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Think warm thoughts — but don't plant that way

This hasn't been a good winter for gamble plants. Gardeners who have gotten by leaving their cannas in the ground over winters past will not be so lucky this year, extension agent Bob Neier says. Most cannas and other tender bulbs froze and are dead, he says. But Bob, ever looking on the bright side, points out that this presents an opportunity to buy new varieties. There's a lot to be said for rejuvenation.

Botanica piled the mulch on a few plants brought up here by an Oklahoma nurseryman, including a Turk's cap that Botanica has grown as an annual in the past. But even though the Turk's cap supposedly survives only to 5 degrees, garden supervisor Pat McKernan is holding out hope for it.

I read online this week that the cherry trees surrounding the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., took a big hit in the recent snowstorms there. National Park Service spokesman Bill Line is quoted as saying that branches have snapped or split, and a couple of trees lost their canopies. He said he expected the trees to eventually recover; it's too early for future cherry blossoms on the remaining wood to have been affected.

Back in Wichita, where we've had more severe cold than huge amounts of snow, Bob Neier says plants labeled for our Zone 6 have not been damaged by the winter's cold so far. Zone 6 covers temperatures as low as 10 below, and Wichita's low so far this winter has been 0.

That Turk's cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii) at Botanica may have a bottom threshold of 5, but Pat says: "I think it'll be fine. The tops may die back, but the roots should be hardy, and that's what I'm betting on."

Bob recommends not gambling with trees that scoot into a warmer zone (7 or above), but he does say that gambling with some shrubs or perennials adds variety to the landscape. Until they die, of course.

For people who want to grow vegetables this spring, the temperature under the ground is the thing to start looking at. It's about an even 36 degrees down there right now — plenty snug for the grubs and the Turk's cap and just 4 degrees shy of the point at which peas can germinate.

Keep an eye on the weather page, or get your own soil thermometer. Ward Upham of K-State says soil temperature is more accurate than folklore, outdoor temperature or the date for deciding when to plant.

Actually, lettuce, parsnips and spinach can sprout in 35-degree soil but need at least 45 for best germination and growth. Radishes also join the club at 45 degrees, Upham says.

Tomatoes, sweet corn, beans and many other warm-season crops prefer at least 55 for planting either seeds or transplants. Peppers, cucumbers, melons and sweet potatoes like it even warmer — about 60.

On The Eagle's weather page on Thursday this week, the soil temperature 2 inches down was listed at a high of 36 and a low of 34. Not much give there.

Here's Upham's directions for taking your soil's temperature: "Each day's changing air temperatures do affect the soil, causing the lowest readings just after dawn and warmest in mid-afternoon. So you need to take the soil's temperature 2.5 inches deep at 10 to 11 a.m. You plant after you get a consistent reading in the correct range for four to five days in a row, also making sure, of course, that a cold snap isn't in your local weather forecast."

Another type of seed that you may want to sow this spring is fescue for the lawn. It can start germinating at 50 degrees. But it won't rot in cold soil like many vegetable seeds do. If you scatter it in the winter right before a light snow — called dormant seeding — the snow as it melts will draw the seed into close contact with the soil, and the seed will germinate as soon as the soil reaches the right temperature. No need to check the thermometer.

We had a couple of decent days of outdoor temperatures this week, and Mary Knapp, the state climatologist for Kansas, holds out hope for February: On Feb. 22, 1996, she says, Wichita's high soared to 86 degrees.

That was probably a good year for gamblin'.