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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 left their cannas in the ground with success in winters past will not be so lucky this year, extension agent Bob Neier says.

Most cannas and other tender bulbs have frozen and are dead, he says bluntly, without so much as a "let's wait and see." But Bob, ever looking on the bright side, points out that this presents an opportunity to buy new varieties. Here's to studying up on cannas the rest of the winter.

Hardier plants, ones labeled for our Zone 6, have not been damaged by the winter's cold so far, Bob says. Zone 6 covers temperatures as low as 10 below, and Wichita's low so far this winter has been an even 0.

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.

Botanica piled the mulch on a few that's-pressing-it 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 Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii is a Zone 7 plant, supposedly surviving only to 5 degrees, garden supervisor Pat McKernan is holding out hope for it.

"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."

The temperature underground is definitely where it's at, especially if you're wanting to grow vegetables this spring. According to the weather page in Friday's Eagle, the high soil temperature was 40 degrees — plenty snug for the grubs and the Turk's cap and exactly the point at which peas germinate.

Ward Upham of K-State says soil temperature is more accurate than folklore, outdoor temperature or the date for deciding when to plant something. You can keep an eye on The Eagle's weather page, or get your own soil thermometer, to monitor it.

Ward says the changing air temperatures do affect the soil, causing the lowest readings just after dawn and the highest in midafternoon. In The Eagle on Friday, the high soil temperature was given as 40 and the low as 34, measured 2 inches down. That means that it's not quite warm enough for peas yet (not to mention nowhere near dry enough). If you're taking your own soil temperature, here are Ward's instructions (which can also help you know how to use the information in The Eagle):

"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."

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

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.

Another type of seed that you may be planning to sow this spring is fescue. It can start germinating at 50 degrees. But it won't rot in cold soil like many vegetable seeds will, so you don't have to wait for the weather to get any warmer. If you scatter fescue seed 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 even more hope for February: In 1996, on Feb. 22, Wichita's high soared to 86 degrees.

Crocuses and snowdrops are already blooming at Botanica, Pat McKernan says, and Bob Neier has seen daffodils.

Those sure bets beat gambling any winter day.