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Kansas heat mutes autumn

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Oct. 3, 2011, at 12:09 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, March 13, 2012, at 10:32 a.m.

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The record-breaking heat wave of 2011 didn't just make our summer miserable. It's also taking a bite out of our fall.

Some orchards are apple-less, pumpkins are smaller, burning bushes that used to blaze along West Kellogg in the autumn are fried, and trees whose leaves are not scorched or already gone are coloring up earlier than usual.

At the farmers markets, "I would say the volume and diversity of the produce is much less at this time than normal," extension agent Rebecca McMahon said.

But there's still much to celebrate. As pumpkin patches open for the season, fall's temperatures have been glorious, there are plenty of pumpkins, and annual plants that survived the summer are riding a second wind of vibrant color.

"It seems like some of our flowers from the summer, they've held longer," the extension agent for ornamental plants, Bob Neier, said. "Zinnias didn't get powdery mildew, cockscomb — the colors that are out there are brilliant right now. Petunias had less budworm so they're just brilliant."

And farmers who still have produce at the farmers markets have nice vegetables, McMahon said.

"There's spinach and lettuce and greens, and we're starting to see some fall leeks and garlic and peppers everywhere.

"I've seen some pretty nice winter squashes, sweet potatoes, things like that. There's lots of fun there. Depending on the weather, I'm expecting we'll still see some radishes and some fall beets before the market season is done."

But people who plan on picking apples in the fall are having a harder time doing that anywhere close by. A call to Steffen Orchards in Conway Springs brings the message that there are no apples this year.

A heavy fruit crop one year usually means a thin crop the following year, and apple growers had a big haul last year, McMahon said.

On top of that, with the heat, "I would expect fruit quality to be less," she said.

Area orchardists who do have apples report that they're smaller this year.

"All our orchard is on drip (irrigation), so there's no lack of water at all. We had to attribute the whole apple episode on the heat," said Daylene Hinds of Beal Orchard in Harper, who reports that its apples are very small.

In the northeastern part of the state, Fieldstone Orchard & Farm in Overbrook reports that it has good apples, though some are being used for cider because of hail damage. The orchard is about a third of the way into its harvest, Bruce Curtis of Fieldstone said. "We feel very blessed," he said.

As they open for a busy October of corn mazes and other autumnal activities, all area pumpkin patches report that they have plenty of pumpkins. But overall — as was evident at the Kansas State Fair, where only one giant pumpkin was entered in the competition for the biggest — the size of the pumpkins is not as great this year.

"The heat really hurt us. Unfortunately it causes the blooms to fall off. Our production wasn't as good as we hoped," said Renee Berggren at Applejack Pumpkin Patch in Augusta. But "we still have lots of pumpkins."

In the landscape, trees that put on fall color are already starting to change because of the combination of warm days and cool nights, extension agent Neier said. Overall, the fall show will be "spotty," he said.

"The Chinese pistache that were on their own, they're beginning to color fine," he said. But trees that got too dry will be wanting for color, and those that held their leaves and scorched won't do any better than brown.

Burning bushes — the euonymus plant that earns its name in the fall —"got whopped so much more than normal this year," Neier said.

"I think a lot of it is temperature and sun. Ones that I'm seeing that were even maintained and watered well, a lot of them went downhill, too. Ones that got bright sun had big damage.

"We consider it a full-sun plant — but not at 112" degrees.

The city of Wichita lost burning bushes that were planted along Kellogg. The city "had all of our functioning irrigation cranked up as much as we could" and yet tried to adhere to the water utility's request to conserve, said Doug Kupper, the city's director of parks and recreation.

He said the city would pursue replacing the burning bushes that have been lost along Kellogg, not only for aesthetic reasons but because the plants serve as a buffer for people who live along the highway.

"Since it has taken a long time for all those plants to grow into the border we had, the renewal will take some time, and we will only be able to do the work as funds are available in these economic times," Kupper said.

Ever the optimist, Neier recommends waiting until spring to see whether burning bushes spring back to life. Where they don't, he wouldn't give up on burning bushes, but he would plant them in a different spot.

"It doesn't mean it's going to be that hot next summer."

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

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