A Harsh Summer of Drought and Heat

Our booth at the Reeds Spring Market, late July.

It's hard to write about failure and despair in the garden. As gardeners, we start out as wide-eyed idealists. The season will be perfect, the packets of seed will be everything, and more, they promise. The photos on seed company websites give us waking dreams of perfect tomatoes, robust corn, twining, vining tendrils on skyrocketing vines. Some years our garden is a paradise. This year, it is struggling to stay alive.
Adam, waiting on a customer.

Adam, you may remember him from 3 seasons ago as our summer WWOOFer, came this year to experiment in production growing for farmers market. Because I had agreed to a great deal of lecture travel this season, it was a good fit for me to turn the entire garden over to him. A relief, actually, because he and I garden well together. He shares my passion for growing plants and experimenting. It was to be a summer with him and his girlfriend, Amelia, producing quantities of vegetables and selling them at market.
Beds that aren't watered, look like this. In the foreground is Mioga ginger, sad.

First, you may recall, we had an incredibly chilly, wet, prolonged spring. Each week brought us 4, 6, 8 or more inches of rain. Then, the second week of June, the water was turned off. We've had one, small rain since. Daily temperatures hover between 100 and 105 degrees F. (that's 37.7 degrees Celsius). Add that to constant sunshine, a bit of wind each day, and plants have gone into shock. Most put down few roots, thanks to the constant rainfall, so when the rains quit, they had to struggle to find moisture.
One view of a portion of the garden. It doesn't look parched until you look close.

We water daily, usually 12 hours or more a day, using soaker hoses, lots of mulch, and shade over the tomatoes. With over 100 tomato plants we should be harvesting bushels of tomatoes a week. But tomato blossoms fall off the plant in such heat, not setting fruit - a protective mechanism for the plant as they can't support more tomatoes in a drought. Even with constant watering, the plants struggle. And when plants are weakened for any reason, they are more susceptible to attack from pests.
A native bean variety, Potawatamie limas, seem to do well in spite of the drought.

Cucumber beetles and the viruses they carry, wiped out the entire melon patch in less than 24 hours. Then the cucumbers fell prey to the same problem. Next were the zucchini, attacked by both squash bugs by the millions, then by cucumber beetles, and finally by squash vine borers. Out of 50 plants, we have 2 left. Those have suffered the humiliation of rooting armadillos, which are attracted by the smell of damp soil, from our watering. They dig wherever there are earthworms or grubs, and simply root plants out of their way. Two nights ago, a huge armadillo, about 16 pounds, went right down the row of egg plants, tossing several out of its way.
The heat has curtailed the tomato crops severely.

Josh and Adam have taken turns, with Molly by their side, to sleeping on a cot outside next to the eggplants and 2 remaining zucchinis, standing guard. Molly alerts the guard to the intruder, who wakes up and shoots the armadillo. Or raccoon. Last night was an armadillo. Two nights ago it was 4 raccoons in the pear tree beside the eggplants, eating away at the pears. Between the squirrels and raccoons, we don't get a pear at all this year.
Fennel doesn't seem to mind the heat.

It's so frustrating, not just for the loss of the garden, but at seeing Adam's enthusiasm and excitement at the experiment at production, dashed by things out of any of our control. His goal was to learn how to time his plantings, what he could grow and how much he could make from selling at farmers markets. I'm certain he's learned a lot, but it's a hard lesson to learn in a year rife with problems.
Mexican oregano withstands the harsh conditions of this summer pretty well.

From friends in the greenhouse plant busienss I've heard this has been a very difficult and unprofitable year for plant sellers. Lowes and Home Depot, as well as Wal-Mart, all have enormous left-over shrubs, trees, perennials and even annuals, left in their inventory. All of them are trying desperately to sell off as much as possible. Yesterday when I was in town (Springfield, MO) I passed the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store and saw shelves and shelves of plants out front for sale. Nursery businesses can donate their left over plants to such charities, for a tax write-off and in turn the charity sells or gives away the plants to low-income people.
Swallowtail butterflies seem to do well this year. There are more than I have ever seen.

One worry I have is for the 7 million new gardeners last year and this, who were filled with enthusiasm for learning to garden. Since the drought and heat are widespread, from way out West, to New York City and south into Mexico, those folks will be even more discouraged than us seasoned gardeners. I worry they will be so discouraged they will not try to garden again. I worry, too, that this cycle of cool, wet spring, followed by 3 months of heat and drought, is here to stay. It's what has been predicted for several years by scientists who warn of global warming problems. This year is what we had last summer, only worse. If it continues, our gardening season will have to be early spring, and late fall, under plastic.
Fritilary butterflies are doing well, too.

It's not all doom and gloom. A few things, besides weeds, have managed to continue. But life in the garden is a struggle this year, almost nationwide. The great expectations we felt last spring have dwindled considerably. The reality of one of the harshest garden years in recent history, is daunting.


International Herb conference, Midland, Michigan

Glass sculpture at the Dow Botanic Gardens, Midland, Michigan.
This week's trip was to Midland, Michigan, to the annual conference of the International Herb Association, or IHA. The IHA is the organization that created the Herb of the Year project in 1994. My Herb of the Year committee that year established connections with the Herb Society of America as well as herb businesses, wholesalers, schools and garden centers across the nation. This year's Herb of the Year is horseradish. Next year, 2012, the Herb of the Year will be the rose. If you'd like to know more of the history of the Herb of the Year project, visit my Herb of the Year blog and also my YouTube channel to see the video: http://youtu.be/S0_bMc-ZbHs

My part of the conference was a program, How to Eat a Rose (also available in brief form, on my YouTube channel), and my "Favorite Recipe in 10 Minutes" which was my banana salsa. The salsa was a hit and I sold some of my Sensational Salsas, from Apple to Zucchini  and How to Eat a Rose books.

Unlike some of my fellow herbies, I wasn't in costume for the Favorite Recipe in 10 Minutes. But look at some of my competition.

There was an hour full of fun and cooking demos, each kept to 10 minutes each and it was a huge success. Organizer Donna Frawley, cracked the whip and kept the conference organized and on track and an army of volunteers made things run smoothly.
Zachery Kidder and his Cabana Soaps.
One of the vendors in the sales area, and new IHA member, was Zachery Kidder with his excellent hand-made soaps. He's a stay-at-home dad while his wife finishes college and he makes good use of his time making organic, healthful soaps. He sells his soaps at local farmers markets as well as through his website. His company is Cabana Soaps, and he was lovingly dubbed "Cabana Boy" by the other vendors. Everyone enjoyed his being there.
My favorite of all the soaps Zachery makes is Tangerine, which has a refreshing fragrance. He also offers special labeling for gift-giving, with your gift recipient's photo on the label. Great idea for weddings, birthdays or the Holidays!
I spent some time at the Dow Botanic Gardens and visited the kids garden, too. I like to check out kids gardens to see if they take kids serious. Some botanic gardens just create a kid-sized theme park with plants, while others create an outdoors classroom with lots of educational activities. I found this garden to have small plots where kids had their own little gardens for the season. Sometime in the spring Dow had hosted a scarecrow contest and the gardens were full, crowds of scarecrows.
It was fun to see kids actually playing and using the garden.
The boy is looking down at a turtle island, a topiary covered with living plants.
Kids love to run through sprinklers, no matter what location it is.


The Trees of Joplin

Buildings gone, neighborhoods flattened, and trees left as mere trunks.

On Sunday we drove the couple of hours over to Joplin to view the damage from the recent tornado. And to see what progress the city is making in the clean-up process.
This is all that's left of Hope High School in Joplin.

The devastation is awful, a big swath of the city about a mile and a half long and half a mile wide, or so, just flattened. I can't even imagine having every article of life in many neighborhoods, mixed together and spat out, with nothing left except what looks like a landfill.
Trees in all directions were mostly without limbs.

The trees were hard-hit, as well. Lots of them are completely gone, but many are still standing, their limbs twisted off, leaving nothing but a tortured trunk.
This tree has sheets of tin roofing and other debris lodged in its limbs.
But if you look close at all of the tree pictures above, you'll see life. Many of the trees, even the ones that are no more than a stick in the air, are leafing out. Yes, they are badly damaged, but there is hope, there is life. The whole town wasn't destroyed, just a major portion, but the much of the town remains. And speaking of parts that are left, parts that show life will go on, we saw this, as well.
Hope High School sign in the school yard.
If you click on the photo, you can see someone's taken the downed trees and using a chainsaw, carved several eagles, the school mascot. How heartening, what a nice gesture of encouragement, to take the destroyed trees and carve out the eagle mascot, showing the school will rise again, rebuild and life will continue. With sadness and loss, forever changed, but they will rebuild and the carvings stand in front of the school for everyone to see that Joplin isn't about to give up.
Eagles in front of Hope High School in Joplin, MO.


German Potato Salad, Daylilies

Barbara Young and her cucumber crop.

Josh and his mother, Barbara, made it back from Rhode Island yesterday. They'd driven my books and products to Pittsburgh, PA where I was speaking at the Herb Society of American conference. I flew home and they drove on to Rhode Island where the Young family had lived. Barbara hadn't been back to visit in nearly 10 years so it was fun for her to see relatives and friends. That's  Barbara, below, with her Photoshop cucumber, obviously having more luck than we are here. Cucumber beetles wiped out several melons in just 2 days and are hard at work on the cucumbers. It's discouraging, as you can imagine. Nothing stops cucumber beetles (and no, don't suggest what someone last year did; we're organic, I'm not going to call an exterminator and spray the garden). Here's another of Barbara's giant Photoshopped vegetables.
Giant tomato, as created by Barbara's grandson, Christopher Young.
Heat is hovering in the upper 90s every day and we are getting serious about needing some rain. Constant watering, using drip irrigation and over-head, as well, keeps things alive but doesn't satisfy the plants like a soaking rain would. It's hard to believe we were inundated with rains and flooding less than 2 months ago and now we're getting desperate for moisture. Lady bugs are keeping up with aphids and other critters but they're no match for the bigger pests like the cucumber beetles, squash bugs and squash vine borers.
Lady bug on a native Solanum plant.
Here's a spotted cucumber beetle, in the photo below, taste-testing a winter squash leaf. Not even birds or chickens will eat these little yellow and black spotted critters.
Such a little bug, the same size as the lady bug, but one's helpful, and this one is a threat to crops.
The potatoes are nearly all dug, most have been sold at the farmers markets on Friday and Saturday night. We may try to plant a fall crop in a week or two. Friends told us they always plant their fall crop of potatoes in mid July so I think we'll give it a try.
Red potatoes, ready for market at a friend's house.
We had a very good crop of fingerling potatoes earlier (those aren't fingerlings, above, those are red potatoes). One favorite of the fingerlings is Anna Cheeka's Odette, one of the best for making German potato salad. Fingerling potatoes stay firm when cooked and aren't mealy, which means they don't break up into mashed potatoes when you make potato salad. Here's the recipe I like:

German Potato Salad
l pound fingerling potatoes, (or substitute German butterball or Yukon), skins left on
 8-10 slices bacon
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup cider vinegar
2 T. sugar

Put the potatoes in a steamer or double boiler and cook over salted water for about 30 minutes or until tender when forked. Let the potatoes cool, reserving 1 1/4 cups of the salted cooking water.

Fry the bacon over medium heat until nearly crisp but still bendable. Remove bacon from pan and cut into 1 inch pieces. Leave bacon fat in the pan. (Bacon drippings, after all, are "America's olive oil!")

Reduce skillet heat to low and add the chopped onion, cooking until soft. Raise heat to medium, sift flour into the onions, stirring for about 5 minutes to make a roux. Let the flour and fat become well bound together and lightly brown in color.

Slowly add the vinegar to the roux, stirring steadily until the sauce thickens. Next, add the potato water, also slowly, stirring constantly until the sauce is thickened. Add the sugar, stirring until dissolved.

Cut the potatoes into 1-inch cubes and add the sauce, tossing with the bacon pieces. Mix gently. Best served immediately while still hot.

Summer here at Long Creek Herbs means daylilies and we have several colors. Here's one of the orange doubles...

And this white one was a new one last year.
And one more, for contrast.