 80 tomatoes in his garden. He said the 12 Bush Early Girls outproduced the others put together.

Bush varieties are the kind usually recommended for containers, so people who grow tomatoes in pots particularly may want to try this one.

* Ann Hundley has had tomatoes set in the heat on Early Girl and Jet Star tomatoes.

"They are small but wonderfully sweet! All of them have been enjoyed in delicious BLTs. Sad to say they are so rare I am keeping these treasures for myself only. In good years I would be generously and happily sharing with family and friends."

* Janet Kruske wrote: "Hands down, my favorite pick for a hot weather plant is a coleus called Fishnet Stockings. I have had it several years, as I take cuttings and keep it over the winter. It is a large coleus, with a thick and sturdy stem. It is lime green with black/purple veins. I have used it in the garden as well as large containers. It looks wonderful with red verbena and lantana. It has handled the heat of this summer better than anything else on the deck."

* Watering-weary Janie Chisholm says Babylon Light Blue verbena and Lanai Bright Pink verbena have performed well. She and another reader also noted a strapping purple foliage plant called Moses in the Boat or purple heart — Tradescantia pallida.

* "Lantana is the best annual for this hot dry summer," Jane Hershberger said. "Vinca has held up pretty good too."

* Other annuals that people reported for their grace under fire: Profusion zinnia, sweet potato vine, talinum limon, angel wing begonias, ice plant, rose moss, Blue Daze evolvulus, tropical hibiscus and several varieties of marigolds.

"Next year, all I'm planting are marigolds and crabgrass," one reader wrote.

* I didn't expect petunias to take any medals, but Patty liked the Bicolor Illusion Littletunia and SuperCal Terracotta petunia, and another person mentioned Wave petunias doing well.

* "The blue ribbon... goes to a Sweet Annie (the lime green variety) I heeled in with some other things in a large pot, thinking I would set it out in a bed later," another gardener wrote. "It is doing so well in the pot that I left it. It has cheerful small yellow flowers and the foliage is fern-like but tough as nails. It is a huge bright spot in my cluster of pots; it is right next to an Inky Fingers coleus, and the contrast makes it just glow. I believe Sweet Annie is an annual in this zone; it self-sows for me."

* Marilyn Browne sent along some photos of pots that had done "fairly well" in her yard — but "a far cry from plantings in my yard and in pots from a year ago."

"All of my gardening friends have been comparing gardening notes — and I guess we can take some comfort in knowing that we're all in the same boat this year with reference to our heat wave experiences. Like you, I think we're all just ready for this year to be over and look forward to some cooler fall days."

Contented sigh.

Reach Annie Calovich at 316-268-6596 or acalovich@wichitaeagle.com.

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