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A bit of earth A wet summer’s extravagance

  • Published Friday, August 23, 2013, at 3:45 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, August 24, 2013, at 7:13 a.m.

Happy Halloween? I don’t think so.

Now that kids are back to school, merchandisers have moved on to the next decoratable holiday, and that’s Halloween. Fortunately, summer weather has made a comeback to push any such mood aside; the only concession I’ll make to it is the surprise pumpkin vine that has sprouted from my compost pile.

I think this is the first time I’ve grown a pumpkin. I’ve never had room for it before. I don’t suppose I have room for it now – and I’m sure my neighbors agree, since it keeps trying to cross their driveway – but much of the joy of life is giving in to its surprises.

I feel like I have a giant on my hands, but it’s not the only one around. This week, I’ve seen more of the extravagance of a Kansas climate that has gone from Arizona to rain forest.

Elephant ears growing big as their name. Fig bushes dripping with fruit. Wildflower gardens turned to jungles.

Except for the mosquitoes, I like the rain forest better.

Elephant ears were planted at Bartlett Arboretum in Belle Plaine for the first time this year, and the Thailand Giants have turned mammoth. They cast a large shadow and whimsical spell over the rectangular beds of the formal garden, where they’re skirted in the sparky white flowers of Diamond Frost euphorbia.

“Good livin,’ prayin’ and rainin’ ” are the reasons the elephant ears are going great guns, the arboretum’s steward, Robin Macy, says.

This summer has produced the lowest water bills in her 16-year tenure as owner of the arboretum.

The next public gathering at the arboretum will be a Winfield warm-up concert by the bluegrass band Driven, on Sept. 15. Gates open at 3 p.m., and the show begins at 4 p.m. Tickets are $10 at the gate. Picnics are welcome, and food also will be for sale.

Right after Robin told me about her colocasia (the botanical name for elephant ears), I was at Hillside Feed and Seed and saw in the greenhouse a Jack’s Giant elephant ears growing all out of proportion to the pot they’ve been growing in all summer. They’re great to buy for making an instant late-summer splash, but the tubers must be dug up and stored in the basement or cellar for the winter if you want them to come back next year.

Plant Delights Nursery online reminds that rich moist soil grows the best elephant ears. We can add: Especially when rain provides the moisture.

Gettin’ figgy with it

Steve and Missy Cohlmia are finding the benefits of rain, as they’re picking dozens of figs each day from a 15-year-old fig bush in their backyard in east Wichita.

“It’s figapalooza,” Missy says. In case you are thinking you haven’t heard of many figs growing in Wichita, it’s because they’re kind of hard to grow here, she says.

“The rain has made some kind of enormous difference, I think. ... (The fig) produced well last year, amazingly, but it has never done what it's doing now.”

The bush grew out of a section of a plant that was dug up from Steve’s grandmother’s home in Enid, Okla., after she passed away.

“It struggled, and we moved it three times before we got in the right spot,” Missy says. The Brown Turkey variety is now in the west-facing backyard, up against a wrought-iron panel in the privacy fence, where it gets plenty of sun and air. The Cohlmias haven’t pruned it back the last few years, and Steve thinks that’s encouraged it, too.

“It is so big this year you can barely get by it,” Missy says. Without falling in the pool, that is. Not such a bad idea this week.

The branches of the bush emanate from under the soil, so one early spring, Missy dug out one of the branches and ran it down the street to her sister Carol Skaff’s yard.

“We popped it in the ground and said a prayer and said hope you make it and it did and so she's picking them like crazy too,” Missy says.

“It’s like a little bit of heaven,” Steve says as he picks the warm figs after work – something he has to do every night to keep up with the heavy harvest. The bush not only produces sweet fruit with a gemlike red-purple flesh, it’s a link to his grandmother and the family’s Lebanese heritage.

Wild thing

At Botanica, the cool weather that prevailed before this week increased the intensity of the colors, and everything is green, garden supervisor Pat McKernan says, exulting in an August that is lush rather than the usual ravaged.

“I just got back from Vancouver and Seattle, and Wichita is far greener than Vancouver and Seattle.”

The wildflower garden naturally can take drought better than some other garden areas, but give it some rain, and watch out.

“We originally hoped to have masses of individual plants; we’re trying to get that direction a little more. It’s so open and bare in the spring, so we tend to overplant it a little bit,” Pat says. “Now that things are 6, 8 feet tall,” it strikes me as a jungle. A green, tangled, aromatic jungle. And I love it.

“I tell people, this is a wildflower garden and it tends to live up to its name,” Pat says. Botanica’s wildflowers also get more water and fertilizer than most wildflowers, so they tend to respond accordingly. “It’s Botanica, so people expect it to look better than their yard.”

There’s also a flavor of the tropics, with more cannas and banana trees. They especially strike me as particularly at home near the entrance to the Downing Children’s Garden. Pat says that the gardeners have learned to save the tubers of the bananas rather than the whole trees over the winter, freeing up greenhouse space for more of them. The trees that have pups are saved at a height of 3 to 4 feet over the winter, and they can grow to 8 to 10 feet during the summer, Pat says. “In windy years they get a lot of leaf tatter and they don’t grow as well.”

Back home, the first little orb has appeared, hidden, on my extravagant pumpkin vine. Hidden pumpkins, Jack’s Giant, wildflower jungles, ancient figs – it all sounds story-bookish ... and maybe even the tiniest bit like Halloween.

Reach Annie Calovich at 316-268-6596 or acalovich@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @anniecalovich.

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